How Twitter became a Resistance Enclave for Kenyan Women.
Counting Dead Women Kenya (@deadwomen_ke) is not your ordinary Twitter account. Instead of regular musings, this twitter account documents and draws attention to news about women who lose their lives through femicide. In a series of tweets, often accompanied by infographics and links to news articles, Counting Dead Women Kenya (CDW-K) makes sure no (reported) femicide disappears between banal news. In an interview with the Pixel Project, CDW-K co-founder, Dr. Kathomi Gatwiri, says that they started the CDW-K social media accounts for two reasons. Firstly, they wanted to bring to attention to legislators the number of women that were dying as a result of violence(ThePixelProject.net,2020). Second, they wanted to use these sites as a call-to-action for the government to create a national database that records the numbers of women who are killed through violence(ThePixelProject.net,2020). Gender-Based Violence(GBV) is often dismissed because there is no concrete data to support evidence; having such a database shows the legitimacy of GBV as a crime that demands judicial and legislative response (ThePixelProject.net,2020).
CDW-K is not the only Twitter account going beyond the norm of social media use. Another Twitter account, Manel Watch Kenya (@manelwatchkenya), tracks all-male conference and media panels across the country and uses public shaming on social media to call out organizers for excluding women from these panels. The term “manel” is a portmanteau of manel and panel and is used for all-male or overwhelmingly male panels. Manel Watch Kenya builds on the work of Nanjira Sambuli, Nanjala Nyabola, and Ory Okolloh Mwangi, all of whom are Kenyan political analysts, in calling for the inclusion of female experts on panels. The common assumption is that female experts are unicorns; the organizers often do not know any woman in that sphere or assume the lack of women in the aforementioned sphere (Nanjira,2016).
Additionally, a study by the Media Council of Kenya found that men are ten times more likely than women to be used as a source of news in Kenyan news media(MCK,2015). Media panels make up a huge portion of news in Kenya as people like to listen in on different experts’ opinions on current affairs. Since the Twitter account was started, it has called out media houses like NTV Kenya, KTN and Citizen TV Kenya almost every day!
These are just two of such accounts. Social media accounts dedicated to giving visibility to single issues that fall through the cracks of traditional media such as femicide are only a newish method of online resistance by Kenyan women activists and organizers. Such pages often attract followers who help in crowdsourcing information for the accounts to retweet, flagging where the account administrators may not have visibility. These pages usually have dedicated hashtags which they use to give visibility to their work and for followers use in calling attention to the issue at hand. Unlike just creating a hashtag and calling for social media users to contribute to the conversation by using the said hashtag, dedicated accounts are more organized. Alongside using their account as a platform to call out issues, account administrators can select and retweet tweets that are relevant and beneficial to their cause for archival purposes. This is especially necessary because when organizers create hashtags for social media users to use to call for support to particular causes, advertisers and online stores jump on them to promote their products because of the heightened visibility. Nanjala Nyabola talks about this in her book “Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics” and states that, “Many Twitter hashtags descend into pornography as those selling the product try to hijack the momentum to promote their product”(Nyabola,2018).
Twitter as an Enclave for Feminist Resistance.
The traditional media space in Kenya is male-dominated and centers male opinion. Additionally, Nyabola (2018) writes, “… self-identifying as a feminist in Kenya can be a dangerous proposition, where belief that feminists are angry, unhappy, and looking to destroy everyone else’s happiness is pervasive”. With traditional media and the public sphere stifling their voices, feminists have taken to online spaces to speak out. Online spaces have amplified women’s voices and allowed them to create communities of safety and action(Nyabola,2018).
Kenyan feminists have particularly found roots in the welcoming soil of Twitter’s structural affordances that promote political engagement. They have formed online communities of care, solidarity, and support, where the prerequisite to entry is simply to be feminist. In such spaces, women support each other by sending solidarity messages, supporting each other’s careers, and even mobilizing trans-national support for fellow feminists. One Kenyan feminist, Mumbi Kanyongo, has set up a database where Kenyan feminist writers can find publications that accept work from African feminists and even lists out how much each publication pays. Mumbi and other Kenyan feminists also started a fundraiser for Dr. Stella Nyanzi, a Ugandan academic and radical feminist, who was arrested and imprisoned under charges of cyber harassment and offensive communication. They raised USD 1,465, which went into supporting her family, as while she was in prison, she was no longer earning an income(M-changa,2019).
On Twitter, Kenyan women have come up with hashtags like #Weare52pc to protest and call for the disbandment of the Kenyan parliament, which is unconstitutional because it does not meet the constitutional ⅔ gender representation quota(Waweru,2017). They have also come up with dedicated accounts, like the aforementioned CDW-K and Manel Watch Kenya, to advocate for issues on gender equality.
