Ever-increasing numbers of people around the world are online – but women are being left behind. Cultural, social and economic restrictions all make it harder for women to access the internet than their male peers. Women must be empowered to take full and equal advantage of the opportunities offered by digitalisation and gender inclusion is central to RNW Media’s work when building digital communities for social change.
At the 2020 Internet Governance Forum (IGF) we were proud to host the session Building digital bridges: engaging young women online. The interactive session, moderated by Yemeni women’s rights advocate Nesmah Mansour, examined the different elements that need to be considered to guarantee women’s voices are heard online with three expert speakers and contributions from the (online) audience. The first speaker was Anna Kuliberda of international technology-for-good NGO TechSoup.
Connecting experts and activists
Kuliberda focused on the psychological and emotional cost for women of engaging in online discussion and the need to create more understanding between activists and technical experts She pointed out that activists on the ground (mostly women) are usually not tech savvy – and the tech experts (mostly men) are usually not experts in teaching or communication. This gap in knowledge and experience can hinder the efforts of both those activists who are trying to make more use of the digital sphere and those IT experts who want to use their digital skills for social good. Kuliberda also highlighted the importance of making sure that women-activists are aware of the dangers of being online and of preventing the self-isolation of individuals when they face backlash.
This presentation was followed by talks from two RNW Media colleagues focusing on the use of inclusive content, community moderation and audience targeting to engage more young women and encourage them to take the lead in online discussions. Programme Specialist Jahou Nyan explained that gender is part of a wider inclusive approach that hinges on gender inclusive teams, technology, partnership, content and community. Inclusive teams take account of both gender and socio-cultural diversity while fast, responsive and intuitive websites contribute to lowering the barriers to easier accessibility. High quality gender-sensitive content speaks to the realities of young women in restrictive settings, and careful moderation techniques ensure platforms are safe spaces for young women to raise their voices.
Reema Hamadan, Coordinator of RNW Media’s Huna Libya platform then took an in-depth look at how our gender inclusion strategies work in practice. She presented the example of how SMART targeting was used in their gender equality campaign which is being implemented in partnership with UNFPA in Libya. At the beginning of the campaign, the voices dominating the online discussion were those of men and (some) women who oppose gender equality while accusing the platform of promoting a “western agenda”. In general, women were less engaged in the discussions.
Women in the lead
A SMART targeting strategy for both moderation and content was then implemented which aimed to ensure that women themselves would take the lead in the online discussion. Careful moderation would decrease polarisation, prevent a backlash against the campaign and open a space for both women and men to discuss equality. Steps taken included: promotion of content to a micro-target group (women 18-35); creating and re-sharing content based on women’s comments; sharing a photo of a woman influencer supporting gender equality; sharing stories of inequality received via private messages; and using gender inclusive language.
Challenges and differences
Following these presentations, the audience was invited to reflect on the question: In your context, what are the main challenges and differences for women having their voices heard in the tech/digital space in comparison to men. Moderator Nesmah Mansour drew on her own experience, saying that for women in Yemen, one of the main challenges is that they often do not own smartphones. For many women, restrictive family norms mean they are not allowed to have their own phones, and even if they are permitted to go online, they are not allowed to have usernames. Their use of social media platforms has to take place ‘under the radar of the family’.
A participant from Uganda explained that she and her team were about to start implementing a project providing women with basic digital and mobile skills through community libraries. And asked the panel if they had recommendations on how to make it successful? Kuliberda, who has extensive experience with this sort of project replied:
“So, my educator experience is saying make it as handsome as possible as soon as possible. Because overcoming the first fears takes time. I have had experiences with building big programmes and showing people different possibilities, and they never actually touched the tools. And that is a failure. Make people use the tools otherwise, it’s just wasting their time if they are only reading about the tools.”
Jahou Nyan agreed that it was essential women were given hands-on opportunities to become comfortable with digital tools and technology – and also to take careful account of the local context:
If possible, help women see how they can apply the tools in their day-to-day life so tech doesn’t get siloed in their mind. You want women to become fully digitally literate. If you are using community libraries, you should have a very good understanding of the social norms. It must be comfortable for women to sit in a public library and be seen on the computer. Is there possibly going to be a challenge there? Sometimes it’s the little things, such as what time is the training? Is it a time when women are cooking or watching their kids? Make sure you have a very thorough understanding of the context you are working with and the influence of social norms and try to make the tools as practical as possible for day-to-day life.
Don’t talk – listen
Responding to another question about what can be done to ensure digital inclusion efforts actually respond to the local needs of women, Kuliberda stressed the need for ‘experts’ to be humble – and to listen rather than talk:
It’s about more than just gender inclusion. It’s seeing the intersections of where we come from and what the needs are. Not to have too many assumptions and to actually listen. If you come from outside of the given community, listen more than talk, and always involve more people than just yourself in actual actions. It requires enormous humility to be able to overcome the privileged thinking of “I will come and help you” and believe rather that people can solve their own problems. We need to actually listen in order for the solutions to be sustainable. It’s simple but it’s not easy. Being aware of our own biases helps, but it’s important to also constantly work on ourselves when we are trying to help.
A recording of the session is available on the IGF’s YouTube channel.