The Problem With Coverage of Women in War

Stereotypes “permit and exacerbate conflict,” experts say.

By , the executive editor at Foreign Policy.
Women and children from Ukraine, including a mother carrying an infant, arrive at the Medyka border crossing near Medyka, Poland, on March 4.
Women and children from Ukraine, including a mother carrying an infant, arrive at the Medyka border crossing near Medyka, Poland, on March 4.
Women and children from Ukraine, including a mother carrying an infant, arrive at the Medyka border crossing near Medyka, Poland, on March 4. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Putin’s War

What does Western media miss in covering conflicts, and how are women impacted as a result? To answer these questions, all the more urgent as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine enters its second month, I spoke to former Afghan ambassador to the United States Roya Rahmani and Xanthe Scharff, CEO of the Fuller Project.

Rahmani is a senior advisor at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. She was the first woman to serve as Afghan ambassador to the United States. She serves as a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security and is a global strategist at Equality Now. Scharff is the co-founder and executive director of the Fuller Project, and she holds a doctorate in international relations from Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. The conversation was conducted as part of an FP Live, Foreign Policy’s forum for live journalism, on March 28. FP subscribers can watch a recording of the full conversation here. What follows is an edited excerpt from that discussion.

Amelia Lester: Xanthe, your reporting has showed that women’s voices constitute less than a quarter of the total experts, protagonists, or sources quoted in global digital news about the war in Ukraine. Why is this the case, and what are the ways that we can hear more women’s voices moving forward?

What does Western media miss in covering conflicts, and how are women impacted as a result? To answer these questions, all the more urgent as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine enters its second month, I spoke to former Afghan ambassador to the United States Roya Rahmani and Xanthe Scharff, CEO of the Fuller Project.

Rahmani is a senior advisor at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. She was the first woman to serve as Afghan ambassador to the United States. She serves as a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security and is a global strategist at Equality Now. Scharff is the co-founder and executive director of the Fuller Project, and she holds a doctorate in international relations from Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. The conversation was conducted as part of an FP Live, Foreign Policy’s forum for live journalism, on March 28. FP subscribers can watch a recording of the full conversation here. What follows is an edited excerpt from that discussion.

Amelia Lester: Xanthe, your reporting has showed that women’s voices constitute less than a quarter of the total experts, protagonists, or sources quoted in global digital news about the war in Ukraine. Why is this the case, and what are the ways that we can hear more women’s voices moving forward?

Xanthe Scharff: The data analysis that my co-author, Luba Kassova, submitted did show that women are only 23 percent of the people that you hear as experts, protagonists, and sources in the news coverage about the war in Ukraine. That is a little bit lower than the global number, which is 25 percent.

Additionally, Luba looked at how war coverage is impacting [women’s] share of voice by looking at International Women’s Day. International Women’s Day is the day in which there’s the most coverage about gender equality. It’s a very important day for news about women, and it fell this year on March 8, which was day 13 of the invasion. And the drop in terms of the coverage about gender equality in the U.S. was 63 percent.

You can see that when there is a war or a crisis like COVID, those are times when we’re going to see less of women’s voices in news. But the problem is that in fact, during crises in war, that’s when we really need to hear from women about what’s happening on the ground.

AL: Why does our attention immediately shift, even though women are disproportionately affected by war?

XS: One of the things that the Ukrainian journalists that we’ve been speaking to have said is that their reporting about women is really accidental. Katya Gorchinskaya, who is a journalist, said women are experiencing victimization. We need to hear about that. But there is also leadership, and in Ukraine, 16 percent of the military are women.

An aspect that we’re hearing about is stereotypes. We have ideas about the role that women play in war. We have ideas about the role that men play. And if we don’t go so far as to really investigate and spend time and have sources ahead of time and have a cadre of women from the country reporting, we’re not going to get the nuance. I think the other aspect is the breaking news cycle in which things are moving very, very fast and moving towards coverage of heads of country, foreign ministers, etc., rather than the longer-term work of the reporters who have developed sources on the ground over a long period of time.

AL: Ambassador Rahmani, what role do you think those stereotypes have played in Afghanistan reporting over the last year or so?

Roya Rahmani: Massive. It is those presumptions, those stereotypes, that permit and exacerbate conflict and completely focus on women as vulnerable and those in need and as victims.

Looking at the war in Ukraine, they are portrayed as the mothers of the nation who are taking care of the children who are providing support to their husbands or brothers or fathers. And the other role they play is missed.

The other thing that is missed in the coverage is women’s leadership. And I strongly believe, for example, in the case of Afghanistan, that the continuation of violence is the reason that there is severe gender inequality, and it continues to be so.

