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By Professor Bruce Mutsvairo
The Constitution of Zimbabwe has “recognition of the equality of all human beings” as a founding principle in Section 3(1). The law in Section 17(1) implores the state to promote gender balance and the full participation of women in all spheres of Zimbabwean society. However, there is notable male dominance in leadership due to sociocultural and traditional beliefs regarding the role of women in the society, patriarchal attitudes and religious practices. Women have, however, begun to reclaim some power in sectors like civil society and business using social media to claim space and assert their leadership. Despite this progress, social media platforms in Zimbabwe are dominated by business, religious and entertainment personalities although there is increased uptake of social media by Zimbabweans in other sectors presenting opportunities for women to strengthen their leadership roles. Against this backdrop, this research sought to examine the dynamics of social media use in Zimbabwe using the its women leaders as a point of departure. Its methodology centered on key informant interviews with 20 women leaders and a digital ethnographic assessment of selected social media pages.
Women leaders’ social media use in Zimbabwe
Findings from the study show that Zimbabwean women use social media to share information about their personal and organizational plans or accomplishments, as well as to post updates about their family and friends. They credit social media with exposing them to a more diverse world, allowing them to construct positive images of themselves as well as helping to build and strengthening long-lasting friendships. The study found that social media allows women to instantly connect and share updates on their lives and businesses and is a key tool for connecting and maintaining relationships, learning more about their communities and the world through news updates as well as providing opportunities to be involved in online activism.
Social media networking opportunities also help women find jobs, get exposure to critical information and establish enduring business contacts and solidarity. However, the extent to which women use social media to discuss political issues is limited on account of a politically charged environment. Despite these challenges, the study found that Facebook’s ability to use text, videos and pictures to evoke feelings of sympathy and empathy among followers is a valued resource. Some women leaders uses social media to communicate with people in their constituencies and as a touchstone for the communities’ pulse. Other women leaders also use it conduct trainings because it reaches a wider audience in a short time.
Social media as an advocacy tool on women’s issues
Social media platforms have given a voice for women to air their grievances and to champion campaigns on different issues including security sector brutality and rape, equal representation in key institutions and social issues such as child marriages. Twitter has proved to be an online arsenal for advocacy because of its ability to reach a diverse global audience. News articles covering a march against sexual abuse, for instance, were shared through the #OurBodiesNotWarZones hashtag, allowing others to share and like messages and photos.
The effectiveness of social media to support policy change is however questionable in a context where policy is still mostly driven by men, who have the political power and influence to impose it. As an example, hashtags such as #OurBodiesNotWarZones raised awareness to critical issues affecting women but at the army disputed any allegations that cast its members in negative light, making it difficult for victims to get justice. This example revealed the limitations of social media advocacy which is useful in raising awareness to critical issues but limited in its ability to drive genuine and sustainable policy change. The study found that awareness is a good starting point but is not good enough on its own.
Social media challenges in relation to women leaders
While some women leaders consider social media a fun and unfiltered platform for self-expression in a many-to-many communication format, the Zimbabwean Twitter-sphere is a particularly ruthless battleground where women have to endure online harassment. The study showed that male dominance in Zimbabwe extends to social media, replicating the patriarchal attitudes that reinforce existing sexist attitudes against women in real life. Online abusers, who often hide behind anonymous names, stage attacks on Facebook and Twitter and see no harm in openly abusing women online, at an increasing rate. The study found that harassment usually occurs on public spaces of social media platforms although some abusers have the audacity to extend abuse to the inbox.
While the study notes cyberbullying as a general online ill, online violence, cyberbullying, digitally based misogyny, sexism and systematic campaigns to tarnish reputations of women are more common in politics. Some women said the danger of being active on social media included exposing themselves to potential abuse, especially if their political correctness collided with the worldview of popular social media figures. From these attacks, the reputations of women emerge damaged from the online political and electoral contestations that manifest as mudslinging and skullduggery. Other negative aspects of social media identified by the study include its capacity to quickly disseminate fake news and the promotion of immorality.
In response to the toxicity of social media, likeminded women are finding solace in women-only, closed Facebook groups initiated specifically to address and discuss women’s ‘issues and grievances. The study shows that technology has not only directly impacted women’s development but has also enabled their voice to reach out to likeminded individuals and groups. Other strategies employed in response to use of abusive language and harassment towards women include self-censorship of content and staying away from social media altogether.
The study also found that the preponderance of the use of English as the lingua franca on social media prevents some women from effective online participation, turning social media into an elite space. The technological digital divide, caused in part by deep-seated cultural barriers against women especially in rural areas, means not all women are able stay digitally connected. To guard against potential disconnection caused by digital inequalities, this report recommends the following:
- Digital dissemination in local vernacular languages.
- Funding to promote inclusive digital participation among vulnerable groups, like rural-based women and youth.
- Introduce tough laws that impose heavy penalties for online abusers.
- Women groups to provide online support groups to victims of online abuse.