At the beginning of 2020, I decided to change careers. For most people this is no mean feat, but for me it was a gargantuan leap. At the age of 42 with a young child as my dependant, and with a resume that had an almost 2-year gap due to unemployment, I was practically groping in the dark by embarking on a career change. It did not help that I was foraying into technology (UI/UX design) which was a somewhat dramatic departure from my Media/ Communications background. Fast forward a few months later and I have earned certification in various aspects of my new career, and more importantly, I am becoming more knowledgeable in something that I had hitherto considered daunting. And all this without paying anything more than the cost of my internet service. Naturally, this is a big deal for me, but in the bigger picture it is a win for my country : over the years, I have seen the difference that a knowledge of technology has made for Nigerian women in the fight against patriarchy and gender discrimination.
June 2019: A photographer, popular because of her marriage to a famous Nigerian musician, recounted the sexual abuse she endured in the hands of an eminent Nigerian Christian pastor. The two-hour account was posted on Youtube and racked over 60 000 views. It also sparked a nation-wide protest against the cleric and resulted in an arrest and a court case.
July 2019: A video goes viral on social media in Nigeria. A man, later identified as a senator in Nigeria’s House of Assembly, was seen physically assaulting a woman, in a fit of rage, in a shop. It did not matter that the video was 3 months old the public outrage was palpable. The Senator tried to pass it off with a public apology but when that did not work, a committee was constituted by the Senate to hear the case.
October 2019: The BBC released a documentary titled ‘Sex for Grades’. This investigative series championed by a young female Nigerian journalist was posted on Youtube and blew the lid on sexual harassment in Nigerian and Ghanaian universities. The unscrupulous practices of several lecturers were exposed both in the video, and in real life when several other victims stepped forward. Eventually, a few of them lost their jobs.
More recently, in June 2020, Dbanj, a Nigerian musician with international acclaim, was accused of rape. He responded by slamming the accuser with a lawsuit. He then secured her arrest and detainment in a police cell, after which she was kidnapped and imprisoned in a location known only to him. At that location he forced her to sign a document recanting her accusations, and to hand over her social media accounts which were wiped clean and replaced with his music video promos. Thanks to social media, women – feminist activists- came together, detected her location by satellite and rescued her, raised funds for her legal fees, and set machinery in motion to petition all the organisations the artiste represents.
All the actions in each of these cases had one thing in common: women utilising technology – the internet, social media, and online documentation and reporting tools – to rewrite the narrative.
It’s a small step for man but a big deal for mankind’ … especially in stilettoes
Any woman who lives in a patriarchy worries about two things: safety (from sexual abuse, physical harm, gender-based violence, etc.) and economic or financial insufficiency due to gender discrimination. Nigeria, the country I live in, has for many years brandished patriarchy (and its ramifications) almost like a badge of honour.
While growing up it was commonplace to experience sexual harassment and discrimination on the streets by either a random man or a group of men. I remember going to a book fair with my mother at the age of 10 or 11 and feeling the weight of a man’s penis, deliberately thrust forward on my bottom, as we stood in the crowd. As teenagers, the bus drivers at the bus stop would attempt to grab at us as we navigated our way through the park, in a grotesque game of touch-the-girl-until-she-lashes-out-or-cries, jeering when any of us broke down. Markets were a flurry of men grabbing arms or boobs or bottoms on the pretext of making you see their wares. And any disagreement from the victim was met with a chorus of ‘ASHAWO’ , the local term for prostitute. Institutions were also in on the ‘fun’; sexual harassment in schools, offices and among law enforcement were mundane, daily occurrences, and in politics, it was not uncommon for women who refused to only be cheerleaders for men, to be physically beaten by their colleagues or threatened with it. There was no safe place, even our own homes. As girls we were expected to bear the mental and physical load of household chores, with no respite, till we were married off. Just because we were girls. I and my friends would rant in private about how disrespected we felt by yet another man, or by our parents, or relatives but that was about it. Nothing would ever be done. Nothing could ever be done.
But in the last few years a lot of things have changed. And a major reason for this change is the accessibility, exposure and cultural fusion afforded by the internet, social media and blogs –by technology. The whispers of this change began in 2014 with the ChildNotBride campaign which sought to eradicate child marriages in the country. But in the wake of the MeToo movement Nigerian women started to amplify their hitherto unheard agitations, bringing to birth FemaleInNigeria, ArewaMeToo , DontTouchMe and several other protests all driven online by hashtags. And while some may argue that the change is minimal because it has not cut through Nigeria’s deep-seated traditional customs and ideals, there is no doubt that it is significant as Nigerian authorities and lawmakers have begun to treat the crimes of rape, domestic and gender-based violence more seriously.
A career in Technology might afford me an income and career longevity, but it can also serve to provide the critical support necessary to escalate the disconcertment of my Nigerian sisters beyond our immediate community. During the episode involving Dbanj and the lady he strong-armed, I remember feeling very helpless and upset as the story unfolded. However, when presented with a Google document filled with details of the artiste’s business alliances, and an email template to send a petition to these organisations castigating his actions, I felt powerful and valuable in the scheme of things. This document was created by a feminist activist with a background in tech - a testament to the possibilities that come with understanding and leveraging technology. The ideal world would be one where every woman can reap benefits like this from technology directly, but for that to happen a few things need to change.
Breaking the Barriers
The first place to begin in creating accessible digital space for women is to provide affordable internet access. According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), gender is a critical determinant of internet access, and women are more likely to lack internet access. In 2019, the global gender gap between male and female internet users increased by about 17%, due to an increase in male users of the internet in developing countries. This is easy to explain in Nigeria; Forbes estimates 1GB of data costs $2.22 in my country; the same country where more than 50% of the population live on less than that per day. The socio-cultural climate ensures the economics are automatically skewed against the women.
A solution to that would be to create heavily subsidized workspaces for working women in urban areas and free internet cafes (funded and run by non-governmental organisations) for non-working women and/or those in rural areas. I would like to see more women, key into the bands of expression that are rising in the country, especially in the rural areas.
We also need more women in Tech. And this is said taking into consideration the many incubator and accelerator programs aimed at bringing women into STEM careers. The shortcoming of these programs are that they usually seek candidates with exceptional academic abilities, who are within a certain (young) age range. This in itself creates other insurmountable barriers which widen the gap between men and women in the field. Men are abundant in Tech in Nigeria because their barriers to entry are not as steep.
The other aspect of having female presence in Tech is having more women in high-powered positions that command a high remuneration. We need to shore up efforts to bring women to the decision table where technology is concerned. Doing this would mean meeting at the confluence of unified agitations and recognisable expertise. While representation is important, it could be useless without economic might. There is no influence without some measure of affluence.
Finally, for all the progress and attention women are garnering with different hashtags, campaigns and movements we are still working in silos with no concerted action. We need to find a way to aggregate all our efforts online either by region, continent or any such alliance. Women’s problems are the problems of all women and there is power in numbers. And numbers are something we do have.