As part of the Africa rising narrative, we are continuously told about the importance of ICTs in development, and how key it is that African women get a piece of the internet pie both in terms of access to information and in terms of knowledge production and curating. Indeed, in Agenda 2063, the African Union’s vision statement for Africa – The Africa We Want, an emphasis is put on the development of adequate ICT infrastructures and ensuring that all Africans have access to the internet as a matter of right.
There is also an emphasis on the integration of women into African economies and public life as a means of ensuring maximum productivity under aspiration 6 (in what feels a little bit like a re-hash of the “add women and stir” model of reform that does not dislodge patriarchy and is instead fuelled by paternalism and capitalism.) It is clear that both ICTs and women are increasingly regarded as important players in the development of Africa however, there doesn’t seem to be comprehensive public discourse about the violence that women experience in online spaces.
In speaking about barriers to access to the internet we are very good at identifying the more practical things. The digital divide is fuelled by lack of infrastructure, lack of money – inability to disentangle oneself from daily responsibilities long enough to foray into the internet, lack of information about what the internet is and how it can be used. However, we tend to focus a lot less on the impact of patriarchal hegemony and misogyny on the way women do, or are willing to use the internet and participate in online fora. The misogyny that women experience offline is replicated in our online interactions – women’s photos are published without our consent in order to shame us for ownership of our sexualities or as retaliation for rejecting men’s advances, a situation that often leads to societally sanctioned physical violence against women.
Women who challenge patriarchal norms, or advocate for the rights of women in online spaces are often subjected to harassment, trolling, doxxing, threats of violence from physical assault, rape to death. The patriarchal mechanisms that work to silence women in our day to day offline lives continue to operate in this brave new space that has the power to change up media dynamics and narratives, and the power to help feminists organise around a myriad of issues. However, unless we can find a way to eliminate violence against women online, these are powers that not all of us will be or are able to harness. Violence against women in online spaces is hampering our use and enjoyment of these public goods.
What I find worrying is how a lot of the same victim-blaming rhetoric that is used in discussions of sexual harassment in offline public spaces is rolled out when discussing online violence against women in this massive public space. In the same way that sexual harassment is continuously framed as a problem to be confronted and dealt with by women as an inherent part of the experience of womanhood – so too is internet violence being framed as something to be mitigated and expected by women.
It’s the usual drivel about knowing how to “handle” yourself placing the onus on victims of harms to avoid being harmed. Whereas women are told to avoid walking in certain areas alone after certain hours wearing certain things, there is a checklist that is created for safe digital interactions that places the onus on women to not be harmed: do not share nudes, do not share unfavourable opinions, do not engage men who are spewing bigoted nonsense, just keep quiet, look down and keep it moving.
In response to these harms, certainly in response to the issue of “revenge pornography” there have been calls for increased state intervention through legislative action given that a lot of our laws, even those drafted with “cybercrime” in mind had not anticipated dealing with these types of harms. I am, however, skeptical that a legislative approach on its own will bear any fruit without challenging the patriarchal norms of the legal system as an institution and wider society as whole. Indeed the law is implicated in helping to prop up, and providing legitimacy for patriarchal norms in the same way that there has been little to no will to legislate out of patriarchy in our day-to-day offline living. It seems to me that whilst the coercive power of the state through its legal arm might be useful in minimising or mitigating the harms experienced by women online by creating substantive protections for women, we cannot forget that this must form part of a broader advocacy working to get us free from the cis-heteropatriarchy.
Main image taken fromn http://urgentactionfund-africa.or.ke/
This article was originally published on http://urgentactionfund-africa.or.ke/ as part of the 16 Days of Activism Series we are running together with them.