Media & Exposing Injustice
PROBLEM STATEMENT - Although a perfect democracy may be only theoretically possible (Dalh, 1989), basic criteria have been debated and claimed as elementary for its development. The promotion of human rights and individual freedoms are fundamental components of a democracy. Here the role of the media is key as they may not only bring useful and valuable information to the people’s and authorities’ attention, but they may also give voice to those whose rights and freedoms might be under threat.
In certain regions and in many cases, human rights abuses are seldom covered in-depth by the media, making it difficult to raise the adequate level of awareness on these problems. How is it possible to gain support, international attention and civic engagement on an issue that has not been largely known and properly covered and discussed? Media can be used for bad or for good, and it is of our belief that media can be used to achieve change. In recent years, due to increased access to the Internet, several cases of human rights abuses have been denounced and made public through social media. The possibility that citizens could set the agenda on a regular basis matter of their interest is a powerful phenomenon, one that must be taken advantage of for the sake of positive change. Although the media by themselves do not generate change or create revolutions, citizens working through the media can empower themselves and speak out.
It is our objective in this work to call attention to the issue of child brides, a worldwide problem that has not been properly covered by traditional media. However, some relevant cases have attracted international attention following their dissemination through new media platforms. This, in turn, has forced traditional media and civic organizations to take action on some of those cases. Thus, it appears that one way to enable better coverage and dissemination is to resort to digital media. However, for that we also need better media literate individuals and groups who can bring these terrible cases to the attention of the media at large. The role of media is a major determinant for the empowerment of vulnerable girls and women around the world. This has already happened; let’s make it happen more often.
CHILD BRIDES AND MEDIA COVERAGE
Around the globe, girls below the age of 18 are forced to marry men that may easily be double or triple their age. This situation occurs primarilly in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia, the Middle East and some places in Latin America.
While child marriage has traditionally been an ancestral practice, today it is still common due to economic and security reasons, custom and traditions, and for control over the sexuality of the parties involved. According to the international center for research on women, 51 million girls between the ages of 15-19 are currently married and 100 million girls will be married before eighteen within the next decade. (Equality Now, 2013)
Although child brides are a permanent and growing problem, media coverage of this dilemma has been uneven around the world and varies depending on the broadcaster and the momentum of the story. For example, in March, 2013, when the 57th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women had a high-panel on Child Brides, African newspapers only covered the issue broadly, as did the international press in general. When there is coverage on the issue in the Middle East, it tends to focus on individual stories of girls that raised their voices or died due to brutal treatment. Making the matter more complicated, there is often the perception that coverage is part of an agenda to expose negative aspects of Arabic culture. On the other hand, African coverage has only a general focus, even though it is a massive problem, and only few personal stories are told. However, there is the growing phenomenon in the Middle East in which the Internet has enabled new forms of expression and communication for victims and possible victims. Our argument is that access to the Internet in the Middle East has enabled social media to lead the conversation about the issue in such a way that it later rebounds in traditional and social global media.
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT
In 2008, global attention was brought to the case of Nujood Ali, a ten- year-old Yemeni girl, who presented herself to the courts asking for divorce after two months of marriage during which she had been regularly beaten and raped. That same year, Reem Al-Numery was forced to marry at the age of ten and she also faced problems when attempting divorce. In recent years, cases of child bride deaths due to internal injuries caused by intercourse and giving birth have been common among Western media outlets. For instance, during the high-level panel at the 57th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, there was good media coverage, particularly in relation to the shocking statistic that every day, 39,000 girls are forced to marry before 18. However the coverage of these stories falls short not only from the real number of abuses, but also from the real number of marriages done every year. In addition, the coverage is superficial and tends to miss points regarding the gravity of the problem and focuses on technicalities and religious issues (Helwig, 2013). Child brides are a growing problem that affect not only the mental and physical health of the girls but society at large. The UNFPA feel that “it is urgent that social norms that serve to legitimate child marriage change” (UNFPA, 2012).
In order to achieve some sort of justice for these victims of child marriage, families and communities need to understand that this practice harms the young girls and that there are other alternatives. We believe the majority of us can contribute to the cause by raising awareness on the problem that is usually not considered a priority in the traditional media agenda.
However, the opportunity resides in the social media sphere. According to a policy brief by the Population Reference Bureau:
"To use various communication channels to reach communities with messages about the importance of ending child marriage is crucial to raise awareness and change norms. For example, mass media can be an effective tool for educating families and communities about the harmful consequences of child marriage as well as for getting the word out that there has been a policy change regarding age of marriage" (Population Reference Bureau, 2011).
On July 21, 2013, a video was posted on YouTube showing an 11-year-old Yemeni girl named Nada Al-Ahdal telling her story about the way she managed to escape from home in order to avoid marriage. The veracity of the video hasn’t been confirmed and supposedly there are some inconsistencies; however, the video went viral and was viewed more than eight million times in a little over a week. We believe this momentum is a great opportunity to act and help spread the voice about child marriage.
RELEVANT MEDIA COVERAGE
Our case study is focused on the video of Nada Al-Ahdal posted on YouTube on the 21st of July. Nada is an 11-year-old Yemeni girl who fled home to avoid forced marriage. The video went viral and generated over 8 million views in less than 2 weeks. It was shared on all social media platforms under the hashtag #nadaelahdal.
