Governments Urged to Adopt Specific Policies Addressing Tech-Facilitated Violence Against Women in Politics

By Asimwe John Ishabairu|

The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) on March 15, 2024 hosted a webinar to commemorate this year’s International Women’s Day theme; ‘InspireInclusion: African Women in Politics are Pushing Back Against Tech Facilitated Online Violence’, the webinar highlighted the importance of increased political inclusion of women noting that this is threatened by rising affronts to the presence and participation of women in political narratives both online and offline.“

“As women, we indeed face a lot of online abuse, and, unfortunately, whatever is happening now may hinder those who would want to be politicians, especially women. Because of online abuse, most women who want to join politics will be afraid of putting their life in the public eye,” said Hon. Susan Dossi,  Member of Parliament representing Chikwawa West Constituency – Malawi. Hon. Dossi added that Malawi is working on strategies to ensure that the country has more women in Parliament.

While sharing her experience, Tanzania’s MP representing Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), Hon. Neema Lugangira acknowledged that she had on several occasions been a victim of online abuse.

“When we are talking about online abuse, it’s not just on the social media platforms where you don’t know the people who are doing these abuses…its from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, all the way to WhatsApp groups where you actually know the people…at least you know their contact numbers because you are in the same group. It is not an easy situation to be in,” said Lugangira.

She added that abusers oftentimes tend to hide under the blanket of “using their freedom of expression” to critique work of female politicians, but in actual fact, they are using their freedom of expression to limit us from using our own freedom of expression.” Lugangira noted.

Asked how this situation affects their online conversations, Lugangira responded saying that a lot of women parliamentarians choose not to be online and instead opt to self-censor due to the incredible amount of abuse that is subjected to them even when they are exercising their practice as politicians and simply dispensing information.

She opined that the issue of online abuse of women in politics is diminishing democracy and taking African countries back on efforts of democracy while decreasing the number of women and girls who might want to get into politics.

The webinar went on to also cast a spotlight on how women in active politics in various African countries are working towards protecting the rights of women online, including through different legal frameworks and platforms that have to play in addressing TFGBV associated with political spaces and discourse.

As a possible solution to this, Hon. Modestus Amutse, the Deputy Minister of ICT in Namibia said that more African countries needed to develop policies that have specific content to protect women against gender-based violence, especially online.

He noted that countries have policies that are directing the use of the internet in terms of governance, data protection or cyber security but these are not gender specific  in many cases.

“They are just there to protect, perhaps the security of everyone on an equal basis. I would have loved to see policies that have provisions targeting the protection of women so that they are free when they use the internet because it is supposed to be open and accessible to all the people in respect to gender,” he noted.

Hon. Modestus emphasized a need for African countries to identify gaps that need to be filled so that they come up with provisions in ICT policies or online policies that give confidence to women to use the internet without fear.

Meanwhile, he said that Namibia encourages women participation in politics and that it is one of the countries where they have a 50, 50 gender balance when it comes to selecting members to go to parliament.

For Nigeria, Ms. Adedolapo Adegoro, noted that the country has one of the lowest representations in Africa with respect to women in parliament or holding political positions.

She also questioned the failure in the implementation of different laws that seek to protect women from online bullying.

“The Nigerian Cyber Crimes Act has the highest provisions that sort of protect women from online bullying…these provisions have been there for quite a while however, the first time it really received definition of interpretation from the courts was about four or five years ago,” Adedolapo noted.

She cited a need to adopt a multi-stakeholder approach where all actors are involved in putting together policies and procedures geared towards protection of women online.

Meta’s Sylvia Musalagani said that their organization believes that women have a right to participate in the online environment and have a right to find economic opportunities.

“We do recognize the place that our platforms play in women’s participation online and we are committed to continue having direct conversations with parliamentary initiatives and share ideas on how to improve,” she said.

The panelists appealed to social media platform operators to improve their content moderation practices regarding TFGBV. They observed a need for Meta to engage Members of Parliament through the African Parliamentary Network on Internet Governance so as to strengthen online space and ensure that more women get into politics.

