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By Centre for Civil Society Strengthening (CCSS)
Despite an increase in the number of women leaders elected into councils and parliament in the May 2019, political leadership in Malawi remains male-dominated. Women occupy only 23% of the National Assembly seats while at local government level women occupy only 14% of the council seats. Women face various challenges to active participation in politics including deeply entrenched patriarchal systems, gender norms, political violence, corruption, intimidation, hatred and character assassination. Social media can bypass some of these constraints and bridge the gap that often separates grassroots women’s activism from policy-making processes. The explosion of social media and women’s unprecedented use of new technologies represents important opportunities to bring gender equality and women’s rights issues to the forefront of both policies making and media attention. Social media has grown exponentially in the last decade rendering traditional information and data gathering methods almost obsolete.
Methodology & Data Collection
The Malawi study assess the effectiveness of social media as a tool of opening up spaces for women leaders’ participation. It gathered information on the trends, possible case studies and projected future trends of social media and its use by women in and aspiring for leadership. The study gauged the social media sentiment about women leaders and how it influences public perception of women in leadership positions. It compares social media and traditional media to determine the added value of investing in social and online media. It also investigated the potential pitfalls of social media use by women leaders in Malawi and used data from Key Informant Interviews (KII) to develop case studies. The Key Informant Interviews were with women leaders, voters, service providers, and WE4L partners. The research also utilized secondary data extracted from WE4L project documents and other relevant sources.
Women’s social media choices, use, and purpose in Malawi
The type of social media platform used by women leaders in Malawi is dependent on cost and the women leader’s level of digital literacy. Facebook and WhatsApp are the main platforms being used by women leaders in Malawi. Limited digital literacy, high data tariffs and growing levels of cyber-bullying towards women, despite available protective legislation, prevent women from full utilization of social media platforms. The study identified vote seeking, resource mobilization, social, information sharing, whistleblowing and activism as the main uses of social media. Low digital literacy limits Women leaders’ full optimization of social media through sophisticated campaigns, advocacy and engagement with solution holders.
However, despite limited utilization, social media has proved to be a powerful vehicle for bringing women’s rights issues to the attention of a wider public, galvanizing action, and encouraging policymakers to step up their commitments to gender equality. The study recommends additional training for women leaders to realize the full potential of social media networks.
There has been a widespread realization that the majority of voters in Malawi are the youth and are active on online platforms. With growing diaspora population, social media will continue to allow influential people and opinion leaders abroad to communicate with people in the constituencies and influence the opinions and voting trends. Going forward social media will remain a useful platform to engage voters and for elected officials to share development programs and progress with the electorate.
While the study acknowledges the power of social media, there are nearly 8.57 million mobile phone subscribers in Malawi, millions of whom are not online. Despite Malawi being one of the poorest countries in the world, it has one of the highest internet charges. Poor telecommunications infrastructure, digital illiteracy and low internet penetration (especially in marginalized areas) limit the use of social media by low income groups. Social media can thus be complemented with the use of bulk SMSs to take campaign messages to a large percentage of voters. Traditional media namely, TV, Radio and newspapers reach wider audiences. For example, 96 % of Malawi’s population listens to the radio including the state-owned Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), seven private broadcasters and 17 community stations. Social media advocacy must be complemented with traditional media for maximum impact.
Social Media As An Advocacy Tool On Women’s Issues
50-50 campaigners in Malawi used social media ahead of the 2019 elections to promote women candidates. The campaign is credited with increasing women’s participation in the election and increasing the number of elected women leaders. It is however, the limited role of the individual in the campaign that was a missed an opportunity to profile the individual women leaders’ abilities and strengths. This was a lost opportunity, and the study found that women leaders have limited knowledge on how they can maximize/amplify their profiles and enhance their visibility online, and bear the high costs associated with social media campaigns. The study recommends that development partners should consider providing more funding to strengthen digital strategies so that more women can use social media in the exercise of their representative and oversight roles as members of parliament and councilors.
Challenges & Negative aspects of social media use in Malawi
The study noted the manifestation of patriarchy online as a worrying trend. Many negative online stereotypes trace back to entrenched patriarchy, and highly personalized political systems that are difficult to change in the short term. Social media platforms are abused to harass and intimidate women leaders.
The study also identified fake news and its quick spread on social media as a challenge for women leaders. While legal frameworks such as the Electronic Transactions & Cybersecurity Act, 2016 (ETCA) are in place to deal with cyberbullying, enforcement is poor, and awareness of the laws is minimal resulting in citizens not being eager or able to seek legal recourse for the violations. The study further observed a lack of strategy or mechanism, by both implementing agencies and women leaders, to counter online gender-based violence. This increases the vulnerability of women leaders, possibly explaining why many choose to abandon the electoral race due to the psychological impact of online abuse, compromising their ability to compete. Voters tend to believe what they hear and read on social media, particularly if there are no efforts to quell the rumors perpetrated by their competitors. The study also recommends exploring the role of men in supporting the fight against unethical online conduct including identifying HeforShe champions in all implementing areas to support in the fight.