Kenyan Women’s Tech Agenda
What happens when you put women at the center of examining Kenya’s booming technology scene? Specifically, what should Kenyan women’s agenda for the ongoing tech revolution look like?
I believe that Kenyan women’s technology agenda should focus on freedom. But not freedom in the conventional sense; the women’s agenda for technology should focus on both freedom ‘from’ and freedom ‘to’.
Conventional understandings of freedom center on freedom from oppression: freedom from others harming us. An innovative approach to women’s participation in the tech space should focus on both women’s freedom ‘from’ current impediments but it should, more importantly, also focus on women’s freedom ‘to’ use technology and to transform the way tech is used in Kenya.
To explain, Kenyan women’s tech agenda should focus on three key elements of freedom that are critical in the current context in Kenya: Access, Security, and Empowerment
Traditional understandings of women’s access to technology rely on just counting the numbers of women using technology. Indeed numerous reports and studies have focused on how many Kenyan women own mobile phones and how many women are regularly online. The question of access has been reduced to bean counting.
A cutting edge agenda for Kenyan women and technology must also be concerned with ‘which’ women are coming online and conversely which ones are being left behind. It is not enough to merely count female bodies in the tech space.
Concern for the issue of women’s access to technology needs to ensure that technology does not remain the preserve of wealthy women. Indeed if we’re not careful, imbalanced access to technology can exacerbate existing Kenya’s class, ethnic and other differences between women.
When we think about access as an important component of women’s access to technology, we must pay attention to the wealth differences between women. For women to have true freedom ‘to’ be online we must fight for poor women’s access and knowledge of technology.
If we don’t ensure poor women’s access to technology we risk a situation where wealthy women take over speaking ‘for’ poor women with dire consequences for democracy.
Indeed the biggest promise of technology is in enhancing Kenya’s burgeoning democracy is arming the voting public with tools to keep their elected officials and governments accountable. Access to technology is key to this and women’s access particularly so. We cannot then afford to turn this promise on its head for poor women who end up lacking the tools and who are then unable to participate in critical democratic conversations.
Security and Safety
A second element of women’s agenda for technology is safety. Conventional understandings of safety and security in the tech space often focus on viruses, terrorism, and identity theft.
Kenya women’s agenda for technology needs to look beyond these conventional understandings to again embrace issues of both freedom ‘from’ and freedom ‘to’.
The most critical agenda item for Kenyan women when it comes to security in technology is actually creating safe spaces for women and girls. Indeed even as we struggle for all women’s access to the web we must continue the struggle to secure safe spaces for women and girls both online and offline.
A recent study of Internet safety for Kenyan women by KICTANET shows that going online can expose women and especially girls to greater risk. A cursory glance on facebook reveals the many ways that women, especially successful women who have broken outside the mold of convention are under continuous attack by Kenya’s cyber bullies. Perhaps the most striking examples of this are the ways that female media personalities including reporters like Caroline Mutoko are continually harassed on social media. If we are not careful, we may fight for women’s access to technology only to expose the same women to various forms of violence, especially psychological violence meted out by Kenya’s home grown cyber bullies.
The third and most important element of Kenyan women’s tech agenda needs to be empowerment. Again we must move beyond thinking of empowerment in the traditional sense. Kenyan women must embrace the ways that our use of technology is not just changing us but also how we as women are shaping technology itself.
Conventional understandings of how technology empowers women are mostly concerned with women’s economic empowerment: we worry most about how women can make money using technology. Organizations like SamaSource have found ways to create work for women using technology. While some argue that such work is merely glorified sweatshop labour, proponents maintain that the income that women generate is truly empowering.
Jobs in tech are not the holy grail for women.
I argue that Kenyan women should ask more of technology. Income is good but we can, and should, have more.
The way to achieve this ‘more’ is to ask what difference it fundamentally makes to have Kenyan women engaged with technology. Do we, as women, bring about a fundamentally different structure of relationships by using technology?
Kenyan society is inherently hierarchial. A cursory look at our politics at the national scale (ill-behaved waheshimiwa) and all the way down to our behavior behind the closed doors of our homes (the ill treatment metted out on our domestic workers). Women, Kenyan women especially, do very poorly in hierarchies. We tend to remain at the bottom.
Indeed, women, some argue, tend to think and live in ways that are anti-hierarchy. That Chamas are a women’s phenomenon only serves to strengthen this argument.
I believe that the web is one place where women hold tremendous potential to bring about grand transformation because the Web offers tremendous potential for a restructuring of power relations from hierarchy and into a web of interconnectedness.
Unlike Kenyan society, and very much as a mirror to women’s lives, the web is ‘flat’ in very fundamental ways. Interconnection is key. Hierarchies don’t work so well on the web and success, as especially highlighted in social media, is dependent on one’s interconnectedness.
Women enter this encounter with an upper hand. We have had lifetimes of training and socialization to build ‘flat’ and connected communities. Indeed numerous studies on women in the corporate sector now highlight the ways that women bring stronger collaboration skills to workplaces. And as globalization continues full steam ahead, women’s abilities to collaborate and build communities of sharing represent an increasingly advantageous resource. Kenyan women are already empowered in this sense.
Kenyan women’s continued engagement with technology from this position of strength is not only good for technology, its good for Kenyan society. The more that women thrive in a field where they hold competitive advantage, the more the values of a less hierarchical and more ‘flat’ society will become apparent in the broader society. Women’s lives and ways of living can make Kenya a better place.
As such, Kenyan women’s tech agenda must embrace empowerment not just from a perspective of the money that women make by engaging technology. The women’s agenda must seek to understand the ways that women can, and are already empowered to transform technology and to transform society as well.
Women Who Tech: http://www.womenwhotech.com
Take Back the Tech: http://www.takebackthetech.net/