Reporting on violence against women and girls: a handbook for journalists



■ Worldwide, nearly one in three women (30 per cent) have experienced physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives committed by their intimate partners, and 7 per cent have experienced sexual assault by another person.

■ 38 per cent of all murders of women are committed by (ex-) intimate partners.

■ At least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone FGM in 30 countries.

■ More than 126 million girls are ‘missing’ worldwide due to prenatal sex selection.

■ 99 per cent of victims of forced labour in the sex industry are women and girls.

■ 84 per cent of forced marriages and 96 per cent of early marriages involve girls and women.

The United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (2030 Agenda) SDG 5 calls on all countries to make gender equality the foundation of a peaceful world.8Violence against women is not a minor issue, only worthy of being reported as a short news item or ‘in other news’. These are not isolated ‘incidents’, private family matters or sacrosanct ‘local customs’, but rather very serious societal problems. Acid attacks, so-called ‘honour’ crimes, incest, gender-specific infanticide and foeticide, early and/or forced marriages, FGM, rape, domestic violence and (online) harassment are gender-based violence. They are based on a patriarchal system that establishes relationships of power and domination between men and women. “Recognizing that violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, which have led to domination over and discrimination against women by men and to the prevention of the full advancement of women,” the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, adopted in 1993 by the United Nations General Assembly, defines gender-based violence as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.” This definition has been repeated in various subsequent international instruments that condemn these acts and describe them as serious human rights violations. According to the declaration, “Violence against women constitutes a violation of the rights and fundamental freedoms of women and impairs or nullifies their enjoyment of those rights and freedoms...”

The impact of the media

Journalists can help to break the silence and take this issue out of the private sphere, where it is still too often relegated. As highlighted in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, adopted at the Fourth United Nations World Conference on Women in September 1995: “The media have a great potential to promote the advancement of women and the equality of women and men by portraying women and men in a non-stereotypical, diverse and balanced manner”. By placing the fight against violence against women at the heart of its work, the media can foster a change in public opinion and behaviour.

Several reports on violence against women have succeeded in changing attitudes and driving major legislative and social changes. For example, at the end of the nineteenth century, one of the pioneers of ‘undercover journalism’, Nelly Bly, posed as mentally ill to gain access to a women’s psychiatric institution in the United States. Her book, Ten Days in a Mad-House, published in 1887, became a social journalism classic. It led to the opening of a formal investigation, an increase in the budget for psychiatric institutions, and the adoption of more stringent criteria when deciding whether to commit someone to them. Mae Azango, a Liberian journalist who received the International Press Freedom Prize from the Committee to Protect Journalists in 2012, reported on FGM and the controversial practices of a society of women circumcisers. The publication of this report led the Government to take a clearer stance against these violations of the rights of women and girls, which affect the majority of women in Liberia.

Public interest journalism is therefore an essential lever in the fight against gender-based violence. One of the most recent examples is the #MeToo movement, which was for the most part launched by US newspaper investigations. Numerous testimonies from women worldwide made the issue go viral in a huge social movement of freedom of expression for women.Investigating gender-based and sexual violence is, however, not without its risks. Some reporters examining women’s rights issues have even been killed. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has systematically condemned these killings, in accordance with resolution 29 C/29 adopted in 1997 by its Member States. However, between 2012 and 2017, Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontiers, RSF) reported nearly 90 serious cases of violence against journalists investigating women’s rights in 20 countries: 11 of these reporters were killed; 12 were imprisoned; 25 were subjected to verbal or physical attacks; and 39 others were victims of online abuse and alarming threats on social media.

Target audience

This handbook is aimed at new and experienced journalists alike who are not necessarily used to covering gender issues, and who do not have the time on set or on air to explore the subject, but who are interested in the challenges of covering these issues. It concerns all journalists, regardless of the department or section in which they work: society, politics, economics, cinema, literature or sport. The handbook is also aimed at all members of staff: photographers, reporters, heads of department, editors in chief and, more generally, media leaders, journalists’ associations and unions, as well as media regulators. Not to mention the moderators of media-dependent forums and social media, who can have a substantial impact in the fight against online harassment and gender stereotypes.