Electric Lady: Let’s Talk Tech x Feminism

Internet access has been declared as a basic human right by the United Nations in 2016. Two years later, in South Africa despite all the promises made about the “New Dawn” and the righteous “Thuma Mina” chants, we are yet to have a real conversation around the #DataMustFall campaign.

In a world where women still fall behind men in relation to workplace equality, by improving the digital skills of women and girls, we could tangibly close the digital gender gap faster.

The Digital Gender Gap

The worldover, especially in Africa, internet penetration is obviously higher for men than it is for women. According to the World Wide Web Foundation, Africa accounts for the biggest portion of this gap.  About 23% less women use the internet in comparison to men and 14% of women own cell phones in comparison to men globally. This means that women are already disadvantaged from fully participating in globalisation.

About 304 million women, which is 64% of Sub-Saharan Africa do not own a mobile device. Socially and culturally constructed gender roles often shape and limit the capacity of women and men to participate on equal terms. Most women often lack the financial resources and the levels of education for internet and computer services. Some regions and demographics obviously have access to modern information and communications while others do not. It’s about time we prioritized digital skills and access to internet for young women and girls in our activism. 

Fourth Industrial Revolution

As our government embraces the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), which is characterised by new technologies and merging the physical, digital and biological worlds, black South African women and girls risk being left behind. Campaigns like #DataMustFall provide critical starting points to enable our participation in the 4IR. Equipping women with computer and internet skills with the opportunity to reduce poverty in peri-urban and rural communities.

Evidence shows that education is the key to closing the gender digital gap by directing more women towards tech industries. However, studies have also shown that despite there being fewer women in technology than men, many of those who are qualified are still not hired.  In South Africa, 22 percent of computer science graduates are women, but only 2.9 percent of them receive jobs in the field of technology. As women we are at risk of suffering in the 4IR as we are less likely to participate in the new technologies that will lead to job creation.The employment gender gap could widen as a result. 

A Male Dominated History On Tech

Let’s consider the fact that women invented computer science and not just men.

Modern computing began in the late 1940’s, during World War II. The US military would hire women to solve complex calculations that would improve the accuracy of weapons on the battlefield. Exactly! Much like the movie Hidden Figures? Grace Hopper, a US military Navy Officer and mathematics professor developed a compiler. This is a device which translates english instructions into computer code. Her work literally paved the way for modern programming language.

Throughout the 1950’s and 60’s, women often worked behind the scenes in software engineering while men worked in hardware. Software was perceived as mindless and menial and so computer programming became women’s work.

Any Electric Ladies Doing The Lord’s Work In Africa?

Meet 24 year old Ian Mangenga,  social entrepreneur and women's rights activists who advocates for women to participate in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, she is the founder of Digital Girl Africa. Her company is a digital hub that transfers digital skills to women and girls and connects them to opportunities in digital technology.

The hub was founded in April 2018  with the aim to increase women's access to opportunities in digital technology, improve their skills and confidence in the field and to create a community of young women in Africa that are using digital technology to shape the future. To date Digital Girl Africa has hosted a digital storytelling workshop for unemployed young women in Ekurhuleni. A  5-day coding bootcamp for teenagers, including a social media masterclass for women entrepreneurs and teenage girls in digital dialogue.

Strategically Planning Around The Motherboard In SA

Accenture conducted a study titled “Getting to Equal 2017” , the research study revealed that digitally fluent working class, unemployed and undergraduate women could deliver enormous social and economic benefits for South Africa as digital skills are vital to current and future workforces.

Gale Shabangu, The Inclusion and Diversity lead at Accenture, said “The potential impact is profound. Combining these equalisers could potentially add nearly 100-million women to the global workforce, reduce the pay gap by 355 worldwide and add $3,9-trillion to women’s income by 2030”. 

We collectively need to invest more money into digital skill training programmes for women and young girls. Technology is revolutionizing the world by providing tools for entrepreneurship, access to critical health and education. The feminist agenda in South Africa ought to think and plan more strategically around how to harness this potential to create a more equitable and just society. JUST CODE IT.

The unlearning of nervous conditions - Chasing freedom in an unequal world

Imagine living in a world where you ask yourself on a daily basis why your existence is significantly harder and more challenging purely based on your sex. Do not get me wrong, my level of peace about being blessed with womanhood far outweighs the amount of anxiety a person should have living and protecting this gift.

This then begs the question as to what led to the abusive and isolating environment that women have been forced into, why is it that my gender is such a colossal threat to society that living as a woman within it, leads to explosive and exaggerated violent displays of power which ultimately ends in my kind being systematically oppressed, wounded, maimed and/or killed?

