Keynote Speech at the post-international women’s day Roundtable Discussion organized by Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) and Digital Human Rights Lab on 11th March 2022.
Bias in tech comes in many forms and it would take more than a day to cover the different types of biases that women face in tech. So today, I would like to focus on two areas that I’m passionate about. 1) Feminism and 2) online violence against women, as one of the most prevalent effects of bias in tech. One word came to me that sits on the nexus of these two areas. This word is “Principles”.
The Webster dictionary defines Principle as “a comprehensive and fundamental law, doctrine or assumption”. The Cambridge dictionary goes further to define Principle as “a basic idea or rule that explains or controls how something happens or works”. I believe that Feminism and specifically Feminist Principles offer us fundamental rules or ideas that help us explain why online violence exists and what we can do individually and collectively to resist and dismantle it.
Before we look at Feminist principles, we have to first understand what Feminism means. Feminism is a political ideology and frame of analysis to understand structural oppression faced by women. Patriarchy is one of the systems that oppresses women while maintaining male privilege.
I want to quote the Charter of African Feminist Principles[i] here:
Our understanding of Patriarchy is crucial because it provides for us as feminists, a framework within which to express the totality of oppressive and exploitative relations, which affect African women. Patriarchal ideology enables and legitimizes the structuring of every aspect of our lives by establishing the framework within which society defines and views men and women and constructs male supremacy. Our ideological task as feminists is to understand this system and our political task is to end it. Our focus is fighting against patriarchy as a system rather than fighting individual men or women.
For millennia, Patriarchy has used gender biases and stereotypes to subjugate women using oppressive systems like religion, harmful culture, technology, discriminatory laws, and so on. Take for example, laws like the Anti-Pornography law and its differentiated impact on sex workers; or the discriminatory manner in which the Computer Misuse Act has been implemented by unfairly targeting victims of non-consensual intimate images, who are mostly women, instead of holding perpetrators to account.
Patriarchy however does not operate in isolation. Different groups of women face different and intersecting forms of oppression depending on other systems of oppression like race, class, heteronormativity, able-bodism, capitalism, colonialism, and neoliberalism.
Therefore, the fight against patriarchy and all systems of oppression, bias and stereotypes is a deeply political one for feminists, and is grounded in clear principles and analysis based on the lived experiences of African women.
Online Violence against women (VAW)/Gender Based Violence in Uganda
I want to take a few minutes to provide a brief context of the incidences of online violence in Uganda. The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (DEVAW) defines Violence against Women as (VAW) as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”
According to the United Nations (UN), globally, women are 27 times more likely to be harassed online than men. Regionally, it is reported that online violence is on the rise in Africa with 75% of women reporting that they suffered from mental stress and anxiety due to their experiences of online violence.[ii] According to Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET), one in three women in Uganda have experienced a form of online violence. Online violence is more worrying when it is examined in the context of the impact of COVID-19 where more people than ever used the online world for work, pleasure, or finding community. Women and gender non-conforming persons have faced different types of online violence including cyberbullying, sharing of non-consensual intimate images (NCII), cyberstalking, online sexual harassment, Identity based shaming, Outing and impersonation.
The effect of online violence on women and girls is as serious as offline violence. It causes psychological, emotional, and physical harm that is now increasingly being recognized. For example, a longitudinal research carried out by Brigham Young University over a period of 10 years found that teen girls were at a higher risk for suicide as they increase their use of social media by the time they are young adults (BYU, 2021).[iii] This is a worrying trend especially in the developed countries where suicide is the second leading cause of death among the youth. In Uganda, suicide is also becoming a major public health issue especially in urban areas where 24% of adolescents were found to have attempted suicide within the past 6 months. This is according to a study done by the Uganda Youth Development Link.[iv]
Additionally, social media is increasingly being linked to lowering mental health of girls and women. A research by Pollicy found that women were more likely to leave social media completely after facing repeated online violence. According to HER Internet, LBQI women and sex workers tended to self-censor themselves, and change physical location as a result of online violence.[v]
How Can Feminist Principles Help Us to Better Understand Online Violence and How to Address It?
So back to our word for today, “Principles” – How can feminist principles help us better understand online violence and what can we learn from the feminist VAW movement to address it?
The theorizing and programming done by the women’s and feminist movements on VAW/G over the last decades is the foundation on which the rest of the world is now recognizing the need to address this global pandemic. Ending VAW is a target in the Sustainable Development Goals, and there is more funding now available to work on VAW than ever before, like the current Spotlight Initiative under the European Union. Therefore, there is a lot to learn from the feminist VAW movement.
I want to propose 5 (five) key strategies centred on feminist principles[vi] which have worked for the VAW movement that we can adopt as actors addressing online violence in tech.
- Framing of the issue
How are we framing online violence? We need to understand that both offline and online violence against women have their root causes in unequal patriarchal power relations between men and women. Violence is also a tool of control to maintain these unequal power relations – to perpetuate male privilege while putting women in a subordinate position.
Further, as I pointed out earlier, it is important to employ an intersectional approach when addressing online violence because patriarchy does not operate in isolation. Women and gender non-conforming persons are affected differently by online violence depending on the discrimination they face as a result of different systems of oppression. LBQ women face different types of discrimination and online violence than women with disabilities; while younger and older women may face different types of online violence for example. To challenge patriarchy effectively, we have to be ready to challenge other systems of oppression. We therefore have to embrace the feminist principles that centre the indivisibility, inalienability and universality of women’s human rights, including the rights to freedom of bodily autonomy, expression, choice, consent and pleasure.
In the fight against VAW, different actors, whether activists, police, communities can no longer afford to homogenise women. We have to recognize our different experiences with patriarchy and other systems of oppression in order to be able to dismantle these root causes.
- Transformative approaches
Addressing online violence needs to be grounded in transformative approaches. This means addressing the root causes of VAW, putting women at the centre of our work; increasing women’s autonomy, agency and wellbeing; as well as transforming gender stereotypes and discriminatory social norms. The work that organisations like WOUGNET, HER Internet, Pollicy and Digital Human Rights Lab are doing to build the digital security skills of individual women activists as well as women’s organisations is an example of this work.
On the flipside, we also need to ask – How can our male allies do the work of standing up against online violence? How can they promote and model positive masculinities both in the physical world and in the virtual world? This starts from childhood and transitions to adolescence and adulthood. What are we collectively doing to transform socialization in schools, the work place, and communities in order to realize a better world that respects the human rights of all women and men?
- Using sustained multi-sectoral strategies
The feminist VAW movements have found that changing harmful attitudes and behaviours is not done overnight. After all, patriarchy has been with us for millennia. We cannot change the status quo or break the bias with short term, ad hoc or one-off activities. For sustained positive changes in discriminatory attitudes, norms and behaviours, coordinated and long-term programming is necessary. We must be ready to invest in our movements and we must build our movements.
We must work across movements too because it is in our collective strength that we can break systems of oppression over time. What are the linkages between the online violence and tech movement to the VAW movement? What are the linkages between the disability movement, the tech movement and the women’s movement? What is the linkage with the LBQ movement, the sex worker movement and the other movements affected by and working on VAW?
Likewise, we have learnt from decades of working on VAW that a multi-sectoral approach where we work with different actors is effective. For example, working with the police, health services, judiciary, communities, schools, faith based organisations, and so on. How are we implementing this multi-sectoral strategy as we address online violence? For example, are we training police and health workers to understand the psychological, mental and physical effects of online violence?
- Foster aspiration
An effective strategy of fostering positive change and reducing VAW has been emphasizing the advantages of changing behavior, rather than focusing on shame and stigma. For example, VAW Prevention programming using the SASA! Model in Uganda found that there was significant reduction in intimate partner violence (IPV), when couples and communities are inspired to see the benefits of safer, healther and happier relationships.
- Self and Collective Care
In conclusion, an important feminist principle is the support, nurture and care of our own well-being as well as care for other feminists. Our daily lives as women and as feminists is one of ‘warriors’ fighting against patriarchy and other oppressive systems. Whether it is offline or online, this fight takes a toll on our mental, emotional, spiritual and physical selves. Feminists have long centred self care and collective care as part of our feminist movement building. Recently, this has been coopted by the capitalist world especially during COVID-19 where rising cases of mental health struggles by employees led many companies to introduce self care programmes for staff.
Organisations like Women Human Rights Defenders Network in Uganda and Urgent Action Fund Africa have developed guidelines for promoting self and collective care that have supported women facing both online and offline violence. How do we centre care as resistance in our work? How do we centre pleasure as a form of self care and resistance? How do we create safe spaces as part of collective care? These are questions that I want to leave with you as you engage today on the topic of bias in tech.
Thank you all for this opportunity to engage with you.
Christine Butegwa is a feminist and seasoned Gender and Development expert currently based in Kampala, Uganda. She has over 20 years of experience in gender transformative work with emphasis on promoting gender equality, women’s rights and social justice. She believes in the power of movements to catalyze social change playing an active role in shaping, building and supporting the women’s movement, sexual and reproductive health rights movement, violence against women’s movement, and early African ICT movement, among others. She is former Board Chairperson of Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET); and the current Board Chairperson of Women’s Organisation Network for Human Rights Advocacy (WONETHA). She is a member of the Uganda Feminist Forum Working Group. She is currently an International Consultant who has consulted with clients such as KPMG, World Bank, medica mondiale, UN Women, Government of Uganda, and the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR). She is the Founder and CEO of Jabali Consulting.
[ii] “Online Gender Based Violence: An Assessment of Women’s Safety in the Digital Space”, Policy Brief by Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET), Digital Literacy Initiative, Defend Defenders, Encrypt Uganda, and Digital Human Rights Lab, 2020.
[iv] Paul Bukuluki, Symon Wandiembe, Peter Kisaakye, Samuel Besigwa, and Rogers Kasirye, “Suicidal Ideations and Attempts among Adolescents in Kampala Urban Settlements in Uganda: A Case Study of Adolescents Receiving Care from the Uganda Youth Development Link”, Front. Sociol., 21 July 2021; See https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fsoc.2021.646854/full accessed on 10/3/22.
[v] Elizabeth Kemigisha & Sandra Kwikiriza: ‘The trends and impact of technology assisted violence among Lesbian, Bisexual, Queer (LBQ) Womxn and Female Sex workers (FSW) in Uganda.’ (2021)
[vi] See for example, “Preventing Violence Against Women: A Primer for African Women’s Organisations”, African Women’s Development Fund and Raising Voices; and “Charter of Feminist Principles for African Feminists”, African Women’s Development Fund.