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Feminist Digital Activism: New Forms of Exclusion, or Connectedness for West African Feminists?

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
July 21, 2021

Maude (she/her/elle) is a 2021 Social Connectedness Fellow working with the Grandmother Project. Born and raised in Montreal, Maude graduated with a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in International Studies from the University of Montreal. She then completed a diploma in Management of International Development and Humanitarian aid at University Laval. Maude is now doing her PhD in sociology that focuses on activism and feminism in Togo. Since the start of her academic career, Maude has been very interested in West African societies, International Development as well as Gender and Intergenerational Relationships. After completing her PhD, Maude wants to pursue a career in research in the academic and community sectors in a way that is useful for communities and policymakers.

Since the 2010s, researchers have identified the emergence of a fourth wave of feminism[1]  characterized by the massive use of digital technologies[2]. This has led to a proliferation of feminist blogs, and to the increase of internet and social networks being used as a platform for feminist activism. The advent of digital activism is creating a plethora of new opportunities for activists.

Firstly, it allows information to be disseminated to a large audience almost instantly. The Internet is seen as a symbol of globalization, and as a means of making local initiatives visible on a global scale

Secondly, digital activism is a low-cost activity. It allows individuals and organizations with less financial resources to carry out a transnational digital campaign almost for free[3]. 

Thirdly, activism online is flexible and makes the work-family-activism balance easier[4]. This is a particularly useful strategy for women who are juggling paid and domestic work.

Similar to so many others, West African feminists jumped in this new wave of feminism, full of advantages. Here, we refer to feminism, in the West African context, as an ideology promoting women’s rights. However, not all West African feminists have easy access to the “sea”. For most West African women, several barriers exist regarding their accessibility to feminist digital activist platforms. These barriers have been conceptualized under the term of digital divide[5], which has three main components. 

The first component of the digital divide concerns the availability of infrastructures. The average internet penetration rate in West African States (ECOWAS) is only 31.7%, and for some countries like Niger, merely 11,5% of the population has access to the internet. 

Then, the digital divide is characterized by the accessibility to these infrastructures. Among those who have the logistical means to access a mobile device and the internet, several do not have sufficient internet skills. Older activists are more affected by this lack of technological affinity. Fluency in French or English is another barrier that limits the utilization of digital platforms for many West African women, compounded by the average literacy rate for adult women in ECOWAS being only 41.4% in 2018.

Finally, there are disparities in the types of media use. Not all uses of the internet are equal. To take full advantage of this tool, it is necessary to use it in a specific context that promotes political commitment and one’s empowerment. In the West African context, even once the barriers of availability and accessibility are overcome, online harassment, prejudices against women, and the criminalization of certain feminist issues such as homosexuality and transsexuality limit women to freely express themselves online and participate fully in this public space.

Although some West African women, young, educated, urban, and non-disabled take advantage of the benefits allowed by the internet, many others are excluded from digital platforms on the basis of their age, their geographical location (rural environment), their social class, their level of education, their disability status, their sexual orientation and/ or their political ideals. 

These forms of exclusion need to be recognized and tackled, because being able to participate fully in these new spaces of the public sphere is a universal human right. Digital activism allows women to assert their right to participate, to belong, and to connect to a transnational feminist community. These rights must be protected.

To achieve this, we must first and foremost design platforms that are more inclusive, and must always think about how to make it suitable for as many people as possible. This is the only way that the internet will become a real source of social connectedness between individuals sharing the same social ideals across the globe.

Similar to disability activists who have fought for online audio content to be captioned and adapted to hearing-impaired people, West Africans must fight to fully integrate women from different socio-cultural backgrounds on the web. Recently, Plan International West and Central Africa has trained youth associations in Togo in web activism and online content creation in addition to having dedicated Women’s Day to fight against online harassment with its #FreeToBeOnline campaign. The fight for digital inclusion is on. 

*This research was initially funded as part of the International Ideas Policy Challenge 2020 organized by Global Affairs Canada.

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Biekart, Kees & Fowler, Alan (2013). “Transforming Activisms 2010+: Exploring Ways and Waves ”, Development and Change 44(3): 527–546

Chamberlain, Prudence (2016). “Affective temporality: towards a fourth wave”, Gender and Education, 28(3): 458-464. 

Winch, Alison, Littler, Jo & Keller, Jessalynn (2016). “ Why “intergenerational feminist media studies”?”,  Feminist Media Studies, 16(4): 557-572. 

[2]  Schuster, Julia (2013). “Invisible feminists? Social media and young women’s political participation ”, Political Science, 65(1): 8–24.  

[3].  Enjolras, Bernard, Steen-Johnsen , Kari & Wollebaek Dag (2012). “Social media and mobilization to offline demonstrations: Transcending participatory divides? ,” New media & society, 15(6): 890–908.  

Shaw, Frances (2012). “‘HOTTEST 100 WOMEN’”, Australian Feminist Studies, 27(74): 373-387. 

STAGGENBORG, Suzanne (2008).  Social movements. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[4]. Schuster, Julia (2013). “Invisible feminists? Social media and young women’s political participation ”, Political Science, 65(1): 8–24.

Shejni, Lamis (2019). “Technology Is Not the Great Equalizer: A Feminist Perspective on the Digital Economy ”, Development, 62:128–135. 

[5] Enjolras, Bernard, Steen-Johnsen, Kari & Wollebaek Dag (2012). “Social media and mobilization to offline demonstrations: Transcending participatory divides?,” New media & society, 15(6): 890–908.  

Miller, B. Paige & Norris, Claire, M. (2016). “Digital Divide,” in Naples, Nancy, E. (eds), The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies, John Wiley & Sons.: Hoboken.