Due to the countless amounts of trauma that this continent  has been through, pinpointing those said events as the start of the murderous thread that led to the subjugation of women could answer the above question, however patriarchy has been alive and well long before any outside “trauma “ or  nations  stepped onto our shores.

Over the years, the women of Africa have had to endure systematic oppression over an array of issues such as cultural, political, religious as well as economical.  Long before colonisation and slavery took place, traditional culture has been founded on patriarchal value systems which adopted  oppressive yet accepted  forms of role categorization of women in the African society. One can begin to understand the lineage of a typical African women's' developmental impediment. The position of women in pre-colonial Africa was hindered mainly because of the societal norms that existed.

As is the norm in many different societies, African women would be type-cast from birth and taught via chores and day-to-day behaviours the cruel art of subservience which ultimately determined their path in life. All these teachings were fundamental in ensuring that the girl child was moulded and primed to be a perfect wife. Perfect in that she was at the beck and call of her husband and family and was equipped to handle the needs of her spouse.

The same held true for the boy child in the traditional African environment. The boys were type-cast to perform male specific duties with their fathers which conditioned them to become dominant over their female counterparts. Just as young girls were primed to be wives, homemakers and respect their husband, males were taught to be providers and expect an unquestioned acceptance and redistribution of the oppressive lifestyle they were taught by their elders, continuing the cycle of a one-sided privilege.

Now it is important to pause and add that household chores and other assigned duties that may befall  many women  in and out of Africa, are not the reason why women were and still are oppressed. It is the entitlement and commitment to using those assigned responsibilities as a way to dominate one gender over the other. Also, it is the exclusivity of certain roles being applicable to certain genders that create the pillars of oppression.

Gender inequality and sexual discrimination form as a backdrop for many women in the African trajectory. Inequality is as infectious as disease, a crippling attitude that kills ambition, crushes the oppressed spirit and perpetuates the suppression of women gathering and rallying together to emancipate themselves and future generations.

In the midst of all the chaos, it is important to note that the opposite does exist in matriarchal societies.  Even though there are many progressive strides within these societies, there is a glass ceiling to the momentum gained in that these societies usually operate in isolation, thus the growth of the long-standing wave of tradition will hardly spill over to other borders in the interest to preserve and protect those within.

A study conducted by The University of San Francisco (UFS) in 2015 observed that matriarchal societies within Africa, particularly the Ashanti tribe in Ghana showed positive feedback with regards to the effects a matriarchal environment produced. The study found that the importance of education was a valuable lesson afforded to all, an investment that was bearing fruit in that, more girls had instructive information involving reproduction topics which then created an increase in reproductive agency in the use of contraceptives, the choice to postpone childbirth and a massive decline in infant- and child-mortality rates. However, they found that there were still inequalities that inadvertently pushed for the privilege of men over women.

According to UFS, there was a discrepancy in the number of women enrolled in secondary education compared to the number of men. This was explained in terms of the sociocultural view that women were best suited to be mothers, and men were financial supporters, they also found that the provided education severely limited choices by emphasizing home economics as the best career for African women. The women who were interviewed indicated that because of a kinship-lineage emphasis, they felt pressured to have children to continue their lineage and more importantly, they felt that their social status was linked to their ability to bear children.

So unless a matriarchal community has control and access to change all levels of society (political, social and economic), it operating in isolation and without the support of pertinent institutions such as educational stakeholders who can redefine the curriculum to favour all , the perpetuation of patriarchy will live on.

Although change makers may be creating massive strides in ensuring women have rights to almost everything, even though access is not guaranteed, there are many obstacles that women continue to endure, obstacles that leave us well behind our male counterparts. From policing women’s bodies through enforcing patriarchal limitations and rules in child rearing, clothing, controlling the digital climate and perpetuating rape culture, the world is still priming men to dominate over their female counterparts and conditioning women to concede and actively continue the toxic culture.

This then leads us to the present. Albeit the many years of brainwashing and conditioning, the search for equality amongst the oppressed has always been a growing force against patriarchy. Furthermore in an attempt to keep the upper hand in almost every aspect of society, women chasing an equal freedom afforded to men by men, has led to a bloody and underhanded war against us. This then makes it almost impossible for our gender to make any sustainable gains and come out of that war alive, but here we stand.

So, what now?

An ode to Dudu Dlamini: Decriminalisation of sex work is a feminist issue

The bottom line is: decriminalisation of sex work and the violation of sex workers is not an issue for us self-proclaimed feminists. No matter how you spin shit and whatever beautiful form it takes after, it will still be and smell like shit.

And our sex worker exclusive feminist radical feminism (SWERF) is shit. This might probably offend you, the whole “your feminism is shit” part. But it is perfectly natural to be uncomfortable and angry when our privilege and oppression is called out. Power though the defensiveness. Stay and read on. Be a good feminist babes.

