Research on The Effectiveness of Social Media as a Tool for Opening Up Spaces for Women Leaders’ Participation in Zambia

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By DevCom Consulting Ltd

Representation of women in Zambia’s decision making and governance structures remains short of meeting the African Union (AU) and Southern African Development Community (SADC) threshold of 30 percent and 50 percent respectively. In Southern Africa, Zambia has the lowest proportion of women’s representation in parliament and local councils at only 15% of the legislature and 6% within local councils. The gender disparity is also reflected in traditional leadership where out of 288 Chiefs, only 30 (10%) are women and all paramount chiefs are men. Limited representation of women, who constitute 50.7% of the population undermines Zambia’s democracy. Some of the barriers to women’s participation include the legal framework, the political culture, patriarchal values and norms, women’s limited access to resources, negative practices in political parties, and negative portrayal of women in traditional media. The use and popularity of social media technologies that have grown exponentially particularly since the United Nations declared access to and use of the Internet a human right in 2011, has the potential to help women achieve greater political parity and leadership positions across all facets of life.


Methodology & Approach

The growth of social media has fueled interest in how social media affects citizens’ participation in civic and political life and specific areas of activism, such as gender and child rights. Internet penetration in Zambia is moderate with a clear digital divide between rural and urban and other socio-economic demographics. With a median age of 16.6 years and a literacy rate of 65.76% (15 and 24 age group), Zambia has a fairly young and literate population with potential for improvement in the coming years hence it is important to establish trends in social media use and its challenges. This study investigated the opportunities and challenges posed by social media and social network systems to women in leadership and how women rose to meet these technology mediated challenges and opportunities. The study sought to determine the effectiveness of social media in opening up space for women leaders’ participation in Zambia.


Using the network society and technological determinism as theoretical frameworks, the study examines the extent to which social media influences societal dynamics in Zambia, specifically on whether it is an enabler or inhibitor to women’s leadership careers and gender activism. It also investigates and characterizes women’s participation on social media and their experiences with social media technologies. Technological developments over the last decade have led to the convergence of online media, such as online newspapers, and social networking platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, blurring the distinctions between them. This study also compares use of social media to traditional media for gender activism and career progression among the women leaders in Zambia.  Data for the study was gathered using mixed approaches in both collection and analysis. The study used a survey that was completed in face to face and virtual interviews. The survey was a ‘forced-choice’ questionnaire administered to 108 women aged 18 years and above, drawn from past, present and aspiring women leaders in politics, NGOs, CSOs, CBOs, sports, private sector, church, traditional establishments among other sectors. Survey participants were randomly sampled from lists provided by HIVOS partners in Zambia. The researchers also carried out ethnographic review of social media pages of influential personalities and women-centric organizations and campaigns within the Zambian digital space. Data collected from online ethnographic research was also used in identification and selection of case studies for analysis and documentation of experiences from the use of social media among four women leaders. In-depth interviews with four leading women social media users were used to develop four case studies.



Social media use

Findings from the study show that the majority of women leaders interviewed had relatively high access to and use of the Internet, only 20% of those interviewed had no access to the internet at all. The study established strong relationships between income, Internet experience and perceived knowledge of use of social media. Most women leaders in the higher income brackets have been online for more than five years. Based on previous studies establishing a positive correction between long experience with the Internet and effective digital media use, the study infers women leaders in Zambia could be effectively using social media. However, beyond certain income brackets, the study revealed low social media use for politics and advocacy despite the majority of the respondents being in politics. This ‘admission’ is consistent with the limited number of women-led advocacy platforms during the ethnographic exploration of the Zambian digital space.


The study revealed that women leaders use social media for communication, information sharing, opinion reviews, marketing themselves, utility, education and research, collaboration and networking, social interaction, news, lobbying and advocacy. Regarding communication, social media appears to provide a good platform for leaders to discover what the public is thinking and is a better arbiter of public sentiment than traditional media. The study affirms the positive role of social media regarding women leaders’ career progression with some indicating they would not be where they are had it not been of social media. Almost all the women in the survey agreed that social media was a helpful tool for both upcoming and established women leaders.


Challenges & Recommendations

The use of social media in Zambia suits the description of a double-edged sword. While social media platforms present the novelty of interactivity, flexibility and customization to every facet of human life, they also pose the risks of abuse that come with all digital and interactive media. The hostile cyberspace prevents women from fully realizing the potential of social media in their leadership and careers. The study identified demeaning/negative comments, insults, verbal abuse, cyberbullying and hacking as the most common abuse experienced by women on social media.  Challenges identified by some respondents include ‘threats to life or career’, sexual abuse and false accusations. In addition, the majority of respondents felt that social media is so focused on personality rather than issues of importance to society.


The possibility of anonymity on social media also breeds users that are braver than they are in reality. However, this is also giving rise social media trolls who attack those who question government policy. Patriarchy also feeds these attacks and negative sentiments through personal attacks based on one’s looks and marriage status and not substantive issues.  The study recommends for more women-centric social media platforms and legal measures to control cyberbullying like enacting the ICT Data Protection Bill, Cyber Security Bill, Cyber Crime Bill, E-Commerce and E-Transaction Bill.


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