The African women’s organizations IT paradox: towards an epistemic change

IMG_190In South Africa and Senegal most women’s organizations or gender sensitive organizations use ICT as a marketing tool more than an explicit political one. They command ICTs for “visibility” rather than for networking or for political action, and express a sort of fatalism that it can be no other way, considering the low levels of access to Internet in their country and the local contexts of poverty, lack of electricity and illiteracy. ICTs seem to be kept back by an elite, from which women’s organization are excluded, and the realm of ICTs appears to be a space where gender analysis is lacking. Does this lack of knowledge impede them in reaching their goals? Conversely, as trends in political action are expressed more and more in the virtual world, and this virtual world is increasingly accelerating the management of the daily, have the women’s organizations chosen to taken note of these two trends and bring this note into the public knowledge arena? In research on the political effects of the use of ICT by women’s organizations we have conducted in South Africa and Senegal since 2004, we find the juxtaposition of the virtual and the real a paradox. On one hand the use of ICT reinforces existing gender inequalities and on the other hand ICT allow us to move, through informality, the management of the daily from the private space to the public space. This “digital informality” contributes to the Feminist Standpoint theory. Especially, observations we made in South Africa tend to give evidence that some women’s organizations use ICT as channels for highlighting non-savant women’s knowledge. In Senegal, it is some non-normative experimental uses of Internet that question constructed frameworks. Thus, the feminist epistemology must be developed to accommodate this paradox. 

The hypothesis presented here come from interviews conducted in 2008 and 2009 in Cape Town, South Africa and in Dakar, Senegal with 28 women’s and/or feminist organizations as well as gender research institutions, who had access to Internet. Not all used Internet media such as websites or listservs. Some organizations focused on such diverse issues as digital art, farmers’ rights and AIDS therapy support but not worked specifically on gender. The interviewed groups were composed of men and women, black, white, coloured and Indian, young and old, activists and non-activists, people involved in issues of discrimination against women or gender equality or feminism, and/or the citizen use of ICT in the so-called Information Society. The two countries were chosen for their geographical location in the Global South and the fact that they are targeted by occidental funders who are promoting gender equality, particularly in the “Gender Digital Divide” framework.

Because of – at best ignorance at worst a seeming conformism – most South African and Senegalese women’s organizations use ICT to “sell” their “activities” mainly to their funders and therefore do not use them as a tool in responding to the needs of their beneficiaries. For example, the funders request that the women’s organizations publish their annual reports and communicate on their best practices and goals on websites, while the primary activity of the women’s organizations is to give shelter, advice and support to local women on a daily basis. This means that the contents published on the websites reflect the organizations’ action in an institutional way, corresponding to donors’ criteria, versus the one of members and beneficiaries. These websites are usually a window to the organization’s activities and their listservs provide one-way information. There is seemingly a gap between the way they act for their main goal, for example fighting violence in the city, the eradication of poverty and HIV/AIDS, the lack of girls’ schooling, or impact on women’s daily life of negative local policies, and the way they communicate. Apparently, there is a dichotomy between the beneficiaries of organizations’ actions and the beneficiaries of information they want to disseminate. These forms of impermeability could undermine the transparency of the actions of organizations in general and distort any explicit notion of active citizenship.

Furthermore, the lack of awareness among women’s organizations of the main stakes of the so-called Information Society – which accelerates financial, economic and human bodies transactions worldwide and deepens the social, racial and gender divides[1] – has direct effects on how local public policies are defined. First these local public policies don’t currently include gender mainstreaming and secondly, as well as consequently, these organizations are overwhelmed by an increasing prioritization of the urgent daily management (which is usually called care and recovery education, health, nutrition for all the family), for which the local authorities commonly use them for free, so that they no longer have the resources to focus as they wish and formerly did on lobbying against gender violence, for gender equality or justice policies.

In addition, on a local, national or at a global level, public policies are largely decided by a male power that now depends on extended globalization. ICTs support this new and accelerated extension, and the issues for local policies, at the city level, are no longer obvious and become more and more difficult to define. Moreover, the decision making processes escape the control of the local population and authorities. They are related to global policies that are decided elsewhere, inside international organizations as well in foreign countries.

Beside the considerations already discussed, the whole context of ICTs and gendered policies must be analyzed through the prism of either gender institutionalization or communication institutionalization. The two institutionalizations allow essential theory improvement but contribute to increased and counterproductive social borders. These institutionalizations bias the way one can investigate how women’s organizations use ICT as a political action on a local level, and in particular in the city. Indeed, they impose a Global Northern and universal reading grid of what could be best practices in gender politics or in communication programs. They give rules. They frame. They deepen occidentalization of thoughts and consequently have epistemic impacts on action. Mixed with ICT, they create the basis of a “digital coloniality”. The Gender studies are a good example. They merge conceptual innovation, and in the Global South and East, subordination to Occident and to the economy. Most commonly, women’s organizations are widely confronted by a normative and bureaucratic approach, which privileges the status quo versus social change in power relations.

