Community Radio in Central America: Women

Radio, in Central America, is an essential tool for communication. With UNESCO claiming that 75% of homes of the world’s population own a radio, radio becomes the main source of information for millions of people living in rural areas or as urban poor where access to information and technology is limited. Radio is especially important as listeners do not need to be literate in order to process the information and radios are portable, cheap and can be run on batteries in areas where there is no reliable source of electricity.  A crucial development in broadcasting has been the proliferation of community radio stations which, ostensibly outside state and commercial control, have provided a platform to represent the most marginalized communities in Central America, and have been successfully used to advance women’s knowledge of their rights.

Central America has a long history of using community-run radio for democratic purposes, for example the infamous Radio Venceremos, which broadcast the FMLN’s messages of solidarity and warnings to military targeted villages to hide during the El Salvadoran civil war. Contemporary usage for community radio has broached environmental activism topics such as the large-scale international-run mining industry which has been destroying natural resources in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras and is often a platform for the promotion of indigenous rights.

The power of community radio to inform and question state practices can be exemplified through governments’ and corporations’ attempts to silence dissident voices. In El Salvador staff at Radio Victoria in Cabaňas were attacked and threatened after they broadcast the warnings about the destruction gold mining would bring to the area from cyanide contamination. Mining activists were murdered and the Canadian Pacific Rim mining company were suspected by Radio Victoria’s staff for hiring gang members for the assassinations.

Women in Community Radio

While it is true that women are often involved in community radio activities and many small stations have dedicated programming for women, the stations are largely run by men. Women are often only given a voice to present weekly “women’s programs”, which are extremely valid for their focus on reproductive health care, the prevention of domestic violence and women’s rights awareness.  However, women usually are not integrated throughout the station’s output or at director level.  However, since only 14% of women in Latin America and Europe work in mass media and the female focused content is limited, community radio stations remain a vital alternative public sphere to hear women’s voices and issues on the airwaves.

There are two stations in particular that made it their mission to focus exclusively on women: dedicated feminist community stations Radio FIRE in Costa Rica (AM and internet) and Radio Mujer in Nicaragua (FM). Both stations were set up by and run by women and offer training and development programs to encourage further female participation. Radio FIRE (Radio Internacional Feminista) was funded by American philanthropist and feminist Genevieve Vaughan in 1991 and run by María Suarez Toro (now retired) who described FIRE’s set-up and early success in an interview:

“We were a collective that took into account that there were many women doing local radio programs throughout the world. And instead of building a new network we would form part of them and invite them to send us their local radio programs for their local community and we would air them internationally. So our program became a forum for women who did local radio in any language.”

Radio Mujer was founded by journalist and activist Ada Luz Monterrey in 1992 and aimed to counter the traditional exclusivism in Nicaragua which often disqualified women’s voices from the public sphere, encouraging female political participation through their programming.

Other organizations have made it part of their key objectives to increase women’s participation in community radio production and have made some improvements. Cultural Survival who have been lobbying the Guatemalan government to give community radio stations licenses so they can operate legally, have noticed the lack of female contribution and are therefore encouraging increased involvement with their training, mainly focusing on the largely rural Mayan population in Guatemala. Mayan women are doubly marginalized by their status as female and indigenous in Guatemala’s political discourse. Rossy Gonzalez, a volunteer at Radio Ixchel in Sumpango Sacatepéquez views women’s low self-worth being partly to blame for their lack of involvement in community radio: “It starts when they are young, women are used to being discouraged rather than encouraged, being told that they can’t, the idea is that their role is to stay in the home.”

Despite these positive examples, and the existence of women’s features on many community stations, barriers remain in place to prevent gender equality in local broadcasting. Some of these stem from entrenched sexist attitudes about women’s place being in the home and out of the public sphere; the media, and radio presenting especially, is perceived to be a male domain. Furthermore, women are hampered by their workload, often working a day job but also being expected to raise children and complete domestic tasks, leaving little time free for radio volunteering. Unfortunately, safety is also an issue that tends to affect women more than men, limiting their involvement. Traveling to and from the radio stations, particularly if at night, in many countries is too dangerous and some women as a result will not be allowed to make this journey by their families, excluding them from broadcast representation.

Much more work needs to be achieved to make community radio stations a safe and inclusive place for women to work and greater awareness of the importance of gender equality in the media must be met to keep women’s voices and issues on air. Community radio remains an essential medium for information dissemination to some of the most under-represented and least connected people in Central America, but further lobbying is required to legitimize these stations in the face of brutal government and corporate harassment to preserve this alternative media from censorship.

December 20, 2013 by Louise Morris

Louise Morris is a freelance journalist and broadcaster who works for CAWN producing media content and interviewing activists. She is also a fundraiser for Sound Women and is currently studying for a Masters in Global Media and Post National Communication at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

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