“For more women to retain political seats, we need to be visible…if we are not online, it limits our visibility,” Tanzania’s Neema Lugangira said.

According to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 on Gender Equality, digital technologies have the potential to increase women’s inclusion, participation, and engagement in politics, providing them with a platform to have their voices heard.

Over the years, women in politics have increasingly relied on various digital tools, especially social media platforms, to connect with their constituencies. However, they have also become the targets of online threats and abuse. It was observed that this techy-facilitated gender-based violence (TFGBV) not only impedes women’s equitable and meaningful participation in public offices but also their long-term willingness to engage in public life.

Online Activism is Moving the Dial on Social Accountability in Uganda

By Peter G. Mwesige |

The viral #UgandaParliamentExhibition hashtag campaign on X on the excesses of the Ugandan parliament has once again put digital media at the centre of debate on citizen agency in the demand for transparency and accountability from duty bearers.

Fifteen years or so ago, the jury was still out on whether digital platforms including social media were a boon to citizen participation or the bane of meaningful political action. Even more recently, “hashtag activism” or what some called “slacktivism” was still being dismissed as “performative activism” that inhibited offline participation or created the illusion of participation.

The debate remains unsettled, but there is no denying that social media platforms have “democratised access to information” and offered alternative avenues for citizens to amplify their voice in the demand for accountability from those that hold power.    

The Ugandan online exhibitions were started last year by Dr. Jimmy Spire Ssentongo, an academic, cartoonist, and social commentator. He has described them as “an open invitation to the public, to whoever has an issue about a particular institution or sector to come out … a public initiative to demand for accountability; to showcase things (people) are not happy about; to showcase their pain.”

From the #UgandaPotholeExhibition, the #UgandaHealthExhibition, the #UgandaNGOExhibition (where the activists appeared to devour their own), the #UgandaLabourExhibition, the #UgandaSecurityExhibition and so on, activists have been joined by Ugandans from all walks of life to shine the torchlight on pressing public concerns.

The #UgandaParliamentExhibition is slightly different. It has been organised under the AGORA Centre for Research, the brainchild of journalist and lawyer Agather Atuhaire, who recently won the U.S. State Department International Women of Courage Award (and last year won the European Union’s Human Rights Defenders’ Award in Uganda), fellow lawyer Godwin Toko, and others. Sharing evidence from official records, highlighting standout posts on digital flyers, throwing in the occasional handwritten satirical stingers from Ssentongo, and complementing tweeting with X Spaces, AGORA has flooded the zone with evidence of abuse of public funds at parliament. The vociferous Anthony Natif of Public Square and exiled activist and author Kakwenza Rukirabasaija have also lit up the exhibition.

In a space of about two weeks the #UgandaParliamentExhibition laid bare the scope of the abuse of public funds in the August House as well as blatant nepotism and favouritism in recruitment of staff.  The exhibition laid this at the door of the Speaker of Parliament Anita Among and the Parliamentary Commission that she heads, whose members include the Prime Minister, the Minister of Finance, the Leader of the Opposition (LoP) and a few Members of Parliament (MPs) representing both the ruling party and the opposition.

At the heart of the expose is the billions of shillings that have been spent in travel allowances, and the so-called corporate social responsibility by the Speaker, as well as the “service awards” that were passed as “personal to holder” for the former LoP Mathias Mpuuga and Commissioners Solomon Silwany, Prossy Akampurira Mbabazi, and Esther Afoyochan, all representing the ruling National Resistance Movement. Mpuuga bagged Uganda Shillings (UGX) 500 million, equivalent to 130,000 US Dollars (USD) while three Commissioners received UGX 400 million each.

The service award for the former LoP has already caused a storm in his party, the National Unity Platform, which has asked him to resign from the Commission. Other interest groups, such as the Uganda Law Society, have also weighed in, saying by participating in a meeting that passed awards which would benefit them personally, Mpuuga and the other commissioners violated the Leadership Code. 

