Empowerment Through Internet Access

Promoting Women’s Rights with Social Media

PROBLEM STATEMENTAccess to the Internet and social media can empower users and create pathways to change, yet differences in access and entrenched sexism in societies can limit how effective social media campaigns can be.

This case study examines how access to the Internet can amplify citizens’ voices specifically as related to the women’s rights movement across the world.

CASE STUDY — Child marriage, honor killings, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM),  workplace sexual harassment and cyber stalking are a few of the egregious violations of women’s rights.  Sadly, historically unequal power relations between men and women across the globe have meant that such violations are not confined to a specific culture, region, country or status.  And all too often traditional media have reinforced inequality.  But increasingly newer digital and social media platforms are giving women a voice in their own defense. In some countries, social media are providing an effective platform for women’s rights.

How effective social media platforms are in advocating for women’s rights is a reflection of how effectively they are used. Just as social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook can be used to promote women's rights, they can also be used to objectify and demean women. 

In 2013, an online Change.org petition gathered more than 220,000 signatures demanding that Facebook remove pictures, groups and videos that promote rape, violence and sexism against women. The BBC reported that more than 50,000 people worldwide joined together on Twitter under the hashtag #FBrape in reaction to the offensive Facebook content. The goal of the #FBrape campaignto remove advertisements from offensive Facebook pages, with the ultimate result of Facebook deleting those pages. Ultimate, as the BBC reported, Facebook did delete many of the offensive pages.   

Using social media as a platform to create change and fight for women's rights is a growing trend, but one that is not equally effective around the world due to differences in access to the Internet and social media — and to entrenched sexism in societies. 

UNITED STATES — In 2013, surveys showed that 85 percent of the adult population in the United States had Internet access, with almost equal access between men and women.  That equality of access has contributed to the success of social media campaigns on sites like Twitter where both men and women together speak out against public policy and effectively promote change.  In February 2012, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, for example,  made the decision to cut their funding to Planned Parenthood.  

The social media backlash — from both men and women — on sites including Twitter and Tumblr was so extensive and vehement that the organization quickly reversed its decision.  But while this kind of cross-gender engagement may be possible in the United States, a nation with heavy and relatively balanced Internet saturation, it may not be possible in all countries. 

ARGENTINA — In Argentina, a country with Internet access roughly comparable to the United States, social media-propelled change does not come so easily. Sixty-six percent of the Argentine population had Internet access as of 2012, with men and women having almost equal online access.  However, entrenched sexism in Argentina’s public sphere makes social media a less effective change agent for women’s rights. According to Proximitas, 85 percent of women in Argentina consider Argentinian men to be misogynist. Showmatch, one of Argentina’s most successful television programs, provides an example of the everyday sexism that exists in the country. One segment, Bailando por un sueño ("Dancing for a dream"), featured a woman dancing in a sexually suggestive way, while wearing only a G-string. (Content warning: this video may contain content that is inappropriate for some viewers).  

 women mobilize to call attention to such entrenched sexism, few men join forces, and little happens.  La Marcha de las Putas Buenos Aires (Slutwalk Buenos Aires), for example, is a Argentine women’s rights movement sparked by local response to a comment by Michel Sanguinetti, a Canadian policeman, that “women should avoid dressing like sluts” in order to avoid being raped or assaulted. On April 3, 2011, Argentine women protested against his victim-blaming statement, and a Facebook page was created for the movement which garnered over 30,000 likes.  Yet no effective change in public discourse occurred.


KENYA — An essential requirement to creating change through social media is having access to the Internet and social media in the first place. In Kenya fewer than 28 percent of citizens had Internet access in 2013. The lack of access and adequate Internet infrastructure affects low-income rural areas the most, and women most severely.  A national survey revealed that while 17 percent of male respondents used the Internet to obtain news information, only 8 percent of female respondents did so.  Another national report noted that many Kenyan women lack access to information, a situation compounded by the limited access of women to the Internet. 

The relatively low rate of access to the Internet in Kenya also prevents Kenyans, particularly women, from voicing their opinions or successfully organizing awareness or rights campaigns on social media sites. Some sub-Saharan countries, such as South Africa, are beginning to lead training courses to teach women how to effectively use social media to advocate for women’s rights.  However, until access is more widespread, such training courses create minimal impact.

CONCLUSION — Citizens who have access to the Internet and social media platforms are more aware of their social, political and economic environment than those citizens who lack access.  It is perhaps then not surprising that studies have repeatedly shown that citizens’ awareness of inequalities in their communities prompts attention to and ultimately support for equal rights, including women’s rights. The disparities of access that currently exist between countries in various regions of the world affect how groups can organize and use social media as a platform for promoting human rights causes, including women’s rights.