The internet remains one of the historical developments transforming human behaviour, greatly impacting on the social, economic, cultural and political spheres of life at an incredible speed. The recently concluded African Internet Governance Forum held from 16 to 18 October 2016 in Durban, South Africa reaffirmed the great opportunities of the internet, demonstrating its capacity to facilitate economic growth and transform society. Increasingly the internet is changing the way we do business, socialise, engage in politics and activism, and acquire and use information. With a 28.7% internet penetration rate in Africa and 9.4% internet users on the continent (source: Internet World Stats), the internet is slowly but steadily growing in Africa.
While the internet has created enormous opportunities for human development with the emergence of e commerce, e-learning, e-government and telemedicine, it remains a double-edged sword for many women and girls in Africa. This is based on the very fact that it has been built, anchored and largely governed by the patriarchal systems of domination right from its birth, as the stories of internet fathers are loudly echoed amidst the whispers of internet mothers. Patriarchy, a system where men control the political, economic, military, religious and social power, remains very difficult for women to manoeuvre through, and the internet is no exception. Women are constantly dealing with power dynamics online which subjugate their being.
Although there have been efforts to create an equitable and inclusive internet by various governments in Africa and beyond, the reality of women and the internet is still blurry. Evidenced by the Gender Report Cards of the IGF, the engagement of women in the leadership and decision-making processes of internet governance remains minimal, both at the national and the regional levels. As the internet of things changes by the day, the realities of women’s and girls’ access to and use of the internet remains slow. For instance, the Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) Women’s Rights Online Report 2015 indicates, only 21% of the women respondents in the study had accessed the internet in the six months prior to the survey, compared to 61% of men. This gender gap is perpetuated by a number of factors, including low levels of education, lack of digital literacy, high internet costs, and online threats and violence (surveillance, cyber bullying and “revenge porn”). These in addition to the heavy care work burden remain barriers to women’s access and full use of the internet.
Addressing the internet gender divide in Africa can only be achieved through the deliberate creation of a feminist internet, and this was affirmed by the Gender and Internet Governance eXchange (gigX) workshop that was held on 10 October 2016 in Durban. We need a feminist internet that works to empower all of us in our diversities, creates equal power relations, and dismantles patriarchy in all of its forms. An internet that integrates our different realities, contexts and specificities – including age, disabilities, sexualities, gender identities and expressions, socioeconomic locations, political and religious beliefs, ethnic origins, and racial markers.
So what does an African feminist internet look like? Guided by international and regional policy frameworks, the African Feminist Charter, and the Feminist Principles of the Internet developed by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), an African feminist internet is one that facilitates the equitable and inclusive use of the internet. It enables freedom of choice and autonomy regarding bodily integrity, and supports women to reclaim technology as a platform for creativity and expression, challenging cultures of sexism and discrimination in all spaces. It is an internet that confronts the patriarchal spaces and processes that control internet governance, placing more feminists and marginalised groups at the decision-making tables. This form of internet facilitates women and marginalised groups to claim the power of the internet to amplify their narratives and lived realities, and resists extremist forces that use moral policing to silence feminist voices and persecute women’s human rights defenders.
An African feminist internet supports the right to privacy and to full control over personal data and information online, enabling African women and marginalised groups to exercise and retain control over their personal history on the internet. It defends the right to be anonymous and rejects all attempts to restrict anonymity online, as anonymity enables our freedom of expression online, particularly in breaking taboos of sexuality. An African feminist internet nurtures the inclusion of voices and experiences of young people in the decisions made about safety and security online, and promotes their safety, privacy, and access to information. It is an internet that is free from all forms of online harassment and technology-related violence.
For a feminist internet to be realised in Africa, we must appreciate that the internet does not operate in a vacuum as perceived; whatever challenges women are grappling with offline are often mirrored online. We have to address the social, economic, political and cultural barriers to women’s advancement; short of this we shall continue to pour new wine into old wineskins. If girls are going to be married off at an early age without acquiring a good education, if women are denied access to resources/inheritance, if women are going to encounter offline and online violence, if women are not economically empowered, a feminist internet will remain nothing but an illusion.
An African feminist internet is possible; let us collectively create an equitable and inclusive internet that works to meet the needs of all African women and men in our diversities.