In the wake of the Social Media Revolution, social user growth is expanding fast in emerging markets such as Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa. In 2017 Social Networking in Asia-Pacific will have the largest social network population worldwide and the Middle East and Africa will have the second-largest audience. What does that mean for development and women empowerment? Can Social Media include women’s voices in decision making processes and promote equality?
According to a report by the OECD Development Centre hashtag activism has helped to bring forth women’s issues to the forefront of political agendas. Through increased visibility successful hashtags such as #BringBackOurGirls and #HeForShe has brought not only large audiences online but also the attention of decision makers. Activism through Social Media helps grass-roots movements to call for gender equality through public accountability, and through using Social Media tools the possibility of tackling and raising awareness about issues such as violence and harassment against women can help grass-roots organizations show through campaigns how big the scale of the problem is.
However, as positive as that sounds, Social Media and online activism can also lock women into a world of Social Media where the awareness campaigns starts and stops there. The gap of inequality between the genders remain in the decision-making positions. Furthermore, without involving women and young girls into leadership positions through training in policy changing or how to directly effect the systems of decision-making, the problems facing women empowerment remains. Another angle is the gap that Social Media creates between women in rural areas and those in urban areas. Organizations naturally direct their content and campaigns toward audiences with access to Social Media, thus many women are restricted from taking advantage of Social Media, its tools and political advocacy online because of illiteracy, language barriers and the digital divide in infrastructure between the rural and the urban areas. Their struggle is therefore many times invisible, and empowerment campaigns favors those of high-end reaching large audiences.
An example is Emma Watson’s speech to the UN “I’m a Feminist” (See video below) ignited a wave of shares, massive campaigning on various Social Media outlets and the rejoicing of grassroots organizations for its message,
the video engaged the news with articles, blog posts and comments. While it is true that the widespread of important messages such as this has been facilitated through Social Media and encourages users to share and discuss the subject freely. However it is also important to note that from a development perspective Social Media (and Emma Watson’s speech) is not available to women in rural areas, it does not speak to them nor of their struggles, it helps in increasing the gap of invisibility between women in rural and urban areas and therefore restricts many women when being directed (and facilitated) to certain groups in society.
The fact that women in rural areas have limited access to new technologies, language barriers and lack of education are huge problems in itself and poses challenges for furthering women empowerment and the move towards gender equality. The way Social Media campaigns often are designed by organizations or famous personalities based in the West poses questions of post-colonial criticism in the absence of voices of women in the developing countries in favor of those speaking for them in the Western ones. In their report on Big Data and International Development: Impacts, Scenarios and Policy Options, Stephen Spratt & Justin Baker acknowledges the importance of addressing the English language bias of big data, they call on creating helping mechanisms to transfer education benefits to developing countries to help increase the ability of grass-roots to tap into real-time data sources. The same will be necessary for Social Media to be an effective tool in decision-making it has to be combined with education and outreach to women in rural areas as well, making their voices heard and lending them a real space to promote empowerment. Without training and preparing women and young girls to enter leadership positions Social Media campaigns might create a waves of engagement but not necessary that of a policy changing one.