I want to tell you about a Black feminist warrior who carries a burning spear called Sis Dudu. Sis Dudu is a sex work activist working with SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task Force) and the founder of Mothers For The Future. At the World Aids Conference in Amsterdam, Sis Dudu Dlamini won the Prudence Mabele Award for her advocacy work. The Prudence Mabele Award is an award named after a South African womxn’s rights activist who advocated for people living with HIV/AIDS. Sis Dudu travels the world advocating for the decriminalization of sex at the United Nations level. Sis Dudu works tirelessly for decriminalization of sex work in South Africa. She and many other activists (i.e Nosipho Vidima, Lee Daniels…) are the names of internationally renowned feminists who remain on the margins because their oppressions are not hip enough for our social media accounts. And as part of taking responsibility I will outline how I am implicated in the erasure of sex workers in feminism.

In 2014 in the leafy suburb of Kenilworth in Cape Town, a certain White man drove past a Black woman, Cynthia Joni walking back from a her place of work and he decided that she needed a beating. That White monster was Tim Osrin and true to his legacy of White masculinity with roots emanating from Jan van Riebeeck down to Verwoerd, used a Black womxn’s body as an object to satisfy his genocidal hunger games. After media backlash, Osrin claimed that he thought Cynthia was a sex worker. Somehow I got a hold of the news on social media and from a place of rage I started to mobilise SAY-F members and other feminists in Cape Town to go picket at the court hearing.

In the beginning of the protest it was clear that there two groups of protesters, us the feminists and the sex work activists from SWEAT. I remember my irritation at SWEAT...Why had they not contacted us so we can team up? Were they hijacking the protest? Of course Tim Osrin was wrong for attacking Cynthia because she was a sex worker BUT….

At that critical moment I failed to learn an important lesson: our “Black womxn’s bodies are not sites of violence”, “1994 changed fokkol” (intellectual property of Blackwash) and “South African Young Feminist Activists” placards were very exclusionary. We were enraged that a Black womxn was violated. That was our primary concern. Our feminism was sex worker exclusionary (SWERF). We were not primarily concerned that the incident spoke about deeper issues about the brutal violence sex workers have to endure and how it speaks to the urgent need for the decriminalization of sex work.

Although we ended up blending and connected at the protest on our collective outrage at the White barbarity of Osrin, deeper issues about the invisibilization of sex work violations in our collective feminist spaces remained unresolved. Sex work is not sexy enough for us (to wear doeks and) to protest against. Sex work is not hip enough for our twitter accounts. Sex work just takes this whole radical thing too far! All oppression is connected but...all signal are unavailable for sex worker rights.

Fast forward four years, I am sitting with Sis Dudu (who was also at the protest four years ago) and sharing a Stuyvesant Blue on a balcony and she calls me out, “You do a lot of writing. You are in a position to support us. Sex worker rights are womxn’s rights. It is a feminist issue”. This is true. I had not managed to connect my feminism as directly linked to decriminalization of sex work. Many of us do not realize that our feminist and politics as Black womxn intersects with sex work decriminalization. As Black womxn we can even find camaraderie with racist White feminists yet ignore the human rights violations of our sisters.

There is a reason why we don’t know Sis Dudu (and her work) let alone that she was honoured on an international platform. It is part of willful ignorance and disinterest in sex worker human rights violations. Of course sex is a feminist issue. Womxn who are not protected by labour laws are purposely put in vulnerable situations where they experience unspeakable violence. Where are the Marxist feminists? Womxn experience violence or are killed while working. Where are the radical Black feminists? Sex work betrays deep issues on how we divide work as ‘moral’ and ‘immoral work’. The respectability politics that police bodies and (certain kinds of) sex. So where is the “free the nipple” feminist gang? If a womxn accountant experienced one of the many human rights violations at their place of work, the reality would be that all feminists would be up in arms. We started a whole hashtag when a Black womxn was told wearing a doek at work was unprofessional. Imagine how outraged we would be if an accountant was raped and killed at work because they were an accountant?

Maybe I am reaching. Maybe I am not. One thing remains. Sex work is a womxn’s rights issue, sex work is a human rights issue and it is a feminist issue. All oppression is connected and therefore my liberation as a Black womxn is directly linked to Sis Dudu’s liberation and human dignity. We need to ask ourselves hard questions about our camaraderie with sex workers. As Black feminists we need to ask ourselves, “Is the decriminalization of sex work part of the utopia I want to see when we have the land back?” If your answer is no, then ask yourself why not? If your response is linked to respectability/morality about sex and labour then go reflect, unlearn and “unshit” yourself.