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Women in Africa: Key Players in Social Movements

Faye Lax, Jennifer Delgado, Extremism Team

November 30, 2020

Over the past several months, especially since the initial COVID-19 outbreak, women taking to the streets in protest, playing significant roles in rallies, and voicing their discontent over social injustices and sexual gender-based violence (SGBV), has become an emerging trend in the AFRICOM region, which has been particularly visible in Nigeria, Namibia, South Africa, Algeria, and Malawi. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated domestic violence, femicide, and SGBV. With lockdown measures in place, perpetrators of gendered violence have an easier time controlling women, and is what United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, explains is “a perfect storm for controlling, violent behavior behind closed doors.”[1] Many countries in Africa have been faced with rising numbers of sexual violence, and while some governments have been issuing statements condemning such actions, in most countries, the root causes have not been dealt with.[2] The rising trend of women’s involvement in protests and social movements might suggest that women in Africa are now forced to take action into their own hands and make sure their voices are being heard by their governments and international leaders. Women across Africa are holding their governments accountable and widely using social media and social movement hashtags as vital tools to reach the global community.

The role of African women in conflict and peace was recognized as significant in the 2000 UN Security Council’s resolution 1325.[3] While the resolution aimed at addressing women’s role in peacekeeping and conflict resolution, it also highlighted the need for states to take responsibility to prosecute those who are responsible for sexual violence and other crimes against women. However, financing the implementation of this resolution remained difficult. In 2014, only three percent of the peace and security funding were allocated toward gender equality and women’s empowerment.[4] Twenty years after this resolution passed, African women are still facing gender-based violence, as well as other insecurities, and are particularly vulnerable targets for terrorist attacks. Women are still fighting for basic security in the region, and with the COVID-19 pandemic creating more vulnerabilities, it seems as if women have been forced to take a stand. Women have not only protested and fought for women’s rights, but have also fought for other basic human rights, justice, and equality for everyone. Today, African women are being praised across social media by other females on a global level for their recent anti-government protests and for taking a stand for social justice across Africa. Although African women have been at the forefront of change and their fight for equal rights and fair treatment has been happening throughout history and now, it must transcend to seek concrete and systematic change. Their fight for equality needs to be heard by government leaders and the international community, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a worsening of conditions for many women across the AFRICOM region. This report will serve as a summary of some of the actions African women have sought after, as well as the limitations that social media activism has faced.


In 1999, the Constitution of Nigeria was enacted and stated “discrimination on the grounds of place of origin, sex, religion, status, ethnic or linguistic association or ties shall be prohibited.”[5] Although Nigeria can be characterized as maintaining a high level of diversity and culture, and in fact, bans discrimination, there is still an identifiable gender bias that slows down the development of women’s rights. In 2015, the Nigerian population was reportedly 50% Muslim and 48.1% Christian affiliates.[6] Some of the customs Nigerians hold relate to freedom of movement, marriage, and family inheritance, all of which consequently restrict women’s rights.[7] As a result, Nigerian women are viewed as inferior to men, and in many Nigerian families, men are appreciated more than women because the continuity of the family lineage is held sacred, resulting in women being denied their family inheritance. Oftentimes, women face arranged marriages, and marriage at a young age is highly encouraged and accepted.[8] Females are often not granted equal rights and are allowed to have little input in some of the most important decisions in their lives, as these decisions are controlled by males.

The disparity of Nigerian gender education is very high. In 2018, Nigeria reported that only 52.66% of their female population was literate, while the rate of male literacy was at 71.26%.[9] Education for women is regarded as less important than for men, which results in already limited resources being spent mostly on males. In 2019, only 4 percent of girls in Nigeria had the opportunity to finish secondary school, which makes them vulnerable targets to groups such as Boko Haram that offer them access to resources such as Koranic education.[10] The Global Partnership for Education and the Peace Corps does offer scholarships and pays school tuition to girls who commit to a mandated ten years of schooling, but even with education becoming more accessible to females and low-income families, there is still a lot of progress to be made.

In today's Nigeria, women are fighting for change. As recent trends highlight, women in Nigeria are taking a stand against injustices. They played a key role in Nigeria’s recent #EndSARS movement which generated mass protests and demonstrations, all working to eliminate the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). While thousands of people were a part of this movement, women, in particular, were at the forefront. One group specifically, the “Feminist Coalition,” a group of 13 Nigerian feminists who focus on “women’s rights [and] safety, financial equality for women; and political & legislative power for women,” were the face of this movement.[11] The coalition raised funds, established a legal aid service, and has captured enormous support by their utilization of online platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and WhatsApