MIDDLE EAST & NORTH AFRICA REGION – Advocacy for safe abortion by journalists in the MENA region:  Report of a webinar on 1 July 2021

Top image: Women in Journalism Magazine, part of cover photo, June 2020

by Sophie Basso, RAWSA MENA Network Coordinator

Because abortion is a highly sensitive issue in the MENA region, an objective and humanist
media treatment of the issue is lacking. Too often, journalists reporting on reproductive
and sexual rights, including the right to safe abortion, are limited by the conservative environment
and not able to create an open debate on this topic. Instead, abortion is frequently
discussed in the media from the angle of criminalisation.

For these reasons, the RAWSA MENA Network – Right to Safe Abortion in the MENA Region –
organised a webinar specifically for journalists on advocating for safe abortion, avoid stigmatising discourse and raise awareness on barriers and risks for women of unsafe abortion. During the webinar, the participants were informed about the situation of abortion in the entire region and how it is covered in the media. Key messages on safe abortion were shared, and how to use them.

The RAWSA Network wishes to develop strategic partnerships with journalists and media, in order
to defend the right to safe abortion in the region and ensure that women can freely decide to have an abortion and access these services when they need them.

The four RAWSA presentations

  • Abortion situation in MENA region during Covid-19 pandemic and compared with the situation of abortion around the world
  • The RAWSA Network and membership benefits
  • Media coverage of abortion and sexual and reproductive rights in the MENA region
  • Key messages on safe abortion by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists

Question and answer session on how to improve the media coverage of abortion in the MENA region?

The RAWSA MENA Network has managed to bring together activists and organisations in the region to work on the sensitive issue of the right to safe abortion. We have been able to reach members across the region in spite of difficulties due to Covid-19. We organised webinars instead of face-to-face meetings. These webinars are bringing together a large number of activists, health professional and journalists.

Question from a Lebanese journalist working at Medfeminiswiya Media Network:
“In Lebanon where I’m based, a large part of public opinion finds it weird that feminists are
now addressing issues when basic needs such as food, fuel, medicine and medical equipment
are practically absent… So you can only imagine people’s reaction if we were to raise the issue of
abortion… I would be interested to hear your thoughts about tactics/discourses on how we can overcome this classical patriarchal prioritisation, especially in the midst of a pandemic on top of it all….”

RAWSA: We are trying to convince the media and journalists to treat the subjects of sexuality and SRHR as basic women’s and human rights. We need the media to talk about the problems of unsafe abortion and to raise this as a public health issue during the Covid-19 pandemic because women are dying from unsafe abortions. We try to explain how important safe abortion is to fulfil women’s rights.

Awareness-raising in webinars such as this one is part of our strategy. We also hope to develop strategic partnerships with journalists and the media in order to widen the discussion on safe abortion in the region and on the importance of changing the law in the MENA region.

Question from a participant from Sierra Leone in the chat: 
“Don’t you think that partnering with journalists will go slowly because we cannot talk about press freedom in the region. Several journalists have been arrested and imprisoned. I think we need to work on mentalities in the society before trying to change the legal framework.”

RAWSA:  The media has a role to play in order to change a society’s thinking.

Question from a participant in the chat: 
In the majority of the region, safe abortion is illegal, how are you intervening in order to make this right? In Sierra Leone it was the religious leaders who stopped the Assent of Abortion Bill to be
domesticated. We had to change the strategy by partnering with the Inter Religious Council
and other stakeholders, having to hear their thoughts, provide VCAT sessions backed by data
and so far, we are seeing headway. We have been able to sign an MOU to work together.”

“Religious leaders are important to be included and have open dialogue with them to hear
their feedback and to let them understand why we are initiating the dialogue and why we are
seeking for change.”

From an Egyptian activist
The key is to include political leaders, religious leaders and addressing the social taboo:
including all stakeholders is a way to provide the social and legal change for women.”

RAWSA: Until now, religious leaders, at least in this part of the world, have put barriers
and not helped to advance understanding, except in Tunisia, when the law was changed, but the context was different then.

Question from the moderator: 
What do you need in order to promote safe abortion in your countries? What kind of information is the most useful for you?

From an Iraqi journalist in the chat 
I think stories will be more suitable for Iraq, people will be more interested in testimonies than facts. 

From a Moroccan journalist in the chat
In fact, testimonies work better than facts or statistics sometimes.

From an Italian activist in the chat 
I would like to say that both testimonies and statistics work well to influence our readers. So,
we always need to have data to be able to write well-structured articles that call for safe
abortion. Without these materials, we can’t.

From a Libyan journalist in the chat
Both can be used together: a case history will help to catch the attention of the larger dimensions
(statistics, legal dispositions).

From an Algerian activist
Journalists are essential. Activists and feminists are more used to be in contact with women and
women trust them more. Thus, it is important to reinforce the partnership between media and activists to get the trust of the women, hence, to get powerful testimonies. The journalists need to do background work, go into the field as close as possible to local communities.


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