ACTIVISM, AFRICA, MOBILE PHONES AND WOMEN
FRIDAY FILE: SMS Uprising: Mobile Activism in Africa is a book that interrogates the use of mobile phone telephony for activism in Africa. Do African women utilize this technology for women’s rights advocacy? In an interview with AWID the book’s editor Sokari Ekine gave her perspective.
By Kathambi Kinoti
AWID: You are a social justice activist and one of the sites of your activism is the blogosphere. What gaps does SMS activism fill that blogging or social networking doesn’t?
SOKARI EKINE: I don’t see SMS activism as filling a gap left open by blogging or social networking; all these kinds of activism are used in different but complimentary ways. Because mobile phones are more accessible than the internet, millions of Africans can now generate and share information in an unprecedented way. Some of the information generated can be transferred to the internet or blogs, but the primary benefit of mobile telephony is that it enables people to communicate for whatever reason.
AWID: The title of the book is “SMS Uprising,” and it contains examples of citizens presenting formidable challenges to repression by their states, of people reporting on corruption and human rights violations, and so on. Do women access and use technologies in similar ways to men? And would you also describe women’s uptake of mobile phone technology as an uprising?
SE: Obviously there are similarities in the ways that men and women use mobile phones, as they are simply instruments for communicating and organizing. However there are barriers to women's uptake of the technology: women – especially those who live in rural areas - are poorer and therefore many can’t buy phones or airtime. Illiteracy is another barrier that affects women more than men.
Women often have restricted access to mobile technology including where, as is often the case, there is a "household" phone which is owned and controlled by the male head of household. Nonetheless, a number of projects have shown that rural women farmers use their phones extensively and wisely for work-related communication.
As to whether women’s uptake of mobile technology can be regarded as an uprising: no, I wouldn’t call it that. In fact I am becoming increasingly wary of the use of the word in discussing mobile phone activism in Africa. Certainly, more and more women are using mobiles, but more and more people in general are using them for an increasing number of activities. All across Africa, ordinary communication remains the primary use of mobiles.
AWID:In the introduction to the book, you write: “There is no doubt that mobile and internet technology is democratizing social change in communities across Africa. We must, however, also recognize that technology has the capacity to concentrate power and therefore could be used to reinforce existing power relations.” In a general sense, how are women circumventing patriarchal power structures and in what ways are existing power relations being reinforced?
SE: How we use and apply technology is dependent on what actions we take to promote social change. Technology itself cannot force social change because it is people who are change agents.
As I have mentioned before, the access - or lack of it - to a phone is for many women dependent on their economic status and on existing power relations. Purchasing a mobile phone or airtime is difficult for many women, and asking permission to use a shared phone is not an empowering experience. Men, on the whole, have higher levels not only of literacy but also of fluency in the dominant languages of mobile phone communication. We must also be aware that the technology itself has inbuilt control mechanisms, particularly as more and more governments legislate for compulsory registration of SIM card ownership. The wide availability of phone data, whether for population monitoring or advertising is worrying. In Nigeria, for instance, all the mobile phone networks constantly bombard customers with advertisements for products and services, and this can lead to greater consumerism.
On the other hand, having ownership or shared ownership between women has meant they are able to mobilize and share information in new ways. Access to information can lead to social change. A woman farmer who uses the phone to check the prices of produce in local markets and is then able to sell her produce without having to use a middle -man has increased autonomy and hence a better economic status. To a large degree, women’s access to mobile telephony is about their independence; the extent to which they can negotiate their daily lives without having to depend on others.
Mobile phones have also been used to mobilize women in rural areas -often at short notice - and to convey information about domestic violence, land rights and other women’s rights issues.
AWID: In the book you emphasize the need for technology to be rooted in local knowledge. How has women’s knowledge been explored in the exploitation of mobile phone technology, and do you think that there are gaps in the ways in which it is being explored?
SE: There are a number of projects in Eastern and Southern Africa which have directly involved women. The book has one example of a domestic violence reporting project in South Africa that did not work because women were not consulted. Communities need to be involved directly and both men and women must be included, since women don’t work in isolation in most African communities. WOUGNET of Uganda has been very successful in participatory projects for rural and urban women.
