Amina Salihu, Development Sector Specialist, Civil Society

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Subjects of Interest

  • Governance
  • Sustainable Development

How civic tech can benefit women and girls 31 Dec 2021

November 25th is designated by the United Nations as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. It also marks the beginning of 16 days of activism against sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), which runs through to December 10th, the Human Rights Day.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), SGBV encompasses any act that is perpetrated against a person’s will and is based on gender norms and unequal power relationships. It includes physical, emotional, or psychological and sexual violence, and denial of resources or access to services. These heinous acts are prevalent and permeate public and private spheres.

In commemorating the 16 days of action against SGBV this year, I have decided to focus on the intersection of SGBV and “civic technology”. I view civic technology broadly as innovations that are generally available to citizens and which enhance quality of life. It could be digital, e.g., an app, or allied products and services including smart phones and social media, which are the focus of this piece.

The concept of civic tech is new and continues to evolve. My reflections here are on how new solutions might help address old problems, and the opportunities and challenges of digital civic tech.

Technology is normatively neither good nor bad. It depends on its use. Take for example social media: it has the potential to build bridges and networks and reduce the role of money in politics. In Nigeria, physical violence mars our electioneering. But if, as it is today, some of the processes are on social media, the risk of physical violence is reduced. Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are marketing tools for many people across social divides.

But at the same time, social media has raised the phenomenon of online trolling, name smearing, hate speech, disinformation, misinformation, and labelling women, including female public figures, politicians and intimacy partners. Whereas social media can generally reduce physical violence – overlooking its role in organizing the January 6, 2020 mob attack on the US Capitol, in Washington, D.C. – it can increase psychological attacks. Social media, therefore, is a double-edged sword with capacity for good and evil. Indeed, not only can social media enhance citizen agency, enable speaking truth to power and demand for accountability, it can also shrink individual and civic space.

Psychological violence on social media is a new worrisome dimension of violence. The liberal nature of social media means a poster can post whatever he or she fancies, which may include false information, obscenity and explicit materials. Such obnoxious posts are often unretracted or removed only after the damage has been done. Some of the posts may be frivolous, but others are deliberate, to smear the reputation of their targets. The lack of sanction for the posts encourage the posters to even use them to raise their personal profiles.

Another kind of civic technologies of interest to me involves those that promote financial inclusion. ATMs, mobile banking, and USSD have brought banking services and payment solutions to individuals and small villages and remote locations that would otherwise have no access. Nevertheless, my concern is that these technologies are advancing without giving adequate thought to women in their design and they are perpetuating gender imbalance in terms of access.

Consider that registration for these services requires identity materials like driver’s licence, work ID card or international passports. Access to these documents requires formal employment, significant amount of money, and, therefore, economic status. All of these are skewed against women. Invariably, therefore, financial inclusion still harbours the exclusion of women.

The exclusion issues are many and quite serious. One of them is language and another education, serving as barriers to usage. Yet another impediment to inclusion in the use of the technologies is poverty. Lack of electricity denies people, especially those in the rural areas, access to financial services. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that existing habits of maltreating women could escalate violence against them under new circumstances. During the lockdown, incidents of domestic abuse of women went up. The patriarchal society further endangered women during a major public health crisis.

Indeed, many technologies come with gender biases and reinforce stereotypes. For instance, the seat belt, designed to go around the tummy area, is built for the male body. It does not factor in when female drivers are pregnant. There are also some variations of mobile phones that are too big for a female palm. Recently, four women I will identify simply as Chioma, Zainab, Toyosi, and Sana, and one man, Hamza, showed just how this is the case at an event on women and technology at the Centre for Information and Technology and Development (CITAD).

It is heartwarming, though, that there are men who are joining the advocacy for gender inclusion. Unsurprisingly so, since we all share the same humanity, and deserve respect, affirmation and dignity, irrespective of our gender.

Looking ahead, we need to encourage more girls to take an interest in digital technology. Where women are actively involved in the design of technology solutions, they will contribute to the overall quality of the products by helping to reduce design biases and blindness. The involvement of women will lead to products that are safer and more suitable to the needs of everyone.

Political and civil society leaders need to do more to anticipate events that can endanger women’s health and undermine our wellbeing. Existing statutes, policies and conventions have proven inadequate to protect women.

More research is also required in digital governance and solutions designs to understand how their inadequacies are putting women at risk and harbouring gender-based exclusion. What happens in the boardrooms and corporate organisations matters as well. Private sector leaders should be asked what they are doing to increase the number of women in the IT units of their organisations, and what they are doing to ensure that women are in the pipelines that fill technology roles.

Also needed is curriculum reform that enhances participation of girls in STEM learning. We need to create simple and innovative tools that teach the basics of technology ethics and etiquette, and name and shame those who hold back our children because they are of a particular gender. Unfortunately, some of the abusers of our girls include rather clueless teachers who tell a child that she should not aspire to be an engineer or should be assistant class captain to a boy, and not the class captain, simply because she is female.

Last, but by no means the least, is the need for Nigeria’s civic tech organisations including Centre for Information Technology and Development (CITAD), Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) and BudgIT to embed Gender Equality and Social Inclusion (GESI) in their DNA. To not do so, is to open an avenue for a valid criticism of their work. Beyond this, development sector actors should ensure that girls have access to mentoring.

Amina Salihu is a development sector specialist.