The rise of new technologies offers both opportunities and threats to gender equality. When managed carefully and innovatively, Information and Communications Technology (ICT) offers unprecedented opportunities in connecting remote or marginalised communities with public debate and the media.

The Commission on the Status of Women, the United Nations arm for promoting gender equality, recently co-organised an event with WAN-IFRA on how female journalists are using the internet to their advantage, creating independent media and safe space for diverse groups of journalists and their audiences.

Gender-based violence in the context of Jordan

Jordon Open Source Association’s mission is to bridge the gap between technology maintenance – technologists on one end, and activists, journalists and researchers on the other. 

Marina Alsahawneh, Gender Equality Diversity and Inclusion Office, Jordan Open Source Association (JOSA), borrowed the term “sociological imagination” from American sociologist C Wright Mills to elucidate this gap.

“A vast majority of tech people struggle to understand the social problems and biases that exist in their communities,” Alsahawneh said. “On the other hand, journalists, activists, researchers lack a technological imagination, which can limit their ability to actively and effectively contribute to correct the biases that might arise with technology.”

To address this gap, the Jordon Open Source Association (JOSA) conducts regular training sessions for people from tech and humanities to help them better understand the fundamentals of each other’s fields. These trainings are conducted to facilitate gender understanding and collaboration between these two groups to achieve utopian digital spaces.

JOSA has also developed artificial intelligence (AI) tools that can potentially help female journalists and activists in Jordan to detect hate speech. The tool called Nova/No Hub will be released in the next few months and so far, is able to detect the Jordanian dialect and Standard Arabic.

Alsahawneh’s team has trained this AI model to recognise hate speech by using content from public accounts of more than 100 activists and journalists in Jordan across several social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok. 

“We believe that by doing so we are helping researchers study the phenomenon of gender-based violence, and help competent authorities, like the Jordan anti cybercrime unit, to detect harmful content,” said Alsahawneh.

JOSA is attempting to build a safer and more inclusive digital space for female journalists and activists in Jordan and trying to empower them with skill-sharing in knowing how to protect themselves against cyber gender-based violence. 

“During our training sessions, we teach these women the foundations of digital safety. We teach them how to use VPNs to stay anonymous, if they are writing on sensitive topics…the protocol in case of a cyber attack – next steps, who to reach out to, etc.,” said Alsahawneh.

Alsahawneh also noted it is imperative to have a higher representation of women in technology to achieve the creation of a safe and inclusive digital landscape. According to a GitHub report, women currently account for less than 3 percent of open source contributors. 

Ground realities in South Africa

A report commissioned by UNESCO in 2021 and carried out by the International Center for Journalists examined more than 900 female journalists from 125 countries, and found that three quarters of them have experienced online abuse. 

The Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) reports that 28 percent of female reporters in Africa cover major topics like crime and violence. In South Africa, even though there are more female reporters compared to male reporters at 58 percent and 42 percent, cyber attacks on female reporters still remain a huge concern. 

Credit: Dianah Chiyangwa, Photojournalist WACC – Code for Africa.

As much as South Africa has managed to send female journalists to cover crimes and protests, online they are not protected. 

“This has led to many women to stop using online platforms to update their stories, and some have also stopped working. As much as digital spaces have allowed journalists to enhance their skills and open opportunities, in South Africa online abuse is on the rise,” said Dianah Chiyangwa, Photojournalist WACC – Code for Africa.

The confluence of radio and ICT

Emma Heywood is a lecturer from the University of Sheffield in the UK. She works in collaboration with Fondation Hirondelle (a Swiss-based media for peace and human dignity). Founded in 1995, this organisation empowers and provides information to people faced with crises.

During the past five years, Heywood has been assessing their programmes and doing impact assessments on the work they do related to women, their empowerment and rights. 

Heywood’s work is mainly with radio broadcasts targeting women, about women and for women.

“That said, as a byproduct we also target men and society’s main decision makers. Our approach is participatory, often remote, and therefore, collaborative,” she said. 

Fondation Hirondelle is currently working in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, where there is increased insecurity, conflict has displaced persons, high levels of poverty, and where women are increasingly heads of households, because their male relatives have either migrated to seek seasonal work or worse have been massacred. 

