A few weeks ago there was a revolution in Tunisia. Some sources say the revolution was not televised, but rather twitterised. On 14 January, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali dissolved his government, called for legislative elections in six months and promised not to run in 2014. But this late decision did not quiet public anger on social media platforms, in particular Facebook and Twitter. Later that evening, the president fled Tunis.
Over the past several weeks we've seen the power of social media as it helped facilitate the organisation of protests so Egyptians, Yemenis, Serbians, Algerians and others could take to the streets in their numbers and demand political change.
Closer to home, in September 2010, there was unrest and deadly riots in Mozambique after the release of a simple anonymous text message: "Mozambicans, prepare yourself to enjoy the great day of the strike. Let's protest the increase in energy, water, mini-bus taxi and bread prices. Send to other Mozambicans."
“The true worth of social media lies not in its ability to make time pass in a blur, but in its disruptive potential politically,” he noted. “All over the world, social media practitioners are using the power of the internet to fight despots, dictators, corrupt politicians, evil regimes and cell phone companies.”
So why don't we add patriarchal structures, violence against women and gender disparity to that list?
Social media is on the verge of taking over in the absence of traditional media, especially in African countries where governments have created repressive media laws, and where the imprisonment of journalists is the order of the day.
It is important to note that 2011 marks the 20th anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration, a statement for press freedom principles signed by African journalists at a UNESCO seminar in Windhoek in 1991.
Considering press freedom has yet to be realised in many African countries, citizens are turning to cell phones and social media to protest societal injustices. These tools become an instrument of empowerment which can also motivate marginalised citizens and communities to voice their concerns.
In 2010 I attended the World Journalism Educators Congress (WJEC) in Grahamstown, South Africa. I remember my surprise when a young man walked up to me, introduced himself and said he was working for a Grahamstown youth newspaper called Upstart. He requested an interview and I remember thinking he didn't look like a journalist. He wasn't even carrying a notebook – and what is a journalist without a notebook?
But he then removed an ordinary cell phone from his pocket and began to ask me questions. Just as I was trying to figure out what was happening, he clicked a key on his phone and said “we start”. He was recording me on his phone. In a minute and a half we were done and seconds later the clip was posted to his website.
As I recalled this incident, I realised how empowering it was for me to be interviewed at this conference, attended by more than 700 participants.
But although women's voices only increased two percentage points in seven years, maybe things are only changing now. If my voice could be heard at this conference, in a non-traditional format, it was a score for women.
And social media in Africa is on the rise. Writing in Africa Renewal Magazine last year, André-Michel Essoungou found that Facebook has seen incredible growth on the continent, with more than 17 million users, an increase of seven million from 2009.
“More than 15% of people online in Africa are currently using the platform, compared to 11% in Asia,” he wrote. “Two other social networking websites, Twitter and YouTube, rank among the most visited websites in most African countries.”
Just as social media is reshaping politics in Africa and beyond, it holds the same potential to challenge gender inequalities in society. From preventing violence against women to profiling the successes of ordinary women, cell phones and social media can enhance women's empowerment in Africa's communities.
Maybe rather than using cell phones for “sexting”, we should begin to cultivate a culture of employing technology for social change. What about cell phone messages or “tweets” that castigate rape and sexual harassment in educational institutions? Or why don't we use technology to hold leaders accountable when it comes to changing the lives of women for the better?
The lesson here is that technology can be controlled by us, the users, and women can
produce their own content to assist in the fight for gender equality. How we choose to use this technology and the social media tools available to challenge patriarchy and unequal power relations will definitely be something to watch in the months ahead.