Mobile phones and activism in Africa

A screen shot from

In the ongoing process of researching for my MA thesis, I’ve been most recently interested by how mobile phones are used in a context of activism, for advocacy, organisation or mobilisation purposes. Published in 2010, SMS Uprising: Mobile Activism in Africa, edited by Sokari Ekine, brings an interesting collection of case studies an essays. Some do discuss theory around activism and ICT, and more specifically, how do mobile phones are increasingly part of an activist toolkits, other essays relate experiences of NGOs and activists groups in using mobile technology in their work.

In the African continent, more than half of the population have a mobile phone and probably more have access to one through friends or family. As a mobile device, carried almost all the time with you, it allows users to be in constant contact through SMS, mobile social media platforms and voice. As opposed to North America where an extensive network of landline exists, mobile technologies have provided the continent of an essential communication network. However mobile communications are still relatively expensive, creating a gap between urban and rural contexts. Rural women are still the ones left out of the digital revolution by having little economic power to buy airtime or a handset for example. In a 2007 research undertaken by researchICTafrica, Gillwald & al. Where noting that men were still more likely than women to own a mobile phone and usually spent more money in airtime.

In the interviews I have been doing in the past weeks with people from JASS, the APC WNSP or Women’sNet, a recurring theme occurs when talking about the importance of mobile phones in the context of feminist organising in the Southern African region:

  • Mobile phones are an incredible to join a constituency because they are personal and often cheaper than other modes of communications and are more pervasive than the use of the Internet in the region. In context where there is a low level of literacy it is the tool of choice to communicate by voice information needed to organise, mobilise and advocate.
  • Mobile phones can contribute to amplify women’s voice and to help tell their stories. A phone call or an sms exchange can be relayed by somebody who has access to an internet connection or access to another form of media to reach a larger audience.
  • There’s a sense of a larger engagement through the use of mobile technologies as the medium is more personal.
  • Feminists activists are also sensible to the dangers related to the use of mobile technologies in the context of violence against women. I wrote about this a while ago, but mobile phones can be a tool used to distribute images of violence or rape, or be a tool to stalk, bully or intimidate.

The Tactical Tech Collective has developed a few years ago in the series of their famous ICT toolkits for activist the mobile-in-a-box toolkit. It lists different tactics and tools while using mobiles in the context of advocacy. MobileActive has also a great list of resources on their website, from academic papers to citizen journalism toolkits. In the last year I’ve noticed in particular that the integration of Frontline SMS (a bulk sms and contact management tool) with the Ushahidi platform (a crowdsourcing mapping platform) have gather the interest of feminist activists in the continent. The Harass Map project, mapping incidence of sexual harassment in Egypt is a great example of how mobile phones can be used in the context of advocating for women’s rights.


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