Empowering Girls Online: ICTs and Young Women in Zimbabwe

Young girls in Zimbabwe access the internet. Photo courtesy Nehanda Radio.

By Nyaradzo Mashayamombe

Internet connectivity in Sub-Saharan Africa has grown quickly over the past couple of years. In my country of Zimbabwe, for example, by 2015, 48 percent of the population had internet access according to the Postal and Telecommunications Regulation Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ).While there is no clear disaggregated data on internet use according to gender in Zimbabwe, statistics indicate that overall in Sub-Saharan Africa,45 percent fewer women than men have access to the internet. Furthermore, 40 percent of women in Africa do not have access to information and communications technology (ICT) for professional or personal use. This translates into lost opportunities in terms of education, civic engagement, and personal advancement.

For girls and young women, being able to access technology creates opportunities for their social and economic development. In my own experience working with young women, I have seen how being online allows girls and young women to solve their own problems as they begin to interact with and contribute to the world. The internet allows them to attend virtual workshops, enroll in online classes, and livestream international conferences where decisions being made on their behalf are being debated.

The dangers of technology

While there is a huge need for increased access to technology for young people in Africa, especially young women, I have also seen a growing number of young people become victims of misuse and abuse of available technologies. This has become a huge threat for their empowerment. For example, pornography continues to be a problem for young people as it presents a distorted notion of human sexuality and female agency. These warped ideas about human relationships can lead to abusive relationships. Now, however, a growing number of young women have found themselves having to deal with a new challenge that threatens both their opportunities and integrity—revenge pornography. This occurs when a former lover or acquaintance distributes a nude photo or sex tape.

In Zimbabwe, a number of young women have lost jobs or economic opportunities because of revenge pornography. I have seen ex-lovers releasing naked images of their former girlfriends to embarrass them and ultimately shame them. Two former Miss World Zimbabwe contestants lost opportunities to compete on a global stage because their former lovers released naked pictures. Subsequently, they lost opportunities to contest on the Miss World pageants, which amounted to a public shaming. A number of young women have also lost employment opportunities because they have had sex tapes released to the world. Therefore, they are the ones who lose opportunities as employers recuse themselves of associating with individuals who are frowned upon by society.

For organizations like Tag a Life International Trust (TaLI), which works on the empowerment of girls and young women in Zimbabwe, the most worrisome trend is that most often in either sex tapes or nude pictures, it is only the girls whose faces are visible. The boys usually manage to either make their faces unclear or make the focus of the video on the girl. This raises the question of how to best empower girls with information to protect their identities should they decide to engage in such activities. The communities where these girls grew up often make the consequences of these actions worse for women than for men.

Mitigating the dangers

In order to help girls and young women navigate these new threats, civil society needs to develop programs for internet empowerment of girls and young women, as well as come up with mitigating programs to stop boys and men from abusing these technologies. These programs must include sessions on responsible and effective internet use, responsible technology use such as refusing to take nude pictures and sex tapes from their lovers, how to use internet for professional development, and how to protect rights online. On the other hand, boys and men need to be engaged to stop manipulating girls and young women into taking nude pictures and sex tapes, and realizing the harm it causes such as emotional and economic opportunities missed by girls.

Laws should also be put in place to end unauthorized distribution of nude pictures and sex tapes by former lovers. Indeed, there are efforts underway by women’s groups in Zimbabwe to do just this. In the event of laws are created, girls also need to then use the law should they be violated. Community attitudes of frowning upon girls whose pictures or sex tapes are released should be changed to begin to frown upon boys and men who take advantage and release these. Also, once young women have learned to responsibly use technology, they can begin to blog, tell their stories, and promote self-respect and love to prevent more girls falling prey to sex tapes. Girls can also run campaigns to counter misogyny and sexism in their communities.

Moving forward: Increasing Access

Increasing women’s access to technology must be incorporated into the overall democracy agenda of Zimbabwe and Africa. In order to achieve this agenda, we must be willing and able to teach girls and young women how to use these tools responsibly and productively. Technology must be viewed by communities as a tool for the promotion and realization of girls and young women’s rights and well-being, including reproductive health and gender equality.

Governments must invest more in infrastructure development to ensure that the most marginalized communities have access to technology, especially in rural areas where girls are more significantly disadvantaged. In the past the president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, donated computers to schools under the banner of the Schools Computerization Programme. Unfortunately, this program did not reach all schools and far too few computers were distributed to give all students access. Moreover, in Zimbabwe this type of initiative raises a lot of governance questions because often such distribution efforts are associated with political favoritism and electioneering. Yet, increased access to ICTs is still a must and we should start by redoubling efforts to make sure that each child in school has access to ICTs and the internet. This will go a long way in promoting justice and making important tools available to young woman that they can use to empower themselves and shape society for the better.

Nyaradzo Mashayamombe is a global human rights activist focusing on girls and young women’s issues. She was a Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy earlier this year. She is the Founder and Executive Director of Tag a Life International Trust (TaLI), a girls and young women’s advocacy group. In addition to being an entrepreneur and development consultant, she is a singer and songwriter.

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