The Speaker has refused to entertain any debate on what has been exposed by the #UgandaParliamentExhibition despite calls by a number of MPs that the institution should be held accountable in the same way it holds other government agencies to account. She remained adamant last week when new LoP Joel Ssenyonyi condemned the “deafening silence” by parliament on the issues raised on social media and the ruling party “rebel MP” Theodore Ssekikubo demanded a response to the “grave allegations” of impropriety and profligacy. “Me to answer you on hearsay, on things you have cooked on social media because I have said no to bum-shafting, I will not,” Among responded.

“Bum-shafting” was a derogatory reference to homosexuality, which is outlawed in Uganda. Under Among’s stewardship, parliament last year passed the Anti-Homosexuality Act, 2023, attracting backlash from the international community that has seen Uganda lose development funding.

Interestingly, Speaker Among had previously commended the online exhibitions. During the #UgandaHealthExhibition last year, she “urge(d) both public servants and political leaders to take feedback from the public in good faith and use it to improve further.”

President Yoweri Museveni had earlier responded to the #KampalaPotholeExhibition by directing the Ministry of Finance to release UGX 6 billion for emergency road repairs in the city. He has this time joined the Speaker to condemn the online activists. “How can you talk so much about Anita Among? (What) about those working for foreigners? We are going to expose those traitors,” Museveni said on March 23, 2024, after commissioning the Speaker’s Bukedea Teaching Hospital and College of Health Sciences in her home district. 

Clearly, online activism has moved the dial on social accountability. The government and others who have been the subject of the exhibitions may not always be responsive, but they can’t claim they haven’t heard the voice of the people.

One can argue that the traction of online social justice campaigns makes the riskier street protests unnecessary. Indeed, in a country where public demonstrations on hot button issues have been criminalised in complete disregard of the constitutional right of citizens to protest and petition the government, the alternative offered by digital platforms should be embraced.

But the digital warriors leading these campaigns still face the same risks that the street activists before them confronted – such as surveillance, online smear attacks, threats of arrests and other forms of intimidation. Accordingly, online activism should not be seen as a replacement of traditional forms of protest. As Dr. Ssentongo argued when he appeared on Robert Kabushenga’s #360Mentor X Space in April last year, it should not be an either-or-question. “Those who can organise online should and those who can organise (through) other means should (also do so),” he said.

The other issue that has been raised quite a lot especially during the #UgandaParliamentExhibition is the failure of the traditional news media (newspapers, radio, and television) to uncover the corruption in parliament.

The credibility of the journalists who cover parliament has taken a major knock, but this does not mean social media should replace mainstream media as our only sources of news as some have suggested.

In defence of the journalists who are still passionate about public affairs reporting, the gatekeeping bar for what gets to be published in the major media houses is much higher. On social media, anything goes, although to AGORA’s credit, most of the information they have released about parliament has been verified.

But it would be unrealistic to expect citizen-driven online campaigns to bring the same “discipline of verification” parliament’s Director of Communication and Public Affairs Chris Obore, a former journalist, seems to demand. Social media will always be messy. Just like democracy, some would say.

We need a multiplicity of platforms (both digital/social media as well as credible mainstream media) to provide information about what is happening in parliament and other public sectors, provide the public with platforms for debate, and hold duty bearers accountable.  

And we need sustained pressure both online and offline to continue driving the demand for accountability and meaningful change. In a democracy, what has been exposed through Uganda’s online exhibitions would have been enough to drive action and change. But in a country where leaders are openly contemptuous of public opinion, and where the public cannot count on free and fair elections to kick out those who abuse their trust, online activists and other social justice actors still have their work cut out.

About the author: Dr. Peter G. Mwesige is Chief of Party of the USAID Your Rights Activity led by CIPESA.

