The burden of Covid-19 on female journalists

Nasibo Kabale in her reporting gear during the initial days of Covid-19. The mother of one says the pandemic changed how she interacted with her daughter.

Photo credit: Sila Kiplagat | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Working from home  has seen them take up additional domestic roles during the working hours, straining them mentally and physically.
  • It has been difficult for female journalists to be on the frontline reporting rise in sexual and gender-based violence since they are victims themselves.
  • Seven out of 10 female journalists have been cyber stalked, bullied, trolled, defamed or had their identity stolen.
  • More than 60 journalists have so far, contracted Covid-19 and concerns over their safety while on duty are still predominant.

Covid-19 has put a strain on female journalists in Kenya. A webinar on The Place of Women in protecting Civic and Media Spaces during the Covid-19 pandemic period organised by Article 19 brought to light challenges they presently face while doing their work.

Broadcast journalist Ms Sarah Kimani, noted that working from home schedule has seen them take up additional domestic roles during the working hours, straining them mentally and physically.

“You find yourself doing the domestic work during 8am-5pm hours when you are supposed to be working,” she said.

Ms Kimani said it has been difficult for female journalists to be on the frontline reporting rise in sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) since they are victims themselves.

Social media

“Some of the female journalists have been undergoing domestic violence but they have to report on the same issues,” she said.

“It is not like the times you put down your hat as a woman and take up the one as a journalist, they both go together and it becomes more difficult…we represent the people and sometimes we are those people,” she added.

Social media, she said, has even made it harder for them to operate freely as cyberbullying has increasingly become more common.

“Women who have done stories on increased cases of SGBV have been hit back,” she said.

“I have seen investigative female journalists going through social media harassment for highlighting corruption,” she added.

Broadcast journalist Ms Yvonne Okwara, echoed the fact that social media is an unfriendly space for the female journalists.

Domestic responsibilities

“I remember speaking out in defence of Brenda, the first Covid-19 recovered patient and I was trolled for two days straight,” she said.

“Things about my personal life were brought became quite an issue,” she added.

Association of Media Women in Kenya (Amwik), Executive Director, Ms Marceline Nyambala noted the psychosocial issues female journalists are struggling with due to combined pressure from work and domestic responsibilities.

“You are at home (and) there are expectations of you as a mother and wife. The people will interact with you from that perspective, they may not know that it is working hours,” she said.

She said more than 60 journalists have so far, contracted the disease and concerns over their safety while on duty are still predominant.

Article 19, Senior Program Officer, Mr Muthuri Kathuri said 45 journalists have been attacked in the last five months, out of which 12 are female.

“Eleven of the cases of human rights violations against journalists are from the police officers,” he said.

Shield colleagues

The majority have been trolled online or received verbal warning from people who claim to be from government, he said.

The journalists called for a fund to support female journalists in distress, and urged sisterhood to shield colleagues from the agony of cyberbullying.

“(We need) more women standing up for each other on social media. Don’t let your colleague be trolled for three days and none of us says something,” said Ms Kimani.

An Amwik and Article 19 Women  Journalist’s  Digital Security study conducted in 2016, found out that seven out of 10 female journalists have been cyber stalked, bullied, trolled, defamed or had their identity stolen.

The report recommended various cautionary strategies to avoid online harassment. It advises female journalists to avoid sharing subjective information online, use complex password and certified ant-virus to safeguard their work and identity. 

The new working mode brought about by Covid-19 has floated a complete package of challenges to female journalists.

We spoke to  four female journalists and they shared their experiences.

Nasibo Kabale, health journalist 

Ms Kabale covered the daily briefings by the Ministry of Health officials in the first month of confirmation of Covid-19 in the country.

“It was scary,” she says.

Many people had already died in other countries. And nobody knew how many had already been infected in Kenya. The fear of being infected was stiffening.

For the mother of one, the fear of infecting her three-year-old daughter tuned her consciousness to maintaining absolute levels of hygiene and minimising interactions.  

“I kept reminding myself that I need to do everything I can to keep myself safe so that I don’t bring the disease to my child. It will be so unfortunate,” she says.

How she interacted with her daughter on arrival at home changed.

The warm welcoming hugs for her stopped. It was unpleasant for the little one but Ms Kabale had to explain to her the reasons for withdrawing the instant special greeting.

Self quarantine

She understood. From then on, she became her accountability partner reminding her to remove the mask and freshen up before they would interact.

The health journalist was later prompted to start working from home after completing her self-quarantine. She had interacted with a person who later turned out to be Covid-19 positive.

The 14 days in the home self-quarantine felt like a century. She yearned for the special moments with her daughter; playing with her, cooking for her, feeding her and even bathing her.

“It was not easy to tell her not to come to mummy when she knows you are around and she can see you,” she says.

She was excited when Ms Kabale finished her quarantine. Completion of her quarantine, however, meant resumption of work.

Ms Kabale had to adjust to a new routine to accommodate her and keep up with the work deadlines.