However and in another hand, these organizations are in general able to act within these rules. They seem to be used to them. They also know who can access the Web or ICT in general in their country – mainly urban people and moreover young people, including girls. Most women in urban or rural areas are not “connected”. In South Africa, it’s expensive to be connected and there is a lack of electricity. In Senegal, infrastructures are targeted to central cities and illiteracy remains a big obstacle. A hypothesis could be set where women’s organizations could “play” with this international institutional framework within the local context. They could ensure a holistic practice of communication and not separate it from their actions in the city. They could mix global and local. Lobbying, demonstrating, asking for equal rights, researching gender, etc. would not formally be separated from disseminating information on these actions. However, what we found was that these organizations do not really take notice of their audience. They seem disinterested in who reads them, how often, and who gives and produce information. What seems innovative yet not premeditated is that they do not target anybody in particular nor do they pay much attention to feedback or opinions on their published materials. The websites, for example, mainly provide information that is read by people who are not known to the organization. Communication production does not have specific goals, not even to inform people. The main goal is to give something to see. That’s all. Communication remains informal. The base of a new citizenship communication can then reveal itself, a communication which does not know of any formal participatory process, but instead gives political visibility on a global level as well as on a city level; completely external to the organizations and its main beneficiaries. In Africa it is in fact in the city or elsewhere, outside of the continent, where a great amount of people can connect to Internet or use their mobile phone. From this perspective, this informal communication could liberate space for new gendered appropriation of the African city, in publishing contents that the people can read, so that the people could add what is usually seen as solely “women’s affairs” in its agenda.

The important question is then to assess whether ICTs make it possible to define innovative, inclusive and non-male dominated policy, from the city level to the global level.

Some recent experiments in South Africa and Senegal, such as using ICT as a citizenship strategy for young people to abolish FGM[2], or using Digital Story Telling to raise grassroots women’s voices in their own language at the global level, show some creative tracks for new policies and epistemology that should be analyzed on a long-term level.

One of these is in Soweto, Johannesburg in South Africa, where some women’s organizations, anchored to the ground, assert that any dissemination of content by people from the grassroots, and especially women, can serve to enhance tracks of thought or action for new ways of power relations. The storytelling practice, and today the Digital Storytelling project, generates a content creation dynamic which can possibly impact local policy at least, potentially more. Indeed, these “stories” are as much on violence as on poverty, access to land, unemployment, healthcare access, and also sexuality, AIDS, maternity, all accurate subjects of contemporary Africa, taken through the perspective of a daily narration. This methodology, if further rolled out in Africa, would transform their authors into development experts, confronting us with a reality that is neither expressed nor discussed in spaces where political power is exercised.

To “expose” to the public her daily and intimate life, pushing the limits of what is invisible, buried, latent, can offer another grid of social reading, breaking codes that regulate society. As the historian Michelle Perrot (Duby and Perrot 1990-1991) argued, by creating their history by speaking or writing and neglecting the invisibility which is socially and historically devolved to them, these women transform their status from an object to a subject, including object of the “national revolution” still going and therefore position themselves, consciously or not, in resistance. What seems to be essential is not so much the content of their message rather than the momentum of the narrative.

By placing the female narrators in the heart of the thought process, these oral stories can reverse the relationship between dominant and dominated, can de-universalize concepts, and avoid any neo-colonial vision[3]. They introduce a new logic of expertise, which relies less on academic or institutional knowledge, where the savant is sacralized (Stengers 2002), over the everyday life experience which is embedded in the city, socially and culturally considered as not savant. Women, faced with, but also actors in their daily survival, become the real experts in public policy.

This feminine collective identity goes against any preconceived notions of national identity. In the historical context equality is considered to have been resolved simultaneously with the introduction of democracy and counts on women – the “mothers of the nation” – to achieve this democracy. What it does not take into account is the gender dimension of citizenship, its exercise and the relationship between the individual and the state (Cohen 1987).

It is not so much the methodological process (collect and narration) that constitutes knowledge but rather the importance of its non-academic framing. As noted by the philosopher Michel Foucault, what people may believe does not count much versus “what they do and how they do it” (Foucault 1980-1988).

This revaluation of women’s memory does not stop at the borders of the unique and necessary cultural expression, which in itself opens up a space of expression for African women – such as the anthology of women’s literature in West Africa and the Sahel (Sutherland-Addy, 2007) – or the necessary psychological space to express themselves. It breaks with the usual women testimonies inquiries that have at their heart the notion that women are victims of a discriminatory society. It breaks with many implicit laws, inherited from the globalization and imprinted of neo-colonial paternalism, in the sense that it offers other concepts:

–       Political (liberal, occidental, Marxist…),

–       Cultural: trans-ethnic and not multi-ethnic, because it does not aim at a systematic compilation of testimonies from different ethnic groups,

–       Methodological: it doesn’t claim any academization approach and opens rather experimental fields, that are not borrowed by occidental tools,

–       Social: it does not give the speech to the poor, but it is rather poverty itself that creates the need for oral expression,

–       Epistemic: it creates a field of non ordinary knowledge, against the grain, non-savant,

–       And patriarchal: there is no need to create power relations neither one of force, division nor domination, but rather a multiplicity, a common good, horizontal, of women personal experiences, seen as they are: knowledge, transmittable to both women and men.