Heywood notes the rapidly changing media environment in these areas thanks to the influence of external forces such as Russia, China, and France. For instance, in Mali, community radio has been paid by RT, to distribute messages. There’s a similar situation in Burkina Faso and the Central African Republic. 

Global North’s perception of ICT

“The Global North doesn’t take into consideration contexts like limited internet, devices, money, and displaced and illiterate people in the Global South,” said Heywood. “There’s a lot of talk about the disruptive effects of digital technology on radio, both as a device and in terms of broadcasting and listening practices… With it being suggested that traditional FM radio’s very survival is threatened in the Global North.” 

However, the Global North’s understanding of radio and technology is different, considering context and communities. 

In the West of Africa, radio is a main source of information, but is shadowed by political and economic threats. The radio business model was already quite fragile before digitisation.

“It’s important for us to maintain a professional and inclusive media,” said Heywood. 

Why does radio work?

Western Africa is plagued by low levels of school completion, particularly for girls, which hampers internet literacy, and is furthered by a non-permeance of the colonial language.  

Radio is an important tool in areas of conflict for women. It can provide fast local and hyperlocal information, and promotes social cohesion. It provides basic information to the displaced population, while overcoming literacy barriers. It can also be accessed through mobile phones and transistors, and comes in multiple content formats. 

“So, here you’ve got that diverse convergence of the digital accessing the legacy media,” Heywood said.

Radio and ICT for women

ICT and digital technologies are crucial in conflict-affected areas. Fondation Hirondelle research has shown that they deterritorialise radio broadcasting and listening – symbolically and in practice – and circumvent the physical restrictions imposed on traditional radio in conflict. 

“So, while radio may only be able to reach a certain area, ICT and other internet can go beyond that. Listeners and journalists need these links with the outside world, with the villages they’ve left or fled,” said Heywood. “Digital communities can provide this – illustrating this collective and the associated social cohesion. It is not undermined by technology and is not restricted by geographical boundaries.”

Fondation Hirondelle research has also found that they’ve been able to use digital technology, particularly WhatsApp, to gain feedback from listeners to improve the very broadcasts that are targeting these particular communities.

Dangers of using ICT in conflict zones

There are dangers of using ICT in conflict-ridden zones. It can lead the marginalised communities in conflict situations – 80 percent of which are women – to becoming even more isolated, especially if they don’t have access to that internet. 

WhatsApp is also subject to a high spread of misinformation, which leads people to cross check that information on radio.

“However, the main driver here isn’t necessarily the technological aspect. It’s the lack of information in the face of uncertainty that helps the disinformation spread,” said Heywood.

Heywood pointed out that while misinformation in the Global North can be attributed to an excess of information, Sub Saharan Africa faces the same problem because of an information vacuum. “And so, people will seize any information that comes their way,” she said.

Another thing their research has shown is that WhatsApp groups might be widely used in West Africa but are being infiltrated by terrorists presenting dangers to female journalists.

The dramatic increase in terrorist activity in the subregion is primarily due to two groups: Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Although the territorial presence and activity of Al-Qaida and its affiliates was initially limited to the extreme north of Mali, it has now expanded across large areas of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. 

“People’s conversations are being tapped and phones are being seized by these terrorists as they may contain incriminating or even useful information,” said Heywood. “This is why people are exercising great caution while using their phones, which is reducing the potential impact of the ICT tool.” 

Convergence between old and new media

The confluence of traditional and new media poses multiple benefits for women through the modernisation of conventional modes of listening. For instance, in situations where people sit around listening to the transistor, or because they don’t own cell phones, solar radios have been provided to aid collective listening that is predominant amongst many communities.

Credit: Fondation Hirondelle

Audio mediums such as loudspeakers, sound systems promote social cohesion while overcoming geographical and technical isolation, particularly amongst internally displaced persons and communities in conflict zones.

“These methods enable women to discuss information, but more importantly, explain complex information to others in the group,” Heywood said.

This method of information relaying and sharing translates to a re-territorialisation of regions that are under threat, thereby replacing the internet.

“So you’ve got de-territorialisation with the internet and re-territorialisation, which is a technologically advanced form of the old legacy media,” she said.

“Radio may be shifting towards a new radio paradigm, proclaiming the internet and online listening to be the new future must be contextualised,” she continued. “When we’re investigating women, radio and radio news in times of conflict, the essentialist FM versus internet binaries, must be avoided.”

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