This year, four fearless women journalists were each awarded a prestigious Courage in Journalism award from the International Women’s Media Foundation for their commitment to seeking the truth even when it puts their lives in danger. The 2013 recipients hail from Afghanistan, Cambodia, Zimbabwe and Syria. Three were flown to the United States to be honored at a ceremony in Los Angeles, and Ms. was able to speak with the awardees. (The fourth, Nour Kelze, was on assignment in Syria and couldn’t accept the award in person.)
Edna Machirori was one of the first women in Zimbabwean media, as well as the first woman editor of a newspaper in Zimbabwe. A journalist for five decades, she was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the IWMF.
“I didn’t know I would still be here 50 years later. said Machirori of her career. “It’s addictive, and once you find you can make a small change, very satisfying.”
Many of her challenges came from men within her industry. To say she wasn’t immediately accepted is an understatement. After she was first hired as an editor at the highly-circulated Daily News, the head editor of the newspaper locked her out of the office for two weeks, refusing to let her in. The all-male management of the newspaper did little to help her. Then, when she was finally allowed to assume her position, she realized she wasn’t receiving equal pay and was routinely denied benefits afforded to her male co-workers:
One perk reporters have at the newspaper is that they have their children’s university fees paid for. When it was time for my daughter to go to university, excuses were made for why they couldn’t be bothered to pay her fees. The men there saw me as a woman, not a colleague.
However, Machirori said she has not always been supported by women, either.
In Zimbabwe, when a woman succeeds, other women who couldn’t do the same start to see you as part of the oppressive system. I’ve been threatened and humiliated publicly by men, but [also] by other women. In America, when a woman is openly attacked, liked Sandra Fluke for example, people rush to her support. In developing countries where patriarchy is very strong, you don’t see that. Women will just view you as a troublemaker. They need to be educated about their rights and why they must support each other.
Machirori says there are actually many women journalists in her country, but they face a rather low glass ceiling.
The problem is you don’t see a woman’s name until the bottom of the masthead. They never get the opportunity to move into editor positions. There is no political will to change the status of women in Zimbabwe. Yes, we have the constitutional framework, but the implementation has not happened because the implementers are always male.
At 28, award-winner Bopha Phorn is the youngest staff writer at the Cambodia Daily and one of the few women. Being unwed at an age when many Cambodian women have started families, she often faces questions about her marital status:
Here in America, I am not old, but in Cambodia I am because I am spending my 20s on a career instead of being at home and married. It’s OK, though, because I love reporting and never feel like I am working. Me winning this award shows that, even though it puts my life at risk, my work is recognized. It’s reinforcing.
Phorn has often put herself in danger to expose government corruption and environmental exploitation in her country. In April 2012, she was reporting on illegal logging in the Cambodian jungle when a spray of bullets hit the vehicle she was in. As she ducked down, she scrawled her name and mobile number on her torso, hoping that when her body was found, she could be easily identified. Phorn managed to escape from the jungle that day, unscathed and undeterred. She says,
It’s a matter of commitment and how much you’re willing to sacrifice for your work. I believe my work is effective. Even when change is not immediate, it’s still progress. It makes people aware of certain issues and it holds the government accountable for its actions. I see what I do as helping and serving my country and feel very lucky to do what I do.
Because of her gender, age and even her tiny frame, Phorn is often expected to defer to the male officials she needs to interview, making her job more difficult:
Since I look young and I’m small, people want to take me less seriously. They will sometimes say, ‘Young girl, can you stand over there, out of the way?’ when I go to a press meeting with an official.
Phorn urges young women journalists in Cambodia to not be discouraged by these challenges:
Never underestimate yourself, and do what you are most passionate about. You don’t have to follow in the steps of others, you can create your own path.
Awardee Najiba Ayubi is one of the leading voices in Afghanistan’s independent media. A journalist for 25 years and owner of 12 media outlets that span radio, television and print, the free press has been her life’s work:
I choose this for my profession because my country needs an outlet to raise the voice of everyone, especially women. Half of the population is women and they need to have their writers.
Ayubi says that many powerful officials in Afghanistan are against free media and that, although they have freedom-of-press laws, they are rarely implemented. If an investigative report exposes a politician, the journalist has little security from retaliation:
A reaction can be everything, since journalist have no protection in my country. They can kill us, threaten us. Repercussions for [anti-journalist perpetrators] are nonexistent, which puts journalists in constant danger.
Up until a few years ago, the field of investigative reporting was empty in Afghanistan because people were just fighting to survive, according to Ayubi. But now investigative reports are starting to be made again. Despite this resurgence in independent media, women journalists still deal with special barriers:
In the culture we have, fathers don’t want their daughters being journalists. As a journalist, you have to meet many different people in different places, and men don’t like the idea of a woman meeting many men. They cannot imagine a woman acting like me.
Ayubi knows that while she’s one of few now, there will be others who follow in her footsteps. She says,
There are young women who come from the university and say they want to be like me. They have more energy, and they have technology to help them. So that gives me hope because I know the ones after me will be even better than I was.
Photos courtesy of IWMF and Vince Bucci
Anita Little is the associate editor at Ms. magazine. Follow her on Twitter.