Even if in these initiatives perversion already exist, such as the Digital Storytelling project, these methodologies exemplify that, despite being invested by institutions and seen as top-down approach, for all these reasons, this narration practice of women stories would represent a track to follow.

The observation that dissemination of content can enhance tracks of thought, if not, tracks of action to enforce a new active citizenship has brought other pockets of innovation to light. For example, the research project conducted by the gender unit of the NGO Enda Tiers-Monde with IRDC support, highlights the effectiveness and relevance of the citizenship approach of using ICT by youth (boys and girls) to promote the ending of FGM. This project (2007-2009) launched local dynamics and strengthened citizenship awareness by the younger generation, in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Senegal. It has produced clues for the identification of a new development paradigm in West Africa which is a non-linear or horizontal appropriation of ICT and encourages crosscutting, reflexive and transdisciplinary approaches, between different concepts such as gender, citizenship, ICT, youth, FGM.

Building on the opportunity of the citizenship use of ICT by youth (girls and boys equally) to promote the ending of FGM practice, this project has shown that despite the boundaries described above, the debate emerges and power relations can be transformed, to develop an innovative approach in order to manage the city and development which has far exceeded the first goals of the project.

The main research’s results reveal the relevance of an interdisciplinary approach to bring out the possibility of creating the means to direct expression, especially by younger generations. This exercise can be largely facilitated by ICT, in particular by hypertext language on which they are based, which links concepts and practices in a non-hierarchical way. This, also allows cross and participatory approach of citizenship exercise, which decompartmentalizes society, whether by gender or between generations. According to this research (Mottin-Sylla, Palmieri 2009), the project has highlighted “the skills of young people and their associations as a source of enrichment for research in sustainable human development at the stage of the global digital society”. And to confirm: “The endogenous production of content, by girls and boys, separately, collectively, face to face, opened the learning on debate, processes of reflection, critical and reflexive analysis of transversality/crosscutting – requiring renewal, re-examination, prospection, which are essential to change approaches to human thoughts and social constructions”. This production and the ongoing debate has been made possible by the commitment of three associations of young people from local cities in each country, mixing boys and girls equally. These young people have questioned the concepts discussed through this research (gender, citizenship, ICT, youth, FGM) in various ways such as free expression in regional and local meetings, where playing, debating and actively participating was central. Moreover, some young people, representing each country, participated in the research evaluation on the same equal ground as the researchers, who led the team to implement, or even create terms of self-learning, self-evaluation, and training of trainers. The formats used for these purposes have been adapted for young people, and use theatre expression, drawing, and multimedia interactivity (still and moving images, sound, writing and publishing on-line). Several discussion lists and forums were opened for everyone to freely express themselves at various stages of research: role playing, blogging…

This approach has since spawned other initiatives. For example, once the research project ended, young people in different communities continued to participate in their city, either by contributing to Internet Day in Burkina Faso, bringing at the heart of discussions the gender inequality issues or by creating a blog on transversality in Mali.

The challenge of the methodologies described above was to pass on to younger generations the debate control of savant concepts they developed by themselves. Therefore we advise researchers, especially in a context of globalization, to appropriate a new development paradigm, inclusive, crosscutting, reflexive, crossing several gateways including gender, citizenship, youth and Information Society.

Finally, the research concludes: “ »How ICT could be used » is less important than « what ICT could bring as new, change or politicize »”. Indeed, this research emphasizes the urgency to stop compartmentalizing concepts – gender, citizenship, youth, ICT, violence… – and especially to stop working on “areas of junction” (eg, between youth and ICT, development and ICT…), risking to bring invisibility to a whole panel of social construction where power relations, inequalities of class, race and gender, neo-colonial relations are full components. It calls for “politicizing” the concepts of citizenship and development and to recognize ICT as an engine of change, if institutional or social actors do not isolate it by default, as tools servicing the reinforcement of an economic, social or political system already existing and unequal.

In the final analysis, these two examples, highlighting intimate and daily women storytelling and promoting citizenship debate for youth through ICT, by questioning common concepts, through people who usually do not have the speech, provide a new African perspective on enhancing a new feminist epistemology.

20 décembre 2012


[1] We do not have the space to discuss this assertion further in this paper.

[2] Female genital mutilation.

[3] Meaning imported from North America or Western Europe.

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