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The Afrofeminist Power Dynamics of Data Governance for African Women

By Guest Writer on April 6, 2021

feminist internet african

Data is a powerful resource to address the myriad of challenges that women face across the African continent. What is counted often becomes the basis for the development of appropriate programs and policies, and resource allocation.

However, in a continent where gender data remains under collected and the analysis of available gender data is largely biased, women’s needs are not adequately planned for. Furthermore, the collection of basic data for marginalized groups such as LGBTQI+ people and migrants is often ignored, meaning women bearing these identities are further invisibilized.

In light of these challenges, we – Pollicy, a civic technology organization based in Uganda – wanted to understand how feminist activists, grassroots movements and more established organizations negotiate their way around sourcing information for data-driven initiatives.

RSVP Now: Afrofeminist Data webinar on April 7th, at 4pm GMT

We spoke with over 40 women who lead grassroots movements, civil society organizations, academic institutions and small businesses from 20 countries across Africa to understand their knowledge, practices and challenges around using data to further their missions.

Data Power Dynamics

We were particularly interested in examining power dynamics as it relates to data governance. In a continent whose history is rooted in colonialism and conventions are steeped in patriarchy, it was important for us to explore the practices of data extraction and use within the context of power dynamics.

When existing social relationships are grounded in coloniality and patriarchal norms, data-driven initiatives such as surveillance and other invasive forms of technology can only serve to amplify inequalities and entrench oppression.

Africa has been touted as a treasure trove of untapped data, and large technology companies are rushing to set up digital infrastructures for their profit-making where companies extract, mine and profit from data from Africans, without their explicit consent and knowledge of what the data is used for.

These power dynamics come to play especially with movement building and activism. Social media has become a space for organizing, and is particularly crucial in oppressive regimes where the right to assemble is hindered.

All the feminist movements that we interacted with use popular social media platforms such as Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter and Instagram for mobilization, awareness raising, campaigning and advocacy. This raised the question of whether feminist movements can adequately challenge power dynamics when utilizing platforms that are based on colonial practices of extraction.

Feminist Movement Data Challenges

Data is a powerful tool to address global challenges and serves as the basis for policymaking and resource allocation. Feminist movements face a number of fundamental challenges in collecting, processing and utilizing data for their causes.

1. Data literacy

A major challenge in effectively utilizing data was a lack of technical skills involved in designing research studies and tools for collecting and processing data. Furthermore, current tools and open datasets are often only available in English which makes their use by grassroots movement difficult.

2. Connectivity

Women in sub-Saharan Africa are the least likely to be online, with only 28% of them being connected (Iglesias, 2020). In 2019, the digital gender gap in mobile internet use for sub-Saharan Africa was 37% (GSMA, 2019). Without taking into account these differences in mobile ownership and internet access and solely relying on digital engagement, feminist movements in Africa would be exclusionary.

3. Resources

Collecting, analysing and disseminating data is a labour and resource-intensive process, especially for often underfunded grassroots organizations. Additionally, it is costly to hire data scientists to support feminist movements with data analysis, further compounded by a shortage of data scientists across the continent, and more so, feminist data scientists. Worth noting, movements from Anglophone African countries were better resourced in terms of funding and technical skills compared to their Francophone and Lusophone counterparts.

4. Gatekeeping

Access to data from gatekeepers is an ongoing challenge for feminist movements. Gatekeepers can include civil society organizations, government agencies or international institutions. Researchers must deal with extensive bureaucracy to access data from government bodies. Due to competing ecosystems created by donors, civil society organizations often withhold data from one another. Similarly, private sector companies hold on to their data based on their initial investments made to procure it, or sell the data at exorbitant costs, which can only be afforded by other large private sector organizations.

5. Lack of gender-disaggregated data

Gender data takes sex-disaggregated data one step further by considering the stereotypes and socio-cultural factors that introduce gender bias into data. Data, when available, are not disaggregated by gender.

For example, a study on gender data gaps in 15 Sub Saharan African countries found that environmental indicators have the lowest proportion of gender-disaggregated data. Yet, it is proven that women are disproportionately affected by the negative impacts of climate change. A lack of enabling by governments and private sector companies means that they do not prioritize the collecting and sharing of gender-disaggregated data.

6. Technology platform policies

A number of policies by global technology platforms hinder feminist movements. Firstly, shadow banning under vague policies blocks content by feminist movementS, especially on matters such as LGBTQ+ rights, sex education,  racism, violence, colonialism etc. Secondly, African feminists are wary of the ethics involved in sourcing data from such online platforms.

Third, these platforms have not adequately responded to the online violence that Black women face. Lastly, women of colour have been expressing their discontent and maltreatment at the hand of technology platforms, as recently evidenced by the unfair dismissal of Dr Timnit Gebru from Google’s ethical AI team. Other issues such as the non-recognition of dark skin in facial recognition and some biomedical devices are also a pervasive problem.

