Opinion & analysis
By Toyin Akinniyi and Audrey Kawire Wabwire

Civil society is integral to increasing women’s participation in society

There is a steady movement to increase women’s participation in civic and political life across Africa. Luminate’s Audrey Kawire Wabwire spoke with Africa Vice President Toyin Akinniyi about the role of civil society in this effort and what needs to be done to ensure technology reinforces and supports the achievements made in this direction.

What would you attribute most to the increasing number of African women getting elected to office?

Initiatives aimed at engendering gender parity in different sectors of society, and those encouraging women to pursue elective positions and provide them with genuine opportunities to compete and succeed in civic processes such as elections, have led to significant change.

Now, we see some progress in the enabling environment front. For example, some governments in Africa have enacted gender quota laws and policies that provide structures to increase the number of women in public office – and here, the role of civil society stands out. Civil society organisations have indeed carried out advocacy campaigns at national and regional levels to create awareness for women’s inclusion in political processes.

Toyin Akinniyi, Luminate Vice President, Africa. Photo credit: Chris Wanga

What are some key interventions by civil society as more governments institutionalise political inclusion in Africa?

It’s important to acknowledge that not all governments have prioritised affirmative action legislation, but there is wider acceptance for women in leadership compared to the 1990s in Africa. And while that progress is great, Africa – indeed the world – needs to do better in this regard. It’s encouraging to see civil society organisations once again taking the reins in preparing Africa for a time when political representation is becoming more diverse. 

I’ll give a few examples: Futurelect, a political training academy, equips aspiring leaders with skills to run campaigns and to start their political careers. And with increasing recognition of the toll that political campaigns take on women, Women in Leadership Advancement Network is leading the conversation to change the narrative about women’s representation and runs an aftercare programme to provide female candidates with psychological support. Of course, utilising media’s powerful agenda setting capability, African Women in Media has programming that leads to more balanced reportage and portrayal of women in media. This has been pivotal in dispelling harmful narratives, which contributed to the exclusion of women from political processes in the past.

Technology has allowed more diverse voices to participate in civic conversations, but it also perpetuates some harmful practices like harassment, which we know greatly affects women’s participation. What should Big Tech companies do to improve the experiences of African women online?

We live in a time when online activities during important civic processes are increasingly important for a candidate’s success. Recently, the experience of women who ran for office during the Kenyan elections comes to mind; it was widely reported that female candidates faced ruthless online harassment during their political campaigns.

For every harmful action and inaction by Big Tech, there is a real-life consequence to an African woman who is trying to contribute to the political process, both on and offline.

Tech platforms allowed this to happen: their platforms failed to moderate polarising content. Instead, they have profited off the hatred spewed against women. The unabated harassment unfortunately signals to women that public engagement in political life can be dangerous. If tech companies continue to fail to nip these incidents in the bud, they are negating the vital work that women and civil society have done over the years to add their voice to public debates and civic processes – to have a seat at the table. For every harmful action and inaction by Big Tech, there is a real-life consequence to an African woman who is trying to contribute to the political process, both on and offline. 

Tech companies must be held accountable for their direct and indirect contributions to violence, online harassment, and silencing of African women in the digital space. While African civil society organisations will continue to push for inclusion and diversity in leadership, Big Tech’s failings in enabling this are on the spot.

Is there a role for the philanthropic community?

The progress we've witnessed in women's participation in Africa has been supported by contributions from the donor community, including philanthropic organisations. For consolidation of these gains, it is imperative that there is more support to ensure an enabling environment for women to participate effectively. Funders need to increase support for initiatives that hold social media companies accountable for their moderation practices so that everyone, especially women and others who have been historically pushed to the margins, can participate safely.