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Creating an Afrofeminist Internet for African Women

By Guest Writer on September 3, 2020

feminist internet african

A year ago, we wanted to understand how online gender-based violence manifests across Africa, and how technology companies, which are often based out of Africa, respond to this violence.

One year and 3,300+ interviews later, we have learned and grown tremendously from the experience of conducting feminist research within a beautiful community of like-minded researchers, mentors, supporters, all of whom have been extremely generous with their time, resources, wisdom and support.

Alternate Realities, Alternate Internets: Feminist Research for a Feminist Internet comes at a time when the internet is proving to be the embodiment of old systems of oppression and violence making it necessary to view this problem as a continuum rather than as isolated incidents.

In light of increased violence against women, an explosion of disinformation and growing polarity on the internet, these findings are timely in strengthening the argument for a radical shift in developing alternate digital networks grounded in feminist theory.

Our report captures and documents the prevalence, experiences, and responses to online gender-based violence, and looks specifically at African women in sub-Saharan countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Senegal, and South Africa.

Online gender-based violence in Africa

Alternate Realities, Alternate Internets: Feminist Research for a Feminist Internet seeks to describe online gender-based violence experienced by African women in online spaces.

Our findings show that:

  • 28% of women interviewed had experienced some form of online harassment. 40% of these respondents believed that their gender was a primary reason for these attacks.
  • 75% reported suffering from mental stress and anxiety due to their experiences of online violence.
  • 90% of the respondents who experienced this online violence in countries like Ethiopia either did not know the identity of the perpetrator or found the perpetrator to be a stranger, and it was difficult to ascertain the primary perpetrator.
  • 71% of these incidents of online harassment occurred on Facebook. Results showed that up to 95% of the women were not aware of any policies and laws in place to protect women against online gender-based violence.
  • 14% of women deleted or deactivated their accounts whereas 12% stopped using a digital service after experiencing online violence. This is another form of self-censorship and restrictions on the freedom of expression of women.

These continual, regular and perpetual acts of aggression manifest in different, but very visceral ways. Given the lack of transparency in how social media companies handle issues related to online gender-based violence, this moment in time presents an opportunity to re-think the entire internet rather than trying to repair broken systems.

An Afrofeminist Internet

When thinking of our afrofeminist future, we need to think of an internet where both the developers and users understand the intersectionality of the lived experience of an African woman.

One where African women are not seen as a homogenous group of the voiceless or oppressed, as is commonly depicted in “ICT for Good” initiatives across the continent, but rather considered for all the innovations they themselves can contribute to a better internet.

The very nature of a general-purpose technology (GPT) which has the capability to alter societies, such as the internet, is that they must be capable of ongoing technological improvements; improvements supported by and that benefit all users including African women.

With talks of a Web 3.0 based on “decentralised architecture, open protocols and community governance”, this is an opportunity to re-design an internet based on afrofeminist thinking and philosophies.

It is difficult to imagine an internet that caters to the needs of all people across the world at this moment. However, we can begin to think more creatively about this radical shift away from an internet that is developed and governed largely by the corporate global North and patriarchal, heteronormative bodies to one that celebrates, encourages, and gives voice to the full spectrum of identities.

In order to create a feminist internet that challenges gender, race, age, and class stereotypes, Faith Wilding ascertains that we need to draw “feminism as a browser” from research, strategies of feminist history, and the critique of institutionalized patriarchy.

This thinking extends further to embedding these feminist values into the ethos of technology companies with regards to how they design, develop, market, and create value from their products. This includes creating opportunities for African women to lead these types of initiatives.

Another question that arises is whether we need internets that are exclusive. Patricia Hill Collins notably stresses the importance of the relationship between empowerment, self-definition and knowledge. Considering epistemology, i.e. the theory of knowledge and how we come to understand things, the politics of gender and race are vital in acknowledging the ways the internet is and can be exclusive.

The internet, through an African feminist epistemological lens, can only thrive with the creation of safe spaces allowing for the self-definition of identities empowering those who choose to be a part of that space such as AfricanFeminism.com, HOLAAfrica etc.

From another perspective, people have been found to seek digital spaces that “affirm and solidify social identities along axes of race, gender and sexuality”. For example, identities can be formed through online interactions on social networking sites, or persons with similar life experiences, identities or hobbies can connect on platforms such as Reddit, Facebook, health support groups or sites like BlackPlanet.com, QueerSisters, etc. Thus, it is worth considering what role these spaces play in the ideation of identities.

Our Recommendations

There is an urgent need for:

  • Digital security resources to be adapted to local contexts and languages, as well as to be mainstreamed in educational curricula.
  • Training law enforcement personnel on a gender-sensitive digital safety curriculum to address complaints of online gender-based violence
  • Timely technical assistance, counseling, and support to women who do choose to report.
  • Data protection and privacy laws, as well as ensure that commissions and mechanisms are in place to implement data protection laws.

For many women across Africa, social media is the internet. And, perhaps social media has been a failed experiment altogether. With that in mind, we can continue to think critically about how we can co-create an internet that celebrates, encourages and provides safe spaces to a spectrum of identities.

Edited from blog posts and reports by Neema Iyer, Bonnita Nyamwire, and Sandra Nabulega at Pollicy

Filed Under: Women in Tech
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One Comment to “Creating an Afrofeminist Internet for African Women”

  1. Rozerth Mensah says:

    Its quite interesting that some countries will be sorted out to be the most suffering nations to online gender based violence in Africa without mentioning Ghana my country, but I don’t blame you because the security forces and most journalists here don’t see the need and the seriousness of the case, they feel if a woman is treated violently on the net then its in the right direction or there is no alarm, I myself am a victim to gender based violence on online.
    I am much interested to do researches of this project to end this evil for women to be FREE and HAPPY. Thank you