2024 the Year of Democracy: African Electoral Authorities Release Guidelines for Social Media Use

By CIPESA Writer |

Over the last couple of years, digital and social media have come to play a central role in elections in Africa. That role has many bright sides, such as enabling swift voter education by electoral bodies, efficient campaigns by candidates, as well as monitoring and reporting malpractice. For the bigger part, in many African countries, the focus has centred on the negative impacts of digital platforms that often threaten social cohesion and electoral integrity, so much so that social media and sometimes all of the internet have been blocked at crucial times of the electoral cycle.

Concerns about ‘not throwing out the baby with the bathwater’, as some countries have appeared to do with drastic measures such as network disruptions, elicited a need for guidelines on how digital platforms, including social networking sites and private messaging applications, should be utilised during elections. Such guidelines would nurture the great potential that these media can deliver to candidates, political parties, and Election Management Bodies (EMBs), and to electoral integrity, while combating disinformation, hate speech, Technology-Facilitated gender-based violence (TFGBV), and other harms that they can enable.

This is the spirit behind the development of the Principles and Guidelines for the Use of Digital and Social Media in Elections in Africa, which were launched in South Africa on  February 27-29, 2024 at an event where the country’s deputy president, Paul Mashatile, was guest of honour. The Guidelines are the brainchild of the Association of African Election Authorities (AAEA), whose General Assembly endorsed them in November 2023 in Cotonou, Benin. The Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) coordinated the development of the Guidelines, with support from the African Union Commission, the United Nations Electoral Assistance Division (EAD), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and various African experts and civil society groups including the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA).

The stated objective of the Guidelines is to enhance the capacities of EMBs and other relevant electoral stakeholders to harness the advantages of social media and tackle the adverse effects of new and emerging digital technologies.

The Guidelines could help to stem the growing use of social media, including by state officials, opposition parties and “paid influencers” to sow disinformation and undermine electoral integrity, prompt platforms to do more to moderate harmful content, pave way for regulating political advertising, hopefully deter such antics as Cambridge Analytica played in elections in Kenya and Nigeria, and discourage internet disruptions that create an information vacuum and undermine electoral credibility.

Launching the Guidelines represents a major step in developing a crucial normative framework which entities around the continent should embrace. Indeed, in this crucial year in which up to 16 African countries will hold national/presidential elections, electoral authorities and other stakeholders would do well to adopt the use of the guidelines. Popularising the Guidelines will be critical for their uptake.

The adoption of the Principles and Guidelines signalled a new era for EMBs in the quest to reap the benefits of digital and social media while also investigating ways to mitigate the inherent harms that could jeopardise the credibility of electoral processes. Paul Mashatile, South Africa’s Deputy President.

The Guidelines encourage African EMBs to develop a clear and comprehensive plan for responsible social media use during election campaigns. They also lay down guidelines for various stakeholders, including the media and civil society organisations.

Furthemore, as noted by the IEC, they encourage African member states and regulatory authorities to refrain from imposing measures that might disrupt access to the internet, and to digital and social media. They call on social media operators to treat political parties and candidates equitably and ensure that their online messaging, including that of their supporters, does not undermine electoral integrity or contravene human rights.

On Responsibilities of Social Media Companies: In line with the United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), digital and social media must put in place processes for human rights due diligence and human rights impact assessment to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for how they address their impacts on human rights during the electoral cycle, and disclose these processes for transparency and accountability.

In sum, these timely guidelines, if implemented, could help combat digital harms and enhance electoral integrity across the continent.

Resolution on Internet Shutdowns and Elections in Africa: A Progressive Step for Electoral Democracy

By Edrine Wanyama |

The Resolution on Internet Shutdowns and Elections in Africa adopted by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights at its 78th Private Ordinary Session on March 8, 2024, marks a progressive step for electoral democracy in Africa.

Anchored on  the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Good Governance and other regional and international human rights instruments, the resolution calls on African countries to take the necessary legislative and other measures to ensure unrestricted and uninterrupted access to the internet in the period leading up to, during and after elections. Article 4(1) of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Good Governance calls on State Parties to promote democracy, the rule of law and human rights.

In addition, the resolution calls on states to refrain from ordering internet and telecommunications service providers from shutting down or disrupting internet access and other digital communication platforms. It also requires these service providers to inform users of potential disruptions and to exercise due diligence to expeditiously resolve any disruptions.

Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and Principles 37(2), 38(1) and 38(2) of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, recognise and emphasise the value of freedom of expression and access to information, including through the use of digital technologies. Similarly, Article 26 of the Guidelines on Access to Information and Elections in Africa calls on telecommunications and broadcasting media regulators and national security agencies in both the public and private spheres to refrain from acts that seek to block the internet during electoral processes. 

Notably, the resolution is a wake-up call for African countries as they head into elections to safeguard the credibility of elections since internet shutdowns often discredit electoral processes, raise suspicions of states’ actions, and raise questions about the accountability and transparency of electoral processes. 

Thus the resolution is a timely intervention this year when 21 African countries ( Algeria, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Chad, Comoros, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, South Sudan, Tanzania, Togo and Tunisia) will hold elections.

CIPESA commends the Commission for issuing this fundamental resolution which shines a light on the significance of the internet in facilitating freedom of expression and access to information, which are key tenets of electoral processes. 

According to Ashnah Kalemera, the Programmes Manager at CIPESA, “This resolution is a welcome milestone which reflects CIPESA’s and partners’ consistent advocacy against network disruptions in Africa. The timing is critical given that 2024 is the year of democracy, with many countries on the continent going to the polls. ” 

Meanwhile, the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Good Governance has so far been ratified by 38 member States. Many countries that are yet to ratify the instrument, such as Eswatini, Gabon, Morocco, Somalia, Tanzania, the Democratic  Republic of Congo, Tunisia and Uganda, have implemented internet disruptions during electoral processes.

In line with the provisions of the resolution, CIPESA will continue to enhance its efforts to advocate for open access to the internet as a tool for advancing freedom of expression, access to information and participation in electoral democracy. 

Webinar: How African Women in Politics Are Pushing Back Against Tech-Facilitated Gender-Based Violence

Event |

Gender diversity in political leadership is critical for promoting equity, inclusion, and economic benefits. However, gender disparities in political participation still exist globally, particularly in Africa. Digital technologies can assist in solving this disparity given their ability to give voice and civic agency to different political actors, especially women, and space for political engagement. As enshrined in Sustainable Development Goal 5 on Gender Equality, digital technologies have the potential to increase women’s inclusion, participation, and engagement in politics, providing them with a platform to have their voices heard. Indeed, women in politics are increasingly leveraging the power of various digital tools, and in particular social media platforms, to connect with their constituencies. 

Despite this reliance on online social platforms, women in politics have also become the targets of online threats and abuse. These attacks are heightened during election periods and when women voice dissenting opinions. This technology-facilitated gender-based violence (TFGBV) not only impedes women’s equitable and meaningful participation in public offices but also their long-term willingness to engage in public life. Further, it negatively influences the broader spectrum of women consuming or engaging with their content and consequently undermines the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals. 

Addressing these challenges is essential to ensure that digital technologies become true enablers for the enhancement of women’s participation in democracy and good governance, including in politics, rather than exacerbating existing disparities in Africa. 

This month, we join the global community in celebrating women under the themes of #InspireInclusion, which encourages the realisation of a gender-equal world free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination. However, amidst the global celebration, it is crucial to spotlight the  persistent TFGBV faced by African women in politics and the need to increase investment into addressing these concerns as highlighted by the United Nations campaign themed #InvestInWomen.

In an upcoming webinar, the Collaboration in International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) will focus on the importance of increased political inclusion of women in politics. The role of active online engagement will be highlighted as a key driver in enabling the needs of women in politics in various African countries and as a tool to meaningfully participate in the information society.  More importantly, the webinar will cast a spotlight on how women in active politics in various African countries are pushing back against the violence and negative narratives online and the role that legal frameworks and platforms have to play in addressing TFGBV associated with political spaces and discourse.  

Webinar details

Date:  March 15, 2024

Time: 14:00-15:00 (Nairobi Time).

Register to participate in the webinar here