Afrofeminist Recommendations

A number of recommendations were suggested by the feminist activists and movements that we engaged with.

1. Fund data-training initiatives

Funders, partners and technology companies should focus their efforts and funds on supporting and developing data training initiatives on the continent. Programs such as Code for Africa’s WanaData, Data Science Nigeria and Pollicy’s Data Ladies have made significant progress in training data scientists and journalists.

2. Fund feminist research

Epistemological violence impacts the agency of marginalised subjects, often women, to produce knowledge and goes one step further in de-legitimising the knowledge that does not fit the western normative ideals. Feminist movements must be funded to conduct research from a decolonial, feminist lens. The Association for Progressive Communication has been doing stellar work in this capacity on supporting reflexive research towards building a Feminist Internet.

3. Develop independent and intersectional data collaboratives

A decentralized approach to data collection could address the challenges mentioned above. Governments and other stakeholders should consider setting up a number of non-partisan and independent data centres under different models of data stewardship that are accountable to the citizens, whereby data is 1) open, 2) shared in accessible formats, 3) verifiable, 4) replicable, and 5) collected through the frameworks of Afrofeminism, data feminism and data justice. The Humanitarian Data Exchange is an example of such a data centre that enables workers from the UN, NGOs, government and universities to radically improve data sharing during extreme situations.

4. Advocate for improved data practices

Gender-disaggregated data must be prioritized by governments, private companies and civil society so as to better understand the unique challenges and opportunities in advancing the lives of women. One organization making great strides in this is Data 2X whose mission is to improve the availability, quality, and use of gender data in order to make a practical difference in the lives of women and girls worldwide.

5. Address women’s safety online

Social media platforms must place more emphasis on protecting women on their platforms. They must engage with indigenous content moderators who understand the nuance and context of local cultures and linguistics. Furthermore, they must improve the effectiveness of reporting mechanisms on their platforms.

Data Feminism and Afrofeminism

In order to advance feminist movements, we first need to approach data from the perspective of data feminism, a term coined by Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren Klein, which promotes a way of thinking about data that is informed by direct experience, by a commitment to action, and by intersectional feminist thought.

It is important to understand that data created, processed, and interpreted under unequal power relations by humans and/or human-made algorithms potentially reproduce the same exclusions, discriminations, and normative expectations present in societies. Secondly, we must approach data through the lens of Afrofeminism which addresses the discourse on digital extractivism and unjust data practices, specifically in the African continent.

Afrofeminism is a branch of feminism that distinctly seeks to create its own theories and discourses linked to the diversity of African experiences by reclaiming the rich histories of Black women in challenging all forms of domination and oppressive structures such as patriarchy, colonialism and capitalism.

New Forms of Data Governance

As a result of the wide gender digital divide on the continent, African women have a minimal digital footprint. This exclusion from the digital revolution and their potential role in the development of the future of technology is further driven by their marginalization due to lack of connectivity, technical expertise, funds and toxic practices that keep women away from online spaces.

Furthermore, African women are always instrumentalized as a vulnerable target group, in need of saving, rather than a stakeholder group with a crucial say in developing just technology platforms.

Additionally, the shift to digital data has ushered in an era where the emphasis on computational analysis and machine learning as core (and qualitatively superior) ways of understanding the social world moulds the way people relate to information and knowledge. As a result, alternative sources of data that African feminists use in their work, such as personal accounts and indigenous knowledge systems, are seen as inferior.

Despite these challenges, data feminism offers a framework for African women to imagine and build afrofeminist data futures. Data feminism insists that the most complete knowledge comes from synthesizing multiple perspectives, with priority given to local, Indigenous, and experiential ways of knowing.

With this framing, African women are recognised as experts on their lives and experiences with data and datafication in their context. African women must be brought on board for envisioning alternatives to the algorithmic order and totality.

An Afrofeminist data future would be one where African women have the right to privacy and full control over personal data and information online at all levels – a form of data justice. We must empower ourselves with effective legal and technical tools and a clear language to talk about data rights, on their own terms.

Data governance must take into account the power imbalances that exist between who provides and who collects data. Data has the potential to lead to positive outcomes such as tailoring services or resource allocation.

However, data may also lead to certain harmful outcomes such as discrimination, which can further exacerbate the inequalities existent in society. We must think about how data can be structured in a way that benefits those who perform the labour of care in firstly producing the data, and secondly, in upholding the values of social domains in a just manner.

Join Us on April 7th

afrofeminist meeting

RSVP Now to join us for a webinar on April 7th, 2021 at 4pm GMT/6pm EAT. The researchers at Pollicy, Neema Iyer and Garnett Achieng, along with guest speakers Chenai Chair, the authors of Data Feminism, Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren Klein, and the founder of Through the Eyes of African Women, Anwuli Okonjo for a presentation of the research and a panel discussion on how feminist movements in African can build an afrofeminist data future.

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