She wakes up before 7am to attend to the morning meetings, then digs into domestic care for four hours before sitting down to work.

Virtual meetings

“I have to prepare meals for her, feed her and bathe her then surrender her to the nanny. But that does not mean she will not come typing on my machine every now and then,” she says, “I try though, to keep her distracted with cartoons.”

Elusive has become the time to end work and this is creating an imbalance in her work-family life.

“You don’t know when work starts and ends,” she says.

“You find yourself running to the computer now and then. You find something and you say, ‘let me do that for 30 minutes,’ and that is the time, you would be preparing dinner. You just don’t know when to stop.”

Something good has, however, come out of this Covid-19 situation.

Virtual meetings have facilitated accessibility to scientists who are somewhat reluctant to share their expert opinions with the media.

“Going forward, it will be easier to conduct virtual interviews with researchers and scientists breaking the norm of their preferred face-to-interviews” she says.

Halima Athumani, Kampala

Her greatest challenge during the Covid-19 period has been getting prompt responses to her pitches.

“Before Covid-19, you would pitch in the morning and in the afternoon you know its fate,” she says.

“It is now taking three to four days to receive a response and that means you are doing less work. And with less work, you have less pay,” she says.

A national wide curfew announced by President Yoweri Museveni end March meant she was locked up with her 10-year-old daughter who studies in a boarding school.

While she waited for the editor’s feedback, Ms Athumani took time to teach her daughter domestic chores, hours she would have spent doing research on her work had she been in school.

And when her pitch was accepted and she had to go away, Ms Athumani had to leave her daughter with a neighbour albeit worry over getting infected from the unguarded interactions.

Ms Halima Athumani, a freelance journalist  in Uganda says she visited areas where Covid-19 patients were being treated, especially Mulago National Referral Hospital, and this scared her.

Photo credit: Photo | Pool

At the back of her mind, she told herself: “I have to be home soon enough to be with my daughter.”

She was consistently anxious over the safety of her daughter even as she strove to concentrate on her assignments.

She visited areas where Covid-19 patients were being treated especially Mulago National Referral Hospital.

“I was always afraid of being infected,” she says, “To keep myself safe, I strictly followed the government’s regulations of social distancing and sanitising wherever I went. I also sanitised all my equipment including the lapel.”

 “Even when I arrived home, I had to sanitise and clean myself before preparing food for my daughter,” she adds.

Tabitha Rotich, radio reporter

Although her work station shifted from the office to home in mid-March, Ms Rotich has not stopped going out to gather news.

But her work-family life has taken a new normal. Some novel aspects have been introduced in the diary and journal of the mother of three.

Every day, she has to slot time for homeschooling and allowance to respond to impromptu queries.

 In her journal, is a story of how her first contact with her three children upon return home is a typical practice of social distancing replacing warm hugs.

By 6am, Ms Rotich is up. She ensures the children’s food is ready and the house is tidy.

Negotiation skills

At 8.00am, she is set on her working table to focus on her work unless she has an early assignment away from home.

It, however, takes a few minutes before the young ones rise to demand for her attention or interrupt her recording with loud volume from cartoon series.

“So you are in the middle of doing a story and one asks ‘how do I do this homework or what are we going to take for lunch?” says Ms Rotich.

It takes negotiation skills to create a conducive working environment for her.

“I have to request them to give me time to finish my work before I can respond to each of their demands,” she says.

She works like a machine. She moves from her work to either feeding her three-year-old or helping her other two children with homework.

A reminder of pending homework is nowadays part of the greetings when she returns from the field assignment.

“It is hectic but I am managing,” she says.

Anne Mawathe, health editor

For Ms Mawathe, working from home has reinforced the urgency of media houses developing female journalists’ friendly policies.

“The working from home came at a time I had already got used to it. I had already got the tools to facilitate my working from home,” she says.

The health editor has been working from home since 2017. She has a back problem and her employer accommodated her option to work from home.

Two or three days a week, she would abandon her home office complete with all the tools for broadcasting and editing, to visit her team in the office to catch up with workflow and assignments.

“My initial struggle was not being able to meet people and talk with people,” she says.

“You really not in touch with your colleagues and you don’t know where they are at. Leading a team and expecting excellence in terms of production with all the changes is very ambitious.”

Accommodate women

Living in the outskirts of Nairobi has made her working from home enjoyable. There is little distraction from the children and she got the luxury of breathing fresh air while working indoors or outdoors.

“My kids can go out to play in the farm and I can go to the balcony and work from there,” she says.

“Being able to work from where I can get fresh air is something I really appreciate.”

Her wish is that the media houses can be responsive to the needs of female journalists.

“I dream of the time, the newsrooms are going to accommodate women and their needs as opposed to telling women, this one is going to get pregnant or that maternity leave is too long,” she says.

“Instead of condemning women for who they are, support them. For me I want it all, I want to have a family, I want to have a good career, I want to have fun, I want to be able to do something that I love to do without being reminded the fact that I am a woman and I have a family and it’s either one or?