In Afghanistan, every time there is a regime change, one of the major determinants that they focus on is the treatment of the women. The media first focuses on whether the regime is conservative or fundamental or democratic or modernist. It is the very major and serious inequality that exists prewar, from the legal aspects to the traditions to the religion to the family construct, and the media continues to focus on that. The media continues to portray women as victims and caretakers and mothers and not focus on their leadership.

AL: Let’s talk about the role of women as journalists in kind of trying to shift this focus to these more systemic problems and root causes. Xanthe, how are women journalists under attack, and how might that be shaping coverage of women in war?

XS: Yes, in Afghanistan, it’s particularly dire in that it was already incredibly dangerous for women reporters on the ground. There were just over a thousand women reporters between September and December [2021]. Four out of 5 women reporters lost their jobs. So we are talking about 15 provinces in which there are no women reporters.

And this builds on issues that we already had, and I’ll quote our contributor Zahra Nader, who was one of those who helped to launch Rukhshana Media, the female-founded newsroom, which is a partner of ours. And she shared with me that in 2016, a Kabul bureau chief of one of the big legacy outlets tweeted that she was the first reporter who is an Afghan woman writing for Western press.

Just think about that for a moment. It’s jaw-dropping to think that in Western press, in which women’s rights in Afghanistan has been a constant thread to justify continued spending involvement, that we would not be hearing from an Afghan woman journalist for all of those years. And if we were, it was very little. Now, Afghan women journalists obviously are the ones who will access the stories about women on the ground for the reasons that we all know very, very well. So if we don’t have those reporters on the ground, how are we possibly going to be getting the story?

Another thing that Zahra Nader has said to me is that the history of Afghan women in the Western press is defined by when the Taliban come, when the Taliban go. And in fact, Afghan women have their own living history, have their own leadership, and we do need to know about those stories as well.

AL: Ambassador Rahmani, do you want to reflect on that? Does that ring true to you?

RR: Yes, indeed. That’s very true and one sided, one dimensional, in fact. The reporting seems to explicitly just mimic or follow the foreign policy of the countries that they cater to. And therefore, it’s far from comprehensive, to be very honest, and it’s missing the nuances. It is not only that it’s missing the history on women, but as I mentioned before in Afghanistan, the treatment of women is what defines a regime, and the regime changes is not something that’s happening and not as often in Afghanistan. I have seen five of them in my lifetime so far.

AL: Ambassador Rahmani, what are the consequences that you have seen in Afghanistan from this media coverage of missing out half the population—or at least not portraying it fully?

RR: Basically, women are not portrayed in the reporting the way we would like to see, and there are a few factors that contribute to this. Women do not actually have sufficient capital and agency in the world of media. And I have heard this from many women journalists, friends, particularly from Afghanistan, that when they bring this story out, they are told that this is not a story that would have buyers. So basically, stories about women do not have buyers. That is one aspect of why women journalism is decreasing in Afghanistan. The other aspect of it is resources and professional coverage for the interviewees, for those who could come out and speak the truth and to ensure that they will stay safe.

The issues that contribute to all of this are those underlying issues in the society that portrays men as the head of the household, no matter what, while it is the women who are taking care of that. But then their perspective is not taken into consideration during peacemaking. When the peace talks in Afghanistan were going on, there were about four women out of more than 40 people. What would that really cover?

Amelia Lester is the executive editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ThatAmelia

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Oleg Salyukov salutes to soldiers during Russia’s Victory Day parade.
Oleg Salyukov salutes to soldiers during Russia’s Victory Day parade.

Stop Falling for Russia’s Delusions of Perpetual Victory

The best sources on the war are the Ukrainians on the ground.

A fire rages at the Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces in Tver, Russia
A fire rages at the Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces in Tver, Russia

Could Sabotage Stop Putin From Using the Nuclear Option?

If the West is behind mysterious fires in Russia, the ongoing—but deniable—threat could deter Putin from escalating.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi is received by his Kenyan counterpart, Raychelle Omamo, in Mombasa, Kenya.
China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi is received by his Kenyan counterpart, Raychelle Omamo, in Mombasa, Kenya.

While America Slept, China Became Indispensable

Washington has long ignored much of the world. Beijing hasn’t.

A bulldozer demolishes an illegal structure during a joint anti-encroachment drive conducted by North Delhi Municipal Corporation
A bulldozer demolishes an illegal structure during a joint anti-encroachment drive conducted by North Delhi Municipal Corporation

The World Ignored Russia’s Delusions. It Shouldn’t Make the Same Mistake With India.

Hindu nationalist ideologues in New Delhi are flirting with a dangerous revisionist history of South Asia.