As the COVID pandemic has shaped the past two years, the world of work has had to adapt, with many employers moving to a virtual environment. Women around the world, studies have found, have gone through a particularly difficult time, having to balance childcare and sometimes having to navigate a hostile digital sphere.
Founded in 2017, the Women@Web project has been a resource for journalists, politicians and human rights activists, among others, who have faced various forms of online gender-based violence. The pandemic has intensified this behavior, but it was pervasive and directed at women before the global health crisis began.
“There are opportunities to work online,” says Natacha Umutoni, who has trained women in Rwanda to work safely online. “But it’s important to recognize abuse and have a network that can support you.”
Since 2018, Umutoni has held events and workshops with DW Akademie’s Women@Web project in Rwanda, both to educate women about online safety and also to find ways to expand their professional lives.
There is no choice: women must be online
Also in Tanzania, the regional Women@Web project sought to help women navigate the web successfully and safely.
“Being online or not is not really an option today for women,” says Asha Abinallah, especially for women who want financial independence. “A lot of things in business today have to do with the digital economy. The pandemic has heightened that.”
Abinallah, since late 2017, has been working with DW Akademie’s Women@Web project in Tanzania with the aim of educating and supporting women who are victims of cyberbullying. She is also the founder of Media Convergency, an organization that works in collaboration with DW Akademie through the Women@Web project.
Adding to the prejudices is the online sphere that is not very accommodating to women: in some remote parts of East Africa, Abinallah says, it is not uncommon to look suspiciously at a woman who uses her smartphone with confidence. Maybe it signals her independence, or maybe some think the woman is incapable of making sense of what she reads.
Abinallah has worked for years in projects related to innovation, technology, information, internet governance and media. She has a master’s degree in new media, and she says she recognizes that it’s not a given that women will know how to protect themselves online.
In Tanzania, she says, female university students, female journalists, female professionals and female politicians, while capable and talented in their fields, may have had to learn the hard way that their aspirations are not always respected and admired by everyone. Line attacks and trolling can intimidate and hold them back. This also applies to the entire East African region, says Abinallah.
In Rwanda, Umutoni is also training others in digital literacy, while advocating for freedom of expression and safe spaces online.
“Rwanda has a strong tradition of oral storytelling,” she says, “and I grew up listening to the radio a lot, which included drama, children’s stories, music and also spoken words. This then sparked interest in how content is created. and trained for different audiences, which eventually led me to work in communications and marketing.”
His work includes training university students to recognize potential problems before starting their careers. Umutoni has also worked with over 100 female journalists who spend their working days online, helping them use their skills to attract viewers and readers. And she encourages women to understand how encryption works and to be aware of their digital footprint.
“Do you know what comes up when you search for yourself on Google?” she asks other women. “Is your address published on your Facebook page? Online privacy is key.”
She herself had little to guide her on the way to departure.
“I had to figure it all out on my own,” she says. “I used Google and other online resources to create a good resume, write a cover letter, build a strong LinkedIn profile, and network with people I shared interests with or aspired to do what they do. That’s why it’s important to include digital storytelling in a curriculum, to show students how they can create opportunities – but also stay safe – online.”