In a country with what Nanjala describes as “public spheres that still routinely silence the voices of women,” Twitter has become an enclave for women who still want to speak out about issues that affect them(Nyabola,2018). Digital spaces like Twitter, are making it possible for women to scream into the void(Nyabola,2018). And when women are screaming into this void, other women are coming in to reassure them that their screams are valid and necessary.
Self Care for Feminist Activists in the Digital Age
While social media platforms like Twitter have made it easier and safer for women to name their oppression and call out their oppressors, they have not eliminated all the dangers that come with physical organizing. In 2018, an Amnesty International study of online violence found that 23% of American and British women had experienced violence on Twitter. This violence is not unique to American and British women alone and comes in the form of rape and death threats, sexist and misogynistic language, doxxing, and hate speech. Some even experience targeted harassment, where a group of people or Twitter bots organize to attack, harass, and abuse the woman repeatedly (Amnesty International,2018). Unfortunately, the same structural affordances that make it easier for feminists’ work to go viral, also make their abuse go viral, hence compounding the abuse that they face (Amnesty International,2018). Most women, after going through such violence, change the way they use social media; they either become less vocal, make their accounts private, or go offline altogether.
Another pressing issue for digital feminist organizers is the overwhelming nature of their work. While calling out the system, they get exposed to so much bad news that it affects their worldview. In an interview with The Pixel Project, Dr. Kathomi Gatwiri, who co-runs CDW-Kenya, says, “There is also the challenge of vicarious trauma. In the last year, Audrey(her co-founder) and I have had to be very deliberate about how many of these gory stories we could consume. We had to be intentional about looking after ourselves and each other. To read through the stories of hundreds of women like you, being murdered for the most nonsensical reasons, brings you very close to the reality of how violent and fragile the patriarchy and the misogyny it produces can get”(Thepixelproject.net,2020). Similarly, more and more feminists are talking about the need for African feminists to incorporate accessible self-care practices into their work. This is because, currently, most self-care content is generated in the west and may be out of reach for the average African activist because of cost or relative rarity in our lived contexts(Horn,2019).
Twitter is definitely here to stay as a feminist political enclave. Yet, it takes a lot to keep necessary pages like Counting Dead Women Kenya and Manel Watch Kenya and campaigns like #Weare52pc alive and running. So, the next time you see a digital feminist campaign, simply retweeting their work goes a long way at showing solidarity. Other ways to show support are volunteering your time or money to help run these accounts.
- Amnesty International (2018). STOP ONLINE VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN TOOLKIT. [online] Amnesty International, pp.2-3. Available at: https://www.amnestyusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/OVAW-Toolkit-Update-320.pdf [Accessed 5 Mar. 2020].
- Horn, J. (2019). On Africa’s feminist frontlines, we need accessible care practices to sustain our movements – From Poverty to Power. [online] From Poverty to Power. Available at: https://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/on-africas-feminist-frontlines-we-need-accessible-care-practices-to-sustain-our-movements/ [Accessed 5 Mar. 2020].
- M-changa. (2019). Solidarity With Stella Nyanzi | M-Changa. [online] Available at: https://secure.changa.co.ke/myweb/share/35012 [Accessed 4 Mar. 2020].
- Media Council of Kenya (2015). GENDER EQUALITY: OBSERVATION FROM THE KENYAN MEDIA PERSPECTIVE. Nairobi. [online] Media Council of Kenya, p.X. Available at: https://www.mediacouncil.or.ke/en/mck/jdownloads/MEDIA%20MONITORING%20REPORTS/The%20Gender%20Agender.pdf [Accessed 5 Mar. 2020].
- Nyabola, N. (2018). Digital democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era is Transforming Politics in Kenya. 1st ed. London: Zed Books Ltd.
- Sambuli, N. (2016). NANJIRA: Qualified women abound, so why is your expert panel all. [online] Daily Nation. Available at: https://www.nation.co.ke/oped/blogs/all-male-panels/620-3213560-14f2u30/index.html [Accessed 4 Mar. 2020].
- Thepixelproject.net. (2020). Inspirational Interview: Kathomi Gatwiri, Co-Founder of Counting Dead Women – Kenya, Part I – The Pixel Project. [online] Available at: https://www.thepixelproject.net/2020/02/23/inspirational-interview-kathomi-gatwiri-co-founder-of-counting-dead-women-kenya-part-i/ [Accessed 4 Mar. 2020].
- Twitter.com. (2020). CountingDeadWomenKE (@deadwomen_ke) on Twitter. [online] Available at: https://twitter.com/deadwomen_ke [Accessed 5 Mar. 2020].
- Twitter.com. (2020). ManelWatchKenya (@ManelWatchKenya) on Twitter. [online] Available at: https://twitter.com/ManelWatchKenya [Accessed 5 Mar. 2020].
- Waweru, N. (2017). Why #Weare52pc is important – Africa Yangu. [online] Africa Yangu. Available at: https://africayangu.com/2017/08/22/why-weare52pc-is-important/ [Accessed 4 Mar. 2020].