In a blog article as part of a special series for International Women’s Day 2023, Kolahta Asres Ioab and Nkechi Deborah Adeboye explore the role of ICTs play in relation to gender-based violence in Africa, in both addressing the issue and at the same time aggravating the gendered digital divide.
With technology becoming an increasingly important part of everyday life in developing and developed countries alike, its uptake gives rise to new solutions to age-old and contemporary development challenges. However, alongside this, there arises new risks and even harms.
On one hand, ICT initiatives have been leveraged to address issues such as the increased accessibility of banking through digital money transfer projects such as M-Pesa in Kenya. On the other, the increased access to information communication technologies (ICTs), the modern technology and computing systems infrastructure that underpins our increasingly digitalised world, has been accompanied by reported increases in technology-facilitated abuse. This phenomenon is defined as the “use of technology to facilitate harassment, control, and abuse.” According to UN WOMEN, this form of abuse may also be known as “online violence”, “digital violence”, “cyberviolence”, or “ICT-facilitated violence
The prevalence of ICT-facilitated violence against women and girls globally may range between 16 per cent to 58 per cent. Although there is limited research that brings attention to how this issue manifests within Africa, the existing literature shows that cyberbullying has been widely reported across several Sub-Saharan African countries including Botswana, Ethiopia, Ghana, South Africa, Senegal, Nigeria, and Uganda, to name a few. Another study showed that more than 45 per cent of 18- to 45-year-old female participants that used Facebook or Twitter in West and Central Africa reported having experienced some form of gender-based violence (GBV) on social media. This is a significant issue within Africa where more than 139 million people used Facebook as of 2018.
Although many across Africa still do not have access to the internet, growing affordability and access to technology and social media means this issue is becoming an increasingly important one. Debates around the gendered digital divide are typically concerned with gender biases that impact the programming of technological products, representation in the sector, or access to digital skills education. However, concerns for equitable and fair access to the internet should not ignore the emerging forms of harm facilitated through digital technology and the disproportionate impact of this on women.
The impact of technology-facilitated abuse is not limited to the online world as it often interacts with real-life, cultural factors. For example, in Nigeria, a student was expelled from her university, following the non-consensual sharing of an intimate video made with a partner. This incident highlights how abuse and gender-based violence overlap with educational access, and more broadly, mental and physical health, economic participation, and social inclusion.
However, as much as technology is a part of the problem of abuse, it can also be used to address it. With interventions such as being able to report abuse using telephone or email technology in countries such as Nigeria. In the Republic of Congo, a project implemented by the Women’s Rights Programme of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) and AZUR Développement, with the support of the Africa Technology and Transparency Initiative (ATTI) from 2011-2014 used technology to hold the government’s handling of gender-based violence accountable. The project made use of information and communication technology platforms to build the capacity of local women’s and human rights organisations and allow for the tracking and documentation of reported cases. Through the project, survivors and civil society united to champion the voice of those affected and put pressure on the government to take gender-based violence seriously.
The case of Digital storytelling -– an innovative intervention that is used in South Africa – provides insight into how ICTs are being used for positive change within Africa. The project, titled ‘Don’t keep it to yourself’ championed the voices of youth and their challenges through participatory approaches and enabling them to narrate their own stories. It is also a tool that can be used for community communication and for policy advocacy that incorporates youth perspectives and presents their needs, ideas and expectations. Similar mechanisms could be used to address GBV and to include the voices of GBV victims and survivors in safe spaces rather than hiding and stigmatizing their experiences. The impact of such programmes could be optimised and scaled up by collaborating with ICT companies. At the same time, to drive success in any ICT for Development (ICT4D) programme, there must be a tailored and nuanced application to local contexts that takes account of the cultural belief systems, religious practices or any other factors that will impact the adoption of new technologies but also influence how abuse takes place.
Additional issues emerge when we consider the low recognition of technology-facilitated abuse (or even wider forms of abuse) as criminal acts. With little consequences for perpetrators and limited mechanisms through which victim-survivors may make reports. This highlights why it is key to undertake more research and data collection on this neglected issue to inform policy makers and decision-makers in designing regulatory mechanisms and to enforce legal reforms. UN WOMEN offer recommendations on the inclusion of online forms of abuse in laws and regulations for preventing violence against women and girls. Moreover, those legal frameworks must be based on “survivor-informed” approaches and community feedback loops from victims and survivors of GBV, thus the urgent need for open discussion and action on this issue.
To conclude, technology-facilitated abuse is an important but neglected issue and it must be given more recognition in the African context. To address it, there is a pressing need for more research, advocacy work, and community participation, enacted in contextualised and inclusive ways that can make use of the fast-moving ICTs in establishing scaled-up initiatives.
This article was originally published on the LSE International Development blog.
Photo credit: Simon Berry used with permission CC BY-SA 2.0