The precocious little girl, who saw how her adolescent aunt committed suicide after being abused in a similar arranged marriage, shared her story in a video filmed by one of her friends. The video fueled the conversation about child brides and children rights in Yemen and the Arab countries. It got reported in the Middle Eastern media before it got translated to English.
According to Now, a Lebanese news site, her paternal uncle raised the 11- year-old girl. He helped her study English and music. After the girl’s 10th birthday, her parents tried to marry her off. She escaped to her uncle’s house where she stayed for the rest of the year. Later, when the uncle let her visit her parents, they tried to marry her again which made her run away and file a complaint with the police. (Al-Eryani, 2013)
Al Jazeera questioned the truthfulness of the story by stating that the children rights organizations involved in the case believe that the parents refused to set her up to a suitor.(Al-Jazeera, 2013)
Another local Yemeni newspaper also questioned the veracity of the video. The article is titled, "Early marriage fears of Nada Al-Ahdal are fabricated, say her parents, interior ministry officials, and prominent child rights NGO.” This clearly indicates the opposing nature of the article. They claim that their team found out that the child was “coerced into making the video, her testimony scripted by her uncle and her tale a web of lies.” According to them, Nada’s family had never arranged for her marriage, she was neither engaged nor promised to anyone.(YemenPost, 2013)
When the video was translated, it received a large amount of coverage in the Western media. For instance, The Washington Post wrote the article titled, "Child marriages: video of pleading Yemeni girl is just the tip of the iceberg," which discusses the growing rate of girls marrying at an early age in the Arab societies and about the motives of the parents who are arranging the marriages. They mentioned that among the Syrian refugee camps, the reason is to protect the girl, but that in most of the cases, the motives are mostly due to poverty and misery ( Dewey, 2013)
CNN reported on the issue and mentioned the story of Nujood el-Ali, the girl who divorced when she was 10 years old. This case led the government to pass legislation to raise the minimum age of marriage to 17. The legislation was not agreed upon because of some conservative politicians. It also talked about Yemen’s culture mentioning the popular proverb 'marry an 8-year-old girl, she's guaranteed” meaning that the young girl is guaranteed to be a virgin.
We know from the interview with Nada that the Interior Ministry of Yemen took Nada from her uncle and assigned someone to take care of her. CNN had exclusive access to the meeting between Nada, her parents and her uncle. They didn’t show any evidence about the falseness of the story. Nada showed that all she wanted is a better access to education. She is now living with her parents and the story ended with an agreement among them all to move to the city into the house of one of their relatives.(Al Masmarani, 2013)
On the other hand the case caught the attention of online communities, bloggers and activists around the world. For example, Hellogiggles, an American online community for women, described the case as “a chilling tale of foreign abuse.”(Ernsberger, 2013)
Kristine Hope Kowalski, blogger in Hollywoodlife, a space exclusively for teenagers, addressed Nada, promoting her as a very courageous and strong girl and encouraging other girls to follow her path.(Kowalski, 2013)
Girl Effect is a movement created by the Nike foundation in collaboration with the Novo foundation, United Nations Foundation and Coalition for Adolescent Girls which tries to empower girls to overcome poverty. The article ”When Girls Speak Out On Big issues, The World Listens” celebrates the success of Nada in confronting her parents’ will and spreading her voice to the world.(GirlEffect, 2013)
In Yemen, a country where child marriages are common but there are also high levels of Internet activism, at least in comparison to other countries in the region where this issue is a problem, law proposals that would regulate a minimum age of 18 for girls to get married have been submitted. Sadly, religious leaders have rejected it, because they believe it is anti-Islamic. However the fact that the discussion of these initiatives has reached the parliamentary level shows that the debate that takes place in the social media can translate into the political arena, which can also then have repercussions in traditional media.
Interconnections help social actors accelerate their impact on political and social processes. The cases that have been covered in the Middle East are of individuals that have some kind of awareness of the judicial system or the potential of the Internet to help spread a message. Whether intentional or not, the existence of Internet infrastructure allows a better organization and fosters free expression. For example, in Yemen the percentage of penetration of the Internet in the total of the population is only 14.9%; although this is low, in Niger, the country with the highest rates of child abuse, only 1.3% of the population has Internet access.
HOW MEDIA CAN DO BETTER: ACTION PLAN
In an age where the flow of information is thicker, faster and immeasurably interconnected, an emphasis should be made on the importance of knowing how to read the media. Since media and freedom of speech are pillars of democracy and therefore of all the political rights embodied in such a regime, dysfunctional media literacy could mislead the consolidation and enrichment of a democracy.
Media literacy is a means for achieving a better society. It is a movement concerned with the formation of engaged citizens that aim to be aware of their role as global citizens, respect and value diversity, understand how the world works (socially, culturally, politically, economically, technologically, environmentally), participate in and contribute to communities on both a local and global level, act to make the world a more sustainable place, and take responsibility for their actions (Mihailidis, 2013).
It is through media literacy that political and social change can be achieved because a sense of community is developed and allows the possibility of activism through social media networks. This model fosters agency as the central role of an engaged citizen who will act to improve a particular issue of interest such as human rights abuses and in particular, child brides as an act of child abuse.