Information technology and the internet have proven to be powerful forces for creating collective action groups and mobilizing communities of protestors. Among the main advantages of digital and online activism are its increased accessibility (relatively cheap and easy to use), its speed, and its ability to reach large numbers of people around the world.
Digital activists can protest and advance their cause using a variety of digital tools. These include online petition websites (such as Change.org and Avaaz.org), social networks (Facebook, YouTube, Myspace), blogs (as a form of citizen journalism), microblogs (Twitter), mobile phones, and proxy servers. .
These digital platforms can connect with a large community both locally and internationally. The interconnectedness of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook makes it easy to share information. Activists can post messages, slogans, photos, and instructions more easily than using traditional street protests or door-to-door mobilization strategies.
The downside of digital campaigning is that the same tools can be used for hate speech and disinformation. This sometimes jeopardized the goals of such campaigns.
Women’s rights groups in Nigeria and Ghana are among the social movements that have these tools. Groups such as Women in Nigeria and the Women’s Rights Network in Ghana work to empower women economically and politically. They also advocate for women’s rights to education, respect, social justice and access to political leadership. They protest violence and victimization and draw attention to inequalities.
As a social media and society scholar, I have conducted research to examine women’s advocacy groups in Nigeria and Ghana and how digital communication enhances or constrains their actions and goals.
My findings show that social media gives women a voice in advocacy groups and allows them to speak more freely in the context of traditional patriarchy. This shows the importance of technology in shaping social life. Women in these countries are demanding change and change is happening. But the coverage of the groups is mostly limited to urban areas, as internet access is limited in rural areas.
A safe space
For research, I drew on the websites and social media platforms of women’s advocacy groups in Nigeria and Ghana. I used computer-mediated discourse analysis, a method of analyzing online interactions and their implications for society. The analysis looks at information about people interacting on the Internet, their relationships with each other, their communication goals, what they communicate about, and the language they use.
The groups I looked at were the Nigerian Women’s Trust Fund, the League of Women Voters of Nigeria, the Kudarat Initiative for Democracy (KIND), the Gender Center for Women’s Empowerment in Ghana and the Women’s Rights Network.
These groups have been very active for some time. They target a public audience, including government and other interest groups.
My focus was on political empowerment campaigns rather than access to economic and material resources.
The websites of these groups were particularly non-confrontational in style. They encouraged group activities, created public awareness, and sought feedback and participation. Mainly, language was used to inform, report and claim, describe events and processes. Sometimes it was used to give direction, such as to address and invite certain actions.
English was the language used for most of the website content.
The groups were active not only through their websites but also on social media platforms, especially Twitter and Facebook. Campaign messages on these platforms differed from those on websites. Successful women politicians celebrated, expressed resistance and hope. They stood in solidarity with inspirational women parliamentarians and other role models and mobilized support for women running for political office.
Messages on social media called on members to attend rallies and offline protests, demand change and reject the marginalization and victimization of women politicians.
The messages did not overtly challenge male authority, but asked for a fair chance for women to make decisions about matters affecting their lives.
Other campaign messages were about group activities such as webinars and training sessions for women aspiring to political office.
The language used was encouraging towards women and not towards men.
Room for improvement
With the support of the United Nations and the African Union, women in African countries are making progress. For example, Rwanda has the highest representation of women in government at 61%.
In 2018, the number of women in government in sub-Saharan Africa rose to 23.7% on a regional average. After the 2020 elections in Ghana, women will hold 14% of the seats in the parliament. Nigeria has 18 members in the House of Representatives. Out of 360 members are women (5%), and in the Senate 8 out of 109 members (7%) are women.
Future progress will depend in part on the challenges facing online activism. These problems are not particularly related to the content and nature of online communication, but to access to technology. Urban women have more internet access than rural women.
In Ghana and Nigeria, the internet does not reach rural areas due to low incomes and high investment costs. Tech companies don’t invest in sparsely populated or sparsely populated areas.
Hence, it is difficult for people living in rural areas to access online based advocacy forums and training.
Although online activism by women’s empowerment advocates is effective, it is limited to a small segment of the population. Women are still significantly underrepresented in Nigeria and Ghana.