There are huge gaps in the uptake of mobile phones by women – more so in some countries than others. There are also significant differences in numbers between those using phones as instruments for social change, and those using them as tools for basic communication.
AWID: In what circumstances should we celebrate mobile phone technology and where should we tread with caution?
SE: As a tool for communication, mobile phone technology has been very liberating for poor people and rural communities, giving them access to information and communication on a level they have never before experienced. It has led to radical changes in service provision, particularly in health and education.
There has been a great deal of hype from technophiles and the development industry about the range of mobile technology-driven projects. Mobile phones are presented as the singular driving force behind social and political change, which is not entirely the case. As I said before, it is not technology that brings change, but people.
Projects need to be more critically evaluated so that we can know how well are they really working. I often come across people who have tried applying mobile telephony to one use or another , only to get frustrated by the cost, poor infrastructure or lack of technological knowledge that they encounter. I think that many of the people who develop technologies work in social and political isolation and don’t see the broader picture.
AWID: Ken Banks in the chapter that discusses whether mobile activism is empowering ‘ the many or the few’ poses the question: “If mobiles are truly as revolutionary and empowering as they appear to be… then do we have a moral duty, in the ICT for Development (ICT-D) community … to see that they fulfil that potential?” Isn’t mobile technology primarily driven by phone manufacturers and mobile service providers? Are social justice activists simply at the mercy of market forces?
SE: The answer to all these questions is “Yes, to varying degrees.” The relative costs of having a mobile phone in the global South are high compared to the North, and often I feel that Africa is subsidizing European tariffs.
Mobile phone manufacturers are constantly expanding their market; particularly the urban youth market. However cheaper phones with fewer features work equally to communicate, and if one is not driven by consumerism and aesthetics then they are perfectly functional. We are becoming more and more dependent on mobile phones not just for communication but for entertainment and documentation. I think that this dependency is great for manufacturers and service providers but not as good for consumers.
I must agree that mobile phones are empowering the few, and I am concerned that a continental digital divide is developing between those who have access to the technology and funding for projects and those who do not. There are parts of Africa that are "development funding-rich” and other less advantaged areas where money is scarce. Those driving this divide definitely have a moral responsibility.
AWID: In the book, Redante Asuncion-Reed analyzes Fahamu’s sms campaign to urge African states to ratify the Maputo Protocol. In embarking on the campaign, Fahamu departed from the project design and evaluation models that are prevalent in the development community. Its Executive Director Firoze Manji is quoted as saying: “We didn’t have a clue what would happen, or what the reception would be… It was just such a crazy idea and, even if it didn’t work, out of failures you learn.” What scope does mobile phone technology provide for experimentation, and to what extent are social justice activists limited by existing theories of change and established ways of doing things in the development sector?
SE: I think mobiles provide great scope for experimentation. The question –as Fahamu’s experience shows – is how we measure success. We need to be able to take risks without fear of failure. If something doesn’t work, the failure is not that it didn’t work; it is that we failed to learn from our mistakes.
I don’t think that social justice activists who use new technologies are limited by existing theories. On the contrary, they are often willing to try new ideas and innovations. In fact the belief that there is no such thing as failure is one reason why mobiles as a tool for activism and advocacy have been so successful.
AWID: What are your predictions or hopes in the next few years for mobile phone activism – and indeed for other forms of social justice activism that use new technologies?
SE: The first change I would like to see is the bridging of the continental digital divide. Secondly, I would like to see much more critical evaluation of existing projects with a view to improving them and using them as models elsewhere. In brief: less hype and more reality.
One of the barriers to the uptake of mobile phone technology, particularly for frontline human rights defenders is their lack of time to learn the technology and apply it. I would like to see more efforts to support human rights defenders in their grassroots work.
Overall, great strides have been made in using mobile telephony for social justice activism, but there is still a great deal of work to be done before one can say that there really is an uprising. I actually regret using the word, because after my research for the book I realized that it was not the right one to use.
Sokari Ekine blogs at Black Looks.
SMS Uprising: Mobile Activism in Africa is available for purchase from Fahamu.