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Gender, Technology, and Social Change Across Africa

Sokari Ekine
Date Published: 
June 1, 2010

The introduction of mobile phones in Africa over the past decade has transformed people’s lives.  Unlike in the West, where there was already an existing network of communication through landlines, mobile phones in Africa provide communication where previously there was none.   What makes the mobile phone such a dynamic tool for supporting social change is its sheer range of actual and potential functionality, making it an extremely versatile technology. 

Activists and campaign groups are using mobiles for mobilization, advocacy, campaigns, social networks, citizen journalism, crowd-sourcing and research.  Nonetheless SMS (short message service) or phones in general are not always the most effective technology and we should be careful not present mobile technology as the singular driving force behind social and political change. For example in a crisis situation when under attack, such as in the conflict zones in the Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC], writing a text message or SMS takes time, and it is far quicker to make a voice call. In other situations where using a phone may place one in danger, for example if one is a victim of domestic violence, traditional face to face communication may be far more appropriate.     

Mobile Phones for Social Change

Technology in and of itself does not lead to social change. For change to take place, technologies need to be appropriate and embedded with local knowledge. Rather than follow a traditional development model where technology tends to be shaped by the economic forces which created it, the social change model being used by mobile phone advocates is driven by the forces of people’s local needs and is therefore more able to respond quickly and appropriately to specific events and political changes. This means that people at a grassroots level can think about what works for them and how they can use technology to foster social change and collective action. 

However, my own research in compiling “SMS Uprising” has led me to consider a number of questions around the use of mobile phones. Is access to a mobile phone and using it for social change more than just a drop in the ocean? Where people use technology to advance movement for change and to empower communities in putting forward information about human rights abuses, electoral abuses, empowering women, etc., are they actually sustainable? Given that women are largely responsible for development, particularly in rural areas, and women are under-resourced, what kind of a resource does a mobile phone give them?

An example of this can be drawn from my own observations in talking to women in Nigeria. The purchase of airtime was given a high priority but was also used with much caution. The main complaints were always the cost of airtime and poor reception. This led to people wanting to own more than one handset from two different networks—another additional cost. High levels of poverty and associated disadvantages such as literacy and language (for instance, Nigeria alone has more than 300 languages, not dialects) in rural areas and amongst women undermines women’s role in “development and socio-economic transformation,” often excluding them from owning a phone. Their status may limit even the sharing of a phone within the family. Another impediment to utilizing mobile phones are local social and cultural patriarchies which play a role in determining the capacity of women’s access to technologies.

Nevertheless, mobile phones in Africa are being used for a range of activities such as advocacy, citizen journalism, crowd-sourcing, information sourcing and gathering, election monitoring, documentation, broadcasting and social networking, as well as in the provision of commercial services. Thematically the applications are inventive and diverse and include projects based on violence against women, agriculture, human rights, conflict monitoring, education, health, conservation, governance and children’s rights. 

Human Rights, and Violence Against Women

It is impossible to write about mobile phones in general but in Africa in particular without mentioning the mining of coltan, an essential element in the production of the phones. In a report in the UK Independent daily October 20, 2008, Johann Harri makes a direct link between the increase in deaths and the mining of coltan in the Kivu province, naming Anglo-America, Standard Chartered Bank, De Beers, and more than 100 others involved.  The cost to people’s lives in the mining of coltan and other minerals which is undertaken in slavery conditions in the highly contested militarized zone of eastern Congo is huge. We should therefore be mindful when we read of the huge growth in the mobile phone usage on the continent of the huge cost in lives and human rights abuses associated with the mining of coltan and cassiterite.

The conflict in Kivu Province has recently escalated with reports of large scale rapes and murders being committed by the Ugandan-based Lord’s Resistance Army. Prior to that it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of women had been raped, thousands of children forcefully recruited as child soldiers and innumerable numbers of murders and injuries inflicted during the conflict. To address the rehabilitation of child soldiers, the Kalundu Child Soldier project was created.  The project used members of local communities including some former child soldiers to use SMS to monitor and report acts of violence such as rape, torture and forced marriage. Of course, it is ironic that the main mineral in mobile phones used to report human rights abuses, is the very mineral that is causing the conflict. The project has proved to be a huge challenge for organizers and participants.  The dangers of working in a conflict zone are compounded by power cuts, low access to airtime, and poverty, all of which make any SMS project extremely difficult in practice.  

Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) started in 2000. WOUGNET’s approach to gender and technology is driven by gender inequalities in both urban and rural women’s status as well as access to Information Communication Technologies (ICTs), including mobile phones.  The network has participated in global and African SMS campaigns to raise awareness of violence against women in 2007 and in 2008 to provide timely agricultural information, and to support online discussions on women’s rights and development.

Violence against women takes place across the world; however, in South Africa it is particularly aggravated through settler colonialism, racial segregation, and apartheid which incubated cultures of aggression and brutality.  The situation is further exacerbated by indigenous patriarchies that discriminated against women in the areas of widowhood, land rights and inheritance laws. Despite constitutional protections in the post-apartheid South Africa, violence against women continues. 

The Umnyango project sought to address the twin issues of domestic violence and land exclusions. This was done by taking an integrated approach towards providing rural women in South Africa’s province of KwaZula Natal (KZN) with timely and relevant information on human rights as well as access to a simple but effective reporting mechanism.

Umnyango highlights the fact that though mobile technology might be more efficient and present more timely information, it is not always the most appropriate in all situations. The project aimed to increase women’s access to human rights and legal information, increase their participation in local government, and facilitate the reporting of domestic violence and political tensions in the communities. However, only the human rights element was a success. Women did not wish to report domestic violence or political tensions via mobile phones, preferring face-to-face communication.  There were a number of reasons for this, including literacy and a lack of trust in the security of the technology. Even though they had access to their own phones they were concerned for their own safety in the home and community.  The project also raised questions around costs attached to mobile phone use for those living at extreme levels of poverty and the associated sustainability of relying on external funding to maintain projects. 

Broadcasting and Information Provision

Historically radio has been the primary source of information and entertainment on the continent, not least because of the availability of programs in local languages and those that address health, agriculture, and education. However, until recently programming has been a one-way communication that does not allow for political or civic debate. Also radio stations are often run by government or externally controlled, such as programming by the BBC World Service and Voice of America. Community radio enables people to circumvent the mainstream media, particularly useful in hostile media environments.

One grassroots organization that has been at the forefront of information provision, and more recently broadcasting, is Kubatana, based in Zimbabwe. Kubatana has engaged mobile activism in a variety of campaigns, including mobile phone activism during the 2008 Zimbabwean elections all of which are informed by the exchange of ideas and by nurturing two-way communication with Zimbabweans. Founded in 2001, Kubatana began with an email subscription sharing information on social justice and civic issues. They have now built up an archive of over 15,500 statements by civil society organizations, news articles and reports all of which are available online. Another exciting innovation is the development of the Freedom Fone [FF] enabling communities to create their own content based on demand as it “marries” “citizen radio-style programming” with both mobile technology and landline phones. Organizations or individuals using the FF are able to create their own content via short segment audio files stored on a simple content management system and, if necessary, frequently updated.  These can then be accessed by those in the public using an interactive voice response (IVR) menu.  Because the content is created at the grassroots level it can be in any language. Access can be varied, such as a paid call, a missed call with call back, or an SMS message with call back.  The Freedom Fone is significant not only because of these features, but also because it has been solely developed in Africa in a country that has been in crisis for the past nine years and where most resources are extremely limited.  

Service to livelihoods

By far the most examples of mobile phones being used to facilitate social change are in the area of service provision. Agricultural-based services, for instance, have provided local farmers with market prices for their products and enable them to cut out the middle-man, therefore increasing their control over their products. Another provides information on disease control where farmers can send in messages to a central office describing problems and receive advice in return.   Community health workers are even using mobile phones to collect and disseminate very localized data, monitor, order medical supplies, and receive expert medical advise in urgent medical cases. In East Africa Ushahidi, a crowd-sourcing mapping platform integrated with bulk SMS services developed in Kenya, are now being used to track in real-time “stock-outs” of medical supplies at pharmacies.  One example of a literacy program combined with education on female genital mutilation is the Tostan Literacy Program in Senegal. The project is the point of entry for the use of mobile phones and at the same time helps women practice their reading, writing, and numeracy skills through writing familiar words about their surroundings and using the phone calculator.

The use of mobile phones as tools for social change and advocacy is at a relatively early stage of development but one that is developing at an exponential rate, and it is quite possible that within two years the whole landscape will have changed. However, there has been a great deal of media hype from technophiles and the development industry presenting mobiles as a “beacon of hope” without taking cultural, linguistic and economic factors into consideration. The challenge is to adopt a more critical approach in evaluating the effectiveness and appropriateness of existing projects and not to forget that it is people and not technology who in the end make social change happen.

Sokari Ekine is a Nigerian living in London.  She is a social justice activist, writer, blogger and researcher and editor of “SMS Uprising: Mobile Phone Activism in Africa” published by Pambazuka Press [].   She can be contacted at sokari AT blacklooks DOT org or through her blog: