#52 - Bigger Than a Hashtag

Volume 15, Issue 1  | 
Published 13/07/2018

Not too long ago, online campaigns got a bad rap for being, well, online. There was a sense that ‘real’ campaigns happen on the streets - with placards, and slogans within the vicinity of a news camera. But times are changing. Considering the influence garnered by viral campaigns such as #BringBackOurGirls and #LoveWins, one might agree that digital activism is gaining increased notoriety and effectiveness. Nowadays, the convergence of both online and offline activities have created some of the most potent and consequential campaigns of our time such as the #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements.

And this trend isn’t just in the North. The 2016 Portland Communication report on ‘How Africa Tweets’ pointed out that 1 out of the 10 most popular hashtags in 2015 in Africa was related to political issues. In Kenya, we’ve also seen an increased prevalence of serious online activism around politics and government. One such example is the #Weare52pc campaign that kicked off in 2017. Before we get into this particular hashtag and its contribution on and beyond the Kenyan digital activism space, let’s first provide some context as to why the timing of its emergence was significant.

To varying degrees, many Kenyans would agree that 2017 was an exhausting year. From the very start of 2017, we were faced with the effects of famine and drought, civil service strikes, followed by a painfully protracted and turbulent electioneering period marred by severe human rights violations and economic stagnation. As the 2017 campaigns unfolded, it appeared that there were no longer any red lines in Kenyan politics; as we witnessed the casual and repetitive crossing of what we might have previously assumed to be red lines with events such as the killing of children in election-related crackdowns, the terrifying murder of an election official, not to mention the blatant flouting of constitutional provisions such as article 81 which stipulates the 2/3 gender rule. From one unresolved election episode to the next, many Kenyans were numbed or traumatized by the extent to which politicians were willing to go in pursuit of power. With severe repression of NGOs and the media, there was very little space to think through and organize around progressive, big-picture agendas beyond party politics. But as we’ve seen in the past in places such as Liberia, in times of severe crisis and oppression, it is the women that rise up to give direction and call society to order. In Kenya, in the midst of all the political noise and chaos in 2017, #Weare52pc emerged as one of the ways in which Kenyan women organized themselves to fight against the temptation to become paralyzed or overwhelmed by the crisis. Instead, they sought to raise the bar of our political debate to focus on the constitution and gender equality in Kenya.

Saluting this courage and resolve to organize at a most challenging time, I decided to look out for the women behind the #Weare52pc in early 2018, hoping to tap into the inspiration behind the campaign that garnered visibility at a time when many had chosen to watch from the sidelines.

In this quest, I tracked down some of the women who shared the story. #Weare52 started off as a project of a diverse collective of feminist identifying Kenyan women that came together in 2017 with a firmness of purpose take action not just for themselves, but for the country in regards to women representation and respect for the constitution. The project was a combination of online and offline volunteer efforts that rallied around the 2/3 gender rule, and building on work that the team had started before the elections. In addition to the hashtag, a critical component of this work was the petition the team submitted to the Chief Justice’s office to ‘Respect, Uphold & Defend the Constitution of Kenya’. The petition called for the dissolution of the current parliament, due to its consistent failure to enact legislation to implement article 81 of the constitution which ensures that not more than two thirds of the of the members of elective public bodies shall be of the same gender. Whereas the CJ failed to act on this petition in a timely fashion, this did not stop the campaign’s momentum. #Weare52pc forged forward to advance the representation conversation with ordinary Kenyans, through the hashtag and also by plugging into other social causes such as the nurses campaign, linking women’s representation to healthcare issues. Working in solidarity with like-minded organizations and individuals, they led conversations that explored why and how women representation is important not only from a legal perspective, but also from a social perspective. Using art, poetry, protest, and education, #Weare52pc played a significant role in helping Kenyans unpack the 2/3 gender rule with questions such as ‘what benefits would we accrue as a country, if we had more representation of women? What difference would be made if we reversed the injustice of excluding more than half of the population from positions of power?’ In many instances, people could identify how this would affect them in their everyday lives, particularly in regards to the possibility for increased safety for women and more effective overall governance. This conversation carries on, as #Weare52pc hold the line in the struggle for gender equality in Kenya.

As I reflected on all this, I also saw that #Weare52pc’s significance goes beyond its timely emergence and the momentum it has gathered around women’s constitutional right to representation.  It’s also important because it brought to the fore something else that we don’t talk much about: online gender-based violence. In the world of online activism - especially when highlighting intersectional feminist issues - women activists face disproportionately high levels of virtual abuse. Although it does not get the level of attention and redress that it ought to in Kenya, virtual harassment is a major cause for concern as it is a real and legitimate form of gender-based violence. If you take time to scroll through some of the past #Weare52pc trends on Twitter, you might come across hate-based attacks on some of their posts. This could include personal or collective attacks, including threats, trolling, bullying and other forms of harassment that in some instances could spill over into unpleasant offline encounters. The reality of the activism space in Kenya is that it is unsafe, both offline and online and especially for women, particularly when they are agitating on women’s rights. It is therefore noteworthy that the #Weare52 campaign has stayed on course for so many months, having to constantly manoeuver and rise above the torrents of toxicity in the Kenyan cyberspace. In learning how to gather courage and energy to navigate and stay safe in this space, while at the same time relentlessly confronting misogyny, homophobia, and ethnic hate, #Weare52pc continue to play an essential role in expanding and defending the online space for Kenyan women activists. By refusing to be bullied into silence and fear, #Weare52 provides us with important guideposts on how to organize online voices to speak truth to power. They are acting as leading lights in the reclaiming of platforms to advance women’s rights to dignity, respect and freedom. One thing that they mentioned as vital in dealing with the hostility is a greater focus on self-care as individuals and groups of activists. At an individual level, taking time out to focus on one’s right to be well, safe and secure. At a collective level, to build relationships, friendships, and care for each other – it’s necessary for the preservation and flourishing of both the people and the cause.

Considering this year’s theme for the International Women’s Day, which is #PressforProgress, I think we should all take a moment to recognize and appreciate the women behind #Weare52pc, because theirs is a great deal of sacrifice towards the realization of gender equity in Kenya.

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