Fellow Since 1997
ALTERCOM (Association pour les Femmes et la Communication Al
This description of Fatoumata Sow's work was prepared when Fatoumata Sow was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1997.
Journalist and long-time women's rights activist, Fatoumata Sow is creating a community radio station which addresses the educational and development needs of women in Senegal and broadcasts from their perspective. The station will demonstrate how other citizens' groups can use radio for civic education, and it is capable of reaching constituents throughout the region.
The New Idea
Fatoumata Sow is establishing the only woman-run radio station in Senegal in order to influence an explosion of electronic media in her region. In her words, the station is designed to "give a voice to women from very basic communities, train them so that they can play active roles in the communication process, and, most of all, enable them to appropriate the technologies of communication. That will bring them to a bettering of their social standings and to becoming full-fledged participatory citizens." She has built alliances with other civic organizations in order to meet the political requirements for securing a license for a nonprofit organization and is addressing the economic implications of such a license, which does not allow advertising.Fatoumata has the support of a number of women's associations and nongovernmental organizations which want to create a radio station that will serve as an information hub. Though focused at the outset on women, it promises to become a "Trojan horse" to educate the civic sector generally in Senegal and eventually, through partner stations in other countries, to stimulate a regional inter-African radio presence. The aim is not to make radio a tool for only elite professional or intellectual women, but, rather, to give them direct access to the power of the spoken word, to open their lives and minds, enable them to participate in the public arena, and demonstrate their entrepreneurial capacity.
In recent years, the media sector in African nations has undergone profound changes, with the proliferation of newspapers and the installation of private commercial radio stations. This has contributed to the diversification of information sources and has led to a greater understanding of diverse points of view, inducing the viewpoints of groups which were previously marginalized by the state-owned media. However, it must be recognized that the advances achieved through the pluralization of media sources have fallen far short of addressing women's concerns. Women are rarely the creators of commercial media sources, and for the most part, the content of much of the media information disseminated is still largely unfavorable to them. Today's poverty and crises in various sectors result in women facing the most drastic consequences, making it vital that they have access to the communication sector for the spread of education, development, and democracy, as well as to create a new perception of gender roles within a society.Many women in Senegal have criticized the media for not giving proper attention to the problems and questions of concern to them, but instead typically conveying stereotypical and childlike images that illustrate their marginalization. Development and women's issues are not always given a significant place in the programming of privately-owned and state-owned radio stations, and programs that do exist about women are quite frequently moral speeches aimed at them: well-financed, conservative, and religious organizations use commercial radios to spread such messages. Women's groups have not had the commercial power to compete on these commercial frequencies. Moreover, governmental restrictions are imposed on the frequencies allocated to all nonprofit organizations.
Fatoumata is capitalizing on the nature of the media and communication sector, which is a source of power and a vehicle for reproducing ideas, spreading culture, and sharing experiences. The potential of the media and communication industry thus can play an important role in advancing the social status of women. To harness it for that purpose she has established the Association for Women and Alternative Communication, which is establishing the Women's Community Radio station with the support of a network of women's organizations and other nonprofit entities. The station offices, for example, will be housed at the Union-Solidarite-Entraide, which is one of the highest-performing Senegalese grassroots development organizations.The Women's Radio programming will satisfy current needs which have not been satisfied by the existing media. It will make up for the lack of information available to women, depict a more accurate image of the role of women in development, and, in that way, combat the marginalization of women in the media and in society. The programs will be aired in native languages and French and will be aimed at a mixed, male and female, audience. The radio station thus becomes an interface, serving as an information relay for women's organizations, for local communities, and for educational institutions. A team of specialists will be trained to transcribe and edit the transmissions for the use of women and the public at large, as pools of information, data, and statistics concerning women. A continuing education section will be created for the use of the support group and available to women working in cooperatives and organizations; it will build communication knowledge and skills such as public speaking, the creation and diffusion of messages, scheduling, and data research.The radio station administration will develop the entrepreneurial ability of women who have not before been professionally employed in the media sector. The small permanent staff will include Fatoumata and five members of women's associations. The news will have a local focus with particular attention paid to neighborhood events, rural communities, the home, the marketplace, the factory, civic organizations, and projects run by government and development agencies. Fatoumata plans to devote significant broadcasting time to familiarizing the listeners with national judicial instruments and some of the international conventions to which Senegal adheres; reproductive rights and health issues; nutritional advice; the politics of population in Senegal; environmental questions and events; entrepreneurship in the women's community; and consumer concerns. Programming will also concentrate on making popular culture a means of promotion and tolerance and will mobilize it for development.A preliminary technical study has already been conducted and Fatoumata's group is well into the advanced stage of reaching an agreement with the government about the frequencies the radio station may use. It will cover Dakar and a portion of Thies, an area of nearly three million inhabitants, two-thirds of the population of Senegal. Because nonprofit radio stations may not advertise or generate revenues in Senegal, the Association has negotiated sponsorship of theme broadcasts from local divisions of development agencies. It has also begun promising discussions with financing institutions for the purchase of radio equipment.Fatoumata will continue to advocate and lobby among opinion leaders and government officials in order to gain solid acceptance of the Women's Radio license and to open the door to allow other radio frequencies to other civic organizations. Her approach will also be spread through an annual "Women and Communication" convention, which will provide feedback for the Association and promote positive collaboration with other women throughout the sub-region where the Association anticipates future collaboration with existing and alternative radio stations. Its ultimate goal is to create a large-scale dynamic which takes everything concerning "the woman" into consideration, but not at the expense of the "soul" of Women's Radio and its mission to respect cultural diversity. All interested outside groups are encouraged to dissect, correct, redo, and slow the pace of the information offered by the Association if their cultural and social references show these to be inapplicable within their particular contexts.
Born on March 31st, 1955, Fatoumata grew up in a home that was a gathering place for the young people in her neighborhood, who would often discuss politics, strikes, and the struggle for justice. Her eyes were opened to a large number of social and political realities at quite a young age. As an adolescent she began to send handwritten summaries of events in Senegal to her brother who was studying abroad. Her gift for writing, her ability to lead class debates and discussions, and, later, her socioeducational activities in high school during the 70s were the deciding factors in her choice to invest in communication.Fatoumata has had lengthy experience in grassroots development and as voluntary president of a Consortium of Senegalese, European, and North American nongovernmental organizations in Senegal. She has had 16 years of experience as a working journalist. Her experience has given her the opportunity to explore her profession and see how messages pertaining to women are fragmented in their delivery and how seldom grassroots organizations are given a say. Similarly, she took away from her experience in the feminist movement, in the 1980s, the insight that it should not be too elitist. Even if work is started by "intellectuals," in order to have durable effects it must be grounded and diverse in its constituency. For all these reasons, she comes to life when she speaks of Women's Radio.After completing studies in journalism, Fatoumata did not become a part of the traditional media structure. By 1979 she was already aware that by participating in the state-run media structures she would inevitably encounter censure problems. She opted for a much less visible position, as press attaché to the Ministry of Development, foreseeing that she would be able to familiarize herself from there with issues relating to women and development, and to develop up-close knowledge of local realities while devoting time to associations, unions, and politics.