Gender, Youth and Digital Democratic Processes in East Africa

The Arab Spring has demonstrated a couple of things namely the power and importance of social media, the ability for technology to unite crowds of people in the shortest amount of time no matter the location, and the increased blurriness between the local and global entities with the use of tools like Twitter and Facebook. The role social media have played in the revolutions in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya is well documented. That youth in particular are recognized as the major players behind the use of these platforms is largely undisputed.

In this article the composition of youth is scrutinized to acquire an understanding of which youth actually have the opportunity to partake in democratic and public fora. The concept of youth and their use of social media for democratic processes is not sufficiently discussed with regards to heterogeneity. The complex layers comprised of the term ‘youth’ is an important point of consideration so as to ensure that all youth are engaging in democratic processes. This article considers differences among youth from a gender perspective, specifically the differences between young men and young women with regards to digitally mediated democratic processes.

To engage in these debates this contribution will look at the ICT4Democracy East African Network that was launched in June 2011. Premised on the recognition that ICTs enhance communication and the right to freedom of expression, various East African organizations in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, are being supported by Spider to contribute to and build a more democratic culture in the region.

The East African ICT for Democracy Network was established to stimulate collaboration and to build stronger impact and sustainability of the participating projects. The network aims to utilize a range of ICTs, namely mobile phones, computers/internet, radio, television and newspapers in their activities. There are also interests and initiatives within the network to develop applications to aid in project management.

What is noteworthy in this network is the dominance of young technically inclined women. That African women actively participate in democratic processes or are technological developers are rare occurrences in themselves. The confluence of these two processes is unprecedented.

In the context of East African cultures young women are placed on the margins of public debate and technological skills. This marginalization should be understood within the context of socialization processes in East Africa and how they structure expressions of gender.

Considering gender as a social construct, expressions of femininity and masculinity are culturally and communally taught. The bread winner/provider role is instituted among boys from a very early age, while girls are encouraged to depend on, and seek the protection of their male counterparts. These social ideals are visible in the games that both boys and girls play and are held in check by peers, family and community at large (Kiyimba 2005, Nannyonga-Tamusuza, 2005). The role of folklore, music, dance and oral literature has an equally powerful countenance on young boys and girls. Within this frame is the notion of manhood and womanhood being attained through marriage.

Maturity for both men and women is thus regarded in tandem with marriage, and men and women who do not attain this socially expected level of maturity have to defend their positions in society. With the specific social order established from an impressionable age, boys and girls try to stay within these cultural confines to avoid the social resistance that accompanies those who veer off this socio-cultural path. Within the domestic sphere the man’s breadwinner/ provider/ protector role further suggests that issues of ownership and other forms of control remain a man’s domain.

However the mutable ways of culture, and education, have begun to challenge these frameworks, along with ICT. Wisdom and knowledge have also until ICT been passed on to the youth by the adults. As technologies proliferate every aspect of life reliance on techno-savvy youth by many non-technical adults has begun to challenge the adult counterparts’ supremacy of world knowledge (Wamala, 2010) and by extension, leadership. It would also seem that some gender inequalities encountered within youth are likewise being redressed through ICT. Ubiquitous ICTs such as mobile phones are further challenging the dimensions of socially constructed roles with social media tools Twitter and Facebook, opening up opportunities for inviting the public into the private domain and vice versa. Access to the technologies that enable use of tools such as Twitter and Facebook is unequal among youth.

Continuing this line of thought with gender as point of analysis is the understanding that young ladies have limited access in relation to young men (Wamala, 2010). Within the gender and technology and development discourse, analyses of African experiences that pay particular attention to women as technological developers are dearth. The East African ICT4Democracy network aims to address this gender gap and with young ladies leading the activities in this network, suggests a positive and subversive trend to the stereotypes associated with gender, technology and democratic processes.

The ICT4Democracy Network in East Africa is still in its infancy stages, and the young ladies working within the network provide a point of analysis for the changing landscape in Sub-Saharan Africa. A personal narrative from one of the young ladies in the network will help this statement gain meaning. Hilda Moraa is a 23 year old Information technology graduate from Strathmore University, Kenya. She shared her passion for technology and the drive that continues to push her. She talked about her experiences as a student in a predominantly male field “the ratio of girls to boys in my study year was approximately 2:5 respectively. The gender gap in technology remains a matter of dispute. It has its origin reinforced in just as many ways. I believe the answer to reversing declining enrollment to the fallen trend of the number of women in Technology fields, is young women need to first change their mind set to believe that they can be the change makers when it comes to technology and innovation and clear the theory that the male subculture are the key players in this field. More so develop interest which is not linked to the pejorative figure of the “nerd” or “geek” as this is not what most women want to be”.

Studies have shown that female role models are particularly important for girls who wish to pursue subjects or careers dominated by men (Campbell & Wolbrecht, 2006), to this point Hilda interjects that her passion stems from “wanting to understand how to make the data sets or technology I use and develop more meaningful and innovative to the users and community at large”. Asked who her role model(s) were or are it is noteworthy the important role family plays coupled with external influence. “A role model to me is someone who encourages me to believe I can get to where they are and I look up to their behaviour, be it their leadership qualities or advice that I want to see modeled in me. Most of all open-minded people in my life especially in today’s society. From my parents who remind me of what is really important by being my mentors to individuals who have passion in technology like the late Steve Jobs to Sheryl Sandberg COO of Facebook”.

What is poignant in Hilda’s response is the reference to open-minded people. As such an environment that nurtures one’s passion and interests is just as important as one’s aspirations. Hilda continued from this point with “Many of the people outside my work respond positively to the kind of work we as the team of iHub research is conducting, as it’s based on seeking to facilitate local ICT research capacity building and to conduct local ICT qualitative and quantitative research in Africa. In our SPIDER supported project (Mobile governance) we hope to Leverage the extremely high mobile penetration and uptake of mobile applications across Kenya, by engaging with communities to use mobile phones as an effective monitoring tool to increase citizen participation and enhance faster service delivery spurring action from the different service providers and stakeholders”.

ICTs hold many promises with regards to being enablers in bridging various gaps in society. The Arab spring illustrates that ICTs can play a role in making governments accountable to citizens. ICTs can similarly address the unequal opportunities specifically regarding women. With the right incentives, young ladies like Hilda, can play a critical role steering sub-Saharan Africa towards progressive change. But as suggested by Hilda the young ladies themselves must develop this interest and if the East African ICT4Democracy Network is anything to go by, some certainly have.



Caroline Wamala