The Voice of Connectivity
By : Elisa De Petris
"The women of West Africa will have a voice in creating change in their communities, and in shaping the political and cultural vision of their countries," affirms Sharon Bylenda, founder of Media Matters for Women, a U.S. based non-profit organization in West Africa that generates innovative information networks for rural females. Media Matters for Women has created a digital communication network connecting women and girls to important news and information on a variety of topics such as human rights, health issues, democracy and income production designed for the needs of women and girls. Women in remote locations who are not able to access meaningful information now have the power to learn from each other, share news, hear crucial health and educational messages, and give feedback.

Ms. Bylenga states, "Media in West Africa continues to lack proper coverage of issues faced on a daily basis by women - that is precisely why MMW exists." She goes on to say that radio is a woman's most important source of information and it needs to communicate health and educational messages relevant to their daily lives, not just regular news. However, because the radio is dominated by males, the issues covered, according to Ms. Bylenga, offer "a narrow interpretation of gender issues including marriage, childcare and domestic responsibilities."

In other words, there is a lack of coverage of everyday issues that women and girls face. Ms. Bylenga explains, "radio is failing to meet the needs of women-women are listening to the radio but radio stations are not listening to women." Why is that? So long as media in West Africa continues to be a male-dominated arena, there will be a lack of volume in women voices. Ms. Bylenga cites instilled tradition, long-standing prejudice, customary practices and lack of resources as the major challenges restricting women in the media. MMW gears toward challenging these pre-standing conceptions by shifting the media sector and aiming to expand journalism to include more women voices.

The MMW project trains women to be experts in media coverage, which includes but is not limited to the delivery of information, education, and entertainment designed for women needs. Ms. Bylenga explains, "Young journalists, project managers and administrators receive extensive training, mentoring and on-the-job experience with the expectation that they will develop into the core of the new media." This growing communication network combines cell phone, solar and digital technologies to make programming via radio less expensive to generate and transmit.

MMW has created a Mobile Production Unit kit -- a portable and solar-charged device which enable women to work efficiently as freelance journalists. Upon completion of training to use the kit, each journalist establishes a listening center, located in various sites throughout the country such as schools, NGOs, clinics and community centers. Each week, the journalist produces radio-style broadcasts transmitted via cell phone at the listening centers. Women and girls can visit these listening centers and hear recorded news and relevant information in their native language on an audio recorder fitted with speakers.

Because the audio recorders have eco-friendly solar rechargers, listeners can replay the message as many times as they wish at no extra cost. Not only is the information relevant to their livelihood, but also, women are able to offer feedback to shape future content of weekly programs by recording comments on audio logs that the journalist reviews before the next program. Essentially, these programs "offer a means of communicating with and among women which does not presently exist," according to Ms. Bylenga. These broadcasts aim to improve women's understanding of their rights by providing important information, encouraging dialogue among women, and overall empowering women in their societies.
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