Zimbabwean Women Claim Their Place in the Quill Club

March 27, 2012
Women Journalists Gather in Zimbabwe

It's not often we get to witness barriers being broken first-hand -- there is a special kind of energy in the air when you do. The sort of vibe that says, this feels like a game-changing event. That was the atmosphere at Harare's Quill Club (press club) on Thursday, March 15, during its first-ever Ladies Night. Not only did the evening bring in more women at one time than the male-dominated institution has probably ever seen (over half of the 60 guests), but it also featured an intense, on-the-record panel discussion of gender equity, or the lack thereof, in Zimbabwean media.

The first panelist gave a brief history of the Quill Club and set the stage for how urgent it is to break down the anti-women discriminatory practices now in place in Zimbabwe's media. The press club was founded in the 1960s as an all-male, all-white bastion of journalists supportive of the colonial government and later Ian Smith's rogue Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) government. Originally run by the Rhodesian Guild of Journalists, it met at the same location as today -- in the Ambassador Hotel's wood-paneled bar, under a low ceiling with mismatched chairs crowded around small tables and a busy snooker area. The location is conveniently located in downtown Harare across the street from the Parliament and near executive offices. Government officials and state-promoting newspaper reporters easily shared drinks and collaborated on stories aimed at shoring up confidence and official racist policies among the white minority that controlled the country until 1980.

In the 1970s, the Club began admitting black journalists, one of the first colonial institutions to do so prior to independence. But those were very dangerous times -- in 1975, lawyer and liberation activist Edson Sithole and his secretary Miriam Mhlanga were abducted when leaving the Quill Club after an interview and never seen again. Finally, in 1985, the Rhodesian Guild of Journalists became the modern-day Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ).

Today, journalist members pay $5 monthly dues and meet up daily for drinks, gossip, and a chance to share breaking news. They come from all media outlets, hold panel discussions fortnightly with political and business representatives, and are almost all men.

My office helped sponsor this Ladies Night as part of Women's History Month and our Zimbabwean Women Journalists Mentoring (WJM) program. We are about half way through our one-year WJM program, which is an intensive initiative designed to address the fact that there is only one woman in a senior leadership position in the entire Zimbabwean media. Women entering journalism here are usually sent directly to the health, entertainment, religion, and women's pages. Their bylines are rarely seen on editorial pages unless addressing those "female" topic areas. The WJM program pairs students and young reporters with more senior women to share survival tricks and professional development tips. We also meet several times a month for roundtables with leading Zimbabwean and American journalists; skills seminars on writing, online research and political science; and trips.

The panel discussion was intense and energizing. Grace Mutandwa, formerly with the Herald newspaper and now a media consultant, was bold and unforgiving. She spoke directly to the women in the room, calling on the memories of Rosa Parks, Miriam Makeba, and Mother Theresa, saying, "You have to tell yourself that you own this space.... The next Chair of the Quill Club must be a woman, not just because she is woman, but because she deserves it."

Participants were unflinching in bringing out the issues that have held women back in recent decades, including reports of rampant sexual harassment in the newsrooms. ZUJ president Foster Dongozi bluntly stated, "The ratio of men and women studying journalism at colleges and universities is 50/50, but by the time the women finish their attachments (mandatory internships), many have made up their minds. They think, 'I'm not going back there.' That is the issue we need to tackle and you all know it."

Other women in the room called on their peers to provide real support for their gender in the newsrooms to push back against discrimination, harassment, and the glass ceiling. And senior women emphasized that success in the media means hard work at odd hours -- women have to be ready to cover stories when they happen and not in-between demands from husbands and children.

Panel moderator Virginia Muwangiwa of the Humanitarian Information Facilitation Center (HIFC) and recently elected chair of the Zimbabwe Women's Coalition wrapped up the session by saying, "We have come into this male bastion, and we are feeling good. We will be here tomorrow, and after that."

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