I’m saving a lot of referendum news articles under the title “referendum stories”. If I were in South Sudan now, I probably wouldn’t leave the voting queues for all the lovely narrative arcs: apparently there are impromptu speech-givings, but I also imagine that a lot of people are situating themselves in a historical event, talking about the story of their lives in terms of change, liberation and closure. The international media are loving them too, and I’m getting a lot of the proceeds.
One problem I know I’ve discussed and thought about before is how to find women’s accounts. Other than men being frequently louder and more confident in their speaking, social position and English skills in giving information, there are many problems in trying to interview women.
A quick and entirely unscientific survey of the 107 news reports called “stories” I’ve collected from 3-12 January backs up this problem of a bias towards men’s personal narratives. Not counting elected party leaders or SSRC/IOM voting officials, there are 49 men named and quoted individually; in US reports alone, there are 16 “Lost Boys” giving their accounts and feelings. In contrast, 11 women are quoted in reports from South Sudan. An additional 7 women are quoted in reports from the US, usually with far longer quotes. There are also two “Lost Girls” giving their stories – with particularly interesting and emotional accounts of being actually in the polling booth.
That’s 65 men versus 20 women; a one in three, reflecting the dominance of men in community groups, how journalists find it easier to approach men for fear of cultural embarrassments, the usually male interpreters who know the men in the queue, the registration bias towards men that’s been frequently reported – with no actual statistics available as far as I can tell yet (please let me know if you have some!) – and the “Lost Boys” preoccupation in the American press. Ultimately it’s about the English language, too – women were far more likely to be quoted in US articles alongside men, whereas writing on Southern Sudan threw up a few examples where a journalist had clearly set out to talk to women, such as Rebecca Hamilton’s interview with four women in a ‘vulnerable people’ queue in Bentiu.
I’m not drawing out any points – as the long sentence above shows, there are plenty of reasons for this – other than it’s something I continue to be aware of, and want to be constantly aware of. It’s too easy to be so excited by the fantastic information you’re getting from interviews and forget the longer, slower process of talking to women and gaining the same confidences – and confident stories – as with men. I’ll probably come back to this again and again (partly because the academic and NGO research work already done on my particular area of interest, the Southern population in Khartoum, is often substantially focused on abuses perpetrated against women), but I thought it worth writing, as it’s a notable phenomenon in the reporting of “stories” at the moment. I’m going to wait for voting to close, and for “referendum stories” to dry up slightly, before starting to think about the stories themselves.