That Our Women May Be Free Indeed

By Betty Abah

I was blessed to be a part of a compelling session on women’s safety online at the 2017 Forum on Internet Freedom (FIFAfrica17) which held in Johannesburg, South Africa between September 27 and 29 this year. And I was the moderator. What a golden seat to sit on, what a familiar-turf-matter to take on!

Fact is women are not safe online, and I didn’t fail to illustrate with the case of Cynthia Osukogu, a young undergraduate who paid the supreme price for being a Facebook user. She was lured and killed by two of her Facebook friends in Lagos, Nigeria (where I live) in 2012. The two main suspects were found guilty and sentenced to death in March 2017. There are many other cases I know of, of harassment, cyber-bullying etc targeted at the presumed ‘weaker sex’. I have been cyber-bullied too, by government officials who could not stand ‘a mere woman’ speaking truth to power or some misogynists loitering around the cyber space!

On the panel, I had the privilege of having outstanding young women working for women’s empowerment across Africa namely Emilar Ghandi (Facebook),  Irene Kiwia (Tanzania Women of Achievement), Françoise Mukuku (Si Jeunese Savait, DR Congo) and Patricia Twasiima (Chapter Four, Uganda).

Betty and new Kenyan friend, Esther     Mwangi at the FIFAfrica 2017 in South Africa, October 2017
Betty (in brown dress) and new Kenyan friend, Esther Mwangi at the FIFAfrica 2017 in South Africa, October 2017

And so, the panelists and audience agreed on one sobering point: not only are women in Africa highly endangered online as they are offline, it is at an alarming rate, reinforced, fed and emboldened by unchecked patriarchy, sexism and the lack of laws to punish perpetrators. In a world where the lines between the virtual and real world are increasingly blurred, it calls for concern, and urgent action. All agreed that the fight for women’s right online must be as dedicated and concerted as that in the physical, everyday world. The vigilance for male predators, who, fueled by overdose of misogyny, and some coarse form of sexist socialisation slung literarily across their shoulders, sauntering onto the online platforms to, as in offline landscape, try to make life uncomfortable for women, must be raised to a high degree. However, there are also cases of women-to-women attacks, sadly.

Some of the main points from the session included:

  • Patriarchy, which seeks to cage women, shame women, and decapitate women’s achievements, has fully tip-toed online, and bearing its fangs.
  • Slut-shaming, body-shaming of women online is increasing at a terrific rate and must be caged.
  • Women have a role to play in empowering themselves and each other so as to stand head-and-shoulder tall against the antagonists.
  • Shaming the traducers and turning the tables on them (I can imagine them scurrying away into their holes, their mischievous tails in-between their legs, haha!).
  • Internet providers have a role to play in ensuring maximum protection, as much as they can, for women users who are the major targets of these online attacks.
  • Economic disempowerment is one of the reasons that have kept women from participating or being active online. Empowering women economically therefore goes a long way towards ensuring their easy access to the internet with all its bounties of blessings.

Of course, there were also several other break-away sessions and panels throughout the conference, dealing with rights, inclusion and exclusion, issues around the fake news phenomenon in Africa, sex and sexuality, digital rights and litigation to the push for a free wifi in Africa. Profound thoughts, profound texts/publications and equally profound ICT and human rights personalities brimming with ideas on internet rights  and related matters.

As a journalist and women and children’s advocate, and one already ‘noisy’ in the social media sphere in Nigeria, I found the conference quite enriching and very, very enlightening. Here were a large ‘army’ of online ‘warriors’ drawn from across oceans, continents, all the way from South America, North America to the Middle East, and of course all across Africa with one aim; a free, unfettered and secure internet. The networking was also awesome and I struck an enriching friendship with Esther Benson Hadassah Mwangi, one of the vibrant young activists from Kenya. Another thanks to Emi Anyole, my Ugandan friend, for the link to the conference.

And how exciting it was to finding fellow Nigerian organisations including Budgit and Paradigm Initiative, contributing to the discourse, benefiting from the steamy ideas, innovations and best practices around the push to realise an outspoken, unabashed and vibrant internet on the continent.

Coming at a time where African leaders, obviously developing a high pitch fever over the reality of their citizens becoming more vocal, visible and demanding for accountability online, and often resorting to clamping down on free expression online, FIFAfrica17 was timely and absolutely empowering!

 A million thanks to the Collaboration on International  ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa

(CIPESA) for the support offered me to be a part of this wonderful gathering.

Yet a million more thanks for an excellently organised event!

I certainly look forward to many years of more active participation, all for internet freedom  in Africa and indeed, the world.  It was my first, and I am stuck.

 Abah is the Founder/Executive/Director of CE-HOPE Nigeria and one of the speakers at the conference.

Post Author: Dayo Emmanuel