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At Uganda’s MAMA FM, Women Journalists Rule the Airwaves

Men dominate the Ugandan journalism industry, but one radio station hopes to change that, employing only women in management positions, and putting voices on the air that would not otherwise be heard.

Written by Siobhán O’Grady Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Catherine Apalat, a manager at MAMA FM, inside the station’s Kampala studio.Siobhan O’Grady

KAMPALA, Uganda – Shortly before 10 a.m. each weekday morning, Rose Amutuhaire goes over her notes, positions her microphone and takes a deep breath. Then she reads a short broadcast of breaking news to thousands of listeners across the capital of Uganda.

To many journalists, Amutuhaire’s job may seem largely unremarkable – except for the fact that many listeners are tuning in because they know it is a woman who will be on air.

Amutuhaire is one of more than two dozen people who work at MAMA FM 101.7, a women-run Ugandan radio station that diversifies the airwaves in a country where men largely control the journalism industry.

“Men like to dominate everything. When I try to speak up, they want me to shut up,” Amutuhaire said. “Here, I collect the news, edit it and go on air to anchor it.”

For nearly 20 years, female Ugandan journalists have turned to MAMA FM, the first radio station run by women in Africa, as a safe haven. At most Ugandan media outlets, managers tend to be male, and rising through the ranks as a woman often means enduring sexual harassment and sacrificing work–life balance.

Although there has been a small uptick in the number of women working in Ugandan media, men still write the vast majority of articles for print publications and monopolize positions on local airwaves.

In 2014, the Uganda Media Women’s Association (UMWA), which runs MAMA FM, published a report analyzing women’s participation in print journalism in Uganda. According to their findings, which focused on five of Uganda’s most prominent newspapers, women wrote only 11 percent of articles on subjects the study classified as “hard news,” including politics, defense, finance, science and legal issues.

In subject areas the study classified as “soft news,” including agriculture, arts, royalty and religion, women accounted for 23 percent.

MAMA FM focuses on reporting stories that aren’t being told elsewhere, and values getting voices on the air that otherwise go unheard. The station is the only one in Uganda that is wheelchair-accessible, and each week Ugandans with disabilities share their experiences of discrimination on air.

The station also hosts “Children Talk Back,” a show that allows teens to share both their grievances and successes. “PapaMama,” another regular segment, focuses on domestic violence and family planning.

To widen audience access, the shows are taped in a mix of English and Luganda, a language spoken by 5 million people in Uganda.

Although both men and women work at MAMA FM, women hold 60 percent of the available positions, and only women are allowed to work as managers. Amutuhaire, a 29-year-old single mother who felt undermined by male bosses at her last journalism job in Kampala, was willing to take a pay cut to work at the community radio station in part because it guaranteed a woman would supervise her.

But UMWA executive director Margaret Sentamu, who helped launch the radio station in 2001, said the women-only management model frustrates some men who work at the station and are reluctant to accept that they will never be promoted to top-ranking roles there.

“Men will ask me ‘Why do you want us to be deputies?’” she said. “And I just keep reminding them about why the organization was formed: to promote visibility, and also to give a chance for women to manage. And the way we say it, we really try as hard as possible not to hurt their feelings.”

Margaret Sentamu, executive director of the Uganda Media Women’s Association, outside the Kampala studio. (Siobhan O’Grady)

For Sentamu, balancing male and female roles at the station is an experiment, on the micro scale, of how also to promote gender equality in other spaces in Uganda. When she trains her staff, she focuses an equal amount of attention on encouraging women to speak up and get out of their comfort zones as she does on asking men to assess their own privileges at work and at home.

She’ll often ask new male staff to describe their daily schedules out loud, and then to do the same for their wives. For some of those men, it’s the first time they’ve taken the time to notice how much more time their partner spends on domestic chores.

In addition to women’s issues, the station also runs programs highlighting challenges facing youth and disabled people in Kampala. A recent unpublished listener survey conducted by UMWA offered the staff a surprise: The majority of respondents who said they regularly listen to MAMA FM are men. Sentamu considers that a success. In her view, involving men in conversations about gender is the only way to move closer to equality.

“Men grew up knowing they were in charge, and we grew up learning we were supposed to be submissive and secondary,” she said. “If I want a man to appreciate a woman coming up, I’m not going to use the language to hurt his ego. I’m going to use a language that is persuasive for him.”

At MAMA FM, gender issues are far from the only challenges the staff face. The station has so little funding that it shuts off at least once a month when fuel runs out for the generator that keeps it alive during Kampala’s regular power cuts. Over the years, the station has received funding from organizations such as Oxfam and UNICEF. But as of early 2017, they hadn’t received any funding at all – the staff hadn’t even been paid stipends for transport to and from the station in months.

But they keep showing up, even if it means paying out of their own pockets to bring attention to news that goes uncovered elsewhere, including reproductive health, discrimination and violence against women.

“When the radio is off, we’ll have women coming into the office and asking ‘Why is your station not on the air?’” Sentamu said. “We persevere.”

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