Panel 10

Gender at the cutting edge: ICTs, social media and social change in East Africa

Panel organisers: Ylva Ekström, Uppsala University, Sweden and Hilda Arntsen, Oslo and Akershus College, Norway

E-mail of panel organisers:

The possibilities for participating in the social media revolution and actively informing ongoing development are unevenly distributed in the world, and so also on the African continent. Women still do not have the same access to the public spheres and political arenas as men in African societies. However, it is necessary to nuance notions of gender through the understanding of an intersectional interplay between different power dimensions, and to bring the ongoing media revolution into the discussion. Social media are posing unprecedented possibilities for mobilisation, participation and social change for people all over the African continent, in particular through the contemporary generation of African youth that have grown up with these social media tools. By the same token, contemporary generations of African feminist activists are making use of social media in their own creative ways, in order to shape and contribute to processes of social change. In this manner, gender can be seen at the cutting edge of new and innovative social media appropriations.

This panel gathers papers that critically investigate and discuss social change and  development initiatives in East Africa with the particular aim of improving the conditions for women in society, and that arise from a generation of media-savvy youth who make use of social media tools and applications to reach their chosen objectives. The focus is on genuine grassroots initiatives from ordinary users and activists; sites or initiatives which seek to contribute with alternative voices or avenues into the ongoing development. The panel does not focus on top-down applications originating from governmental or donor-driven initiatives. Rather, the focus is on the use of gender sensitive social media approaches that seek to challenge the status quo both in terms of topics covered, discussions featured and organisational models chosen.

The theoretical perspectives stem from a cluster of communication for development or social change approaches within media and communication studies. A particular focus will be on participatory communication, grassroots initiatives, indigenous voices, feminist or gender- sensitive approaches and the inventive uses of social media as tools for critical gender discussions and feminist activism.

Approved abstracts panel 10

1. Re-thinking communication for gender and development through ICT practices of a new generation of East African change-makers

Authors: Ylva Ekström (Uppsala University, Sweden)
Hilde Arntsen (Oslo and Akershus University College, Norway)

Through a combination of on-site ethnographic encounters with students at a university campus in Western Kenya, and continuous online engagement and interaction with these students in different online fora – such as WhatsApp, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook – this paper attempts to analyse how new mobile and social media become integrated practices of their everyday lives. Practices with the purpose of interacting and keeping in touch and making appointments with families and friends, as well as searching for and sharing of information, keeping themselves updated about trends and fashions as well as local, national and international news, and also to keep up their studies through different WhatsApp group discussions and through Google for doing research.

But also, and perhaps above all, the critical and in-depth analysis of these young Kenyans’ social media practices sheds light on how new mobile and social media are used as tools for attempts to make change in their own lives as well as in the lives of people in the communities around them. This paper shows that in their own creative ways, these young entrepreneurs are becoming everyday activists that are making use of social media in order to shape and contribute to processes of social change. Not seldom related to gender issues and initiatives with the aim of improving the lives of women in Kenya as well as the relationships between women and men.

Thus, based on on-going research among a particular group of Kenyan students, this paper aims at arguing for a multi-sited media ethnographic approach to investigating media’s role in everyday life in contemporary Africa. Further this paper aims at arguing for a re-thinking of Communication for Gender and Development through a critical analysis of the social and mobile media practices of a new generation of East African change-makers.

2. Social media and cell phones as tools for social mobilization and feminist activism in Tanzania

Author: Charles Mustapha Kayoka (Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania)

The last one decade has seen an unprecedented access and widespread use of Social media and Cellphones among Tanzanians in both rural and urban areas. In situations where mainstream media access is restricted by gate keeping and censorship, and requirement to pay for space, the new media have turned into convenient alternative tools for activism. Gender activist NGOS, established and managed by women have taken advantage of the ubiquity of the new media to mobilize women and men so that they engage with the struggle to transform the society, to engender a new, feminist, consciousness, and a gender equal community in all spheres of life, as an end vision. During elections, during major national, regional and global gender related campaigns the new media operate as bulletins boards, as well as rallying points, inundated with messages calling for support, action, and response. Cellphones have been used to share information that call for support of feminist struggles and agenda. This study case study looks into the effectiveness of the use of new media as strategic tool for social transformation and mobilization, focusing on the work of three women NGOs, all members of Tanzania FemAct- feminist activism.

3. Up against gendered cultural representations; De-mystifying online feminist forums in Kenya

Author: Felicity Atieno Okoth (Moi University, Kenya)

With the internet being more accessible in the global south, different social media have served to create an online meeting point that facilitates information exchange between organized groups in pursuit of social change. Cyber-activism and specifically online feminism have become central in destabilizing gender categories and hegemonic discourses. Feminists in Kenya have capitalised on these power of the social media to forge online forums that aim to counter gendered cultural representations constructed from the societal perspective of the male in both mainstream and alternative media in the country. Based on two such forums on facebook and twitter; this paper explores whether feminist online forums offers women real options for countering cultural gendered representations or do women simply interact online with closed options due to their real situation in the Kenyan society. This is discussed at the backdrop of the digital divide as not all women in the country have access to the internet. Such a disadvantage makes the incorporation of different women experiences in the new virtual community difficult thus producing new forms of exclusion. This article argues for participatory processes that include access to voice to Kenyan women marginalized in terms of technology. It concludes that if the voices of those in the margins are incorporated, online feminist forums can foster both a critical position and provide agency in terms of cyber culture and gendered representations in Kenya.

Key Words: Online feminist forums, gendered representations, Kenya

4. Interrogating M4D-tales: some sociostructural aspects of ICTs and social change in everyday-life

Author: Michael Waltinger (University of Education, Ludwigsburg Germany) waltinger@thinkbeyondborders.

The integration of new media into the everyday and different dimensions of social life are deeply intertwined. Life structures are reflected by the way how media are embedded and given meaning to. The mobile phone in that regard allows, for instance, to examine aspects of the social structures (e.g. roles and mutual expectations) of men and women in society.

While the agency of the subject and increasing availability of media devices need to be stressed in media participation and social change, the importance of structural challenges must not be overlooked. As issues of media access diminish, issues of knowledge, skills and resources gain importance – especially in lower-income urban settings and among women.

Media participation is no sure-fire success initiated by media availability – techno-euphoria needs to be ‘handled with care’. While people certainly bring media competencies with them and also appropriate new competencies in their daily media usage, structural constraints are real and self-socialisation in media usage has its boundaries – these are marked by the life conditions of and (educational) resources available to people.

Women in urban Kenya often are part of the informal economy, do not advance much beyond primary education, and there often is a lack in public media education. At the same time, women do often voice need and interest in maximizing their knowledge in order to fully utilize mobile media to their needs. Structural constraints, however, keep them from attending workshops, skill trainings, and the like. The daily hustle and struggle as well as the social responsibility of woman for caring (and often providing) for their families make it difficult to attend trainings or workshops. Hence, while it is often the less-educated and socio-economically disadvantaged that would want assistance the most, these are exactly the people for whom it is most difficult to benefit from respective opportunities.

5. New Pan-Africanism? Expressions of African identity on Twitter

Authors: David Cheruiyot and Charu Uppal  (Karlstad University, Sweden);

This article will interrogate the question whether a collective identity of a new Pan-Africanism is emerging through social media in Africa. The study focuses on the use of the hashtag IfAfricaWasABar by Twitter users across the continent in July 2015. It will entail a content analysis of tweets that were accompanied by #IfAfricaWasABar to analyse the issues raised by African Twitter users as regards their identity and self image on world media space. #IfAfricaWasABar was started by Botswana author and feminist Siyanda Panda and was trending for several weeks in different countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. The hashtag called upon Twitter users across Africa to satirize the Western media narrative of Africa as a country by coming up with hilarious lines that imagine the continent as a bar, which has interesting characters who in real life would define the continent's culture, politics and social life.

Studies of Twitter use for expression of identity in Africa are few although there has been a marked increase of citizen participation on this social media platform (Portland Communications, 2012). Twitter has indeed turned into an interesting platform for deliberation and daily conversations among citizens. Such kinds of citizen engagement are turning out to offer an interesting forum for jokes as well as serious social and political discussion for discourses that appeal to citizens across the continent, who are both online and offline. In fact, in their recent study on the use of Twitter by Kenyans, Tully and Ekdale (2014) conclude that 'playful engagement' on Twitter is spurring significant deliberation as users "infuse developmental agendas in their comments, actions and interactions" (p.68).

The article will argue that more than offering a platform for deliberation, Twitter as a new media technology in Africa is enabling African citizens to recreate an African identity in the global space. It will seek to revive the old debate on Pan-Africanism and its expressions on media space, which has so far been overshadowed a process of globalization and a waning post-colonial discourse. It will further trace and discuss the discourses in the nexus of representation, identity as well use of ICTs in Africa for social change by activists such as Siyanda Panda. The article will pose the question whether through Twitter, a "New Pan- Africanism" is emerging, where ordinary citizens rather than the elites determine how the African identity should be defined and expressed on global space.       

Key words: Identity, media representation, Pan-Africanism, Twitter, #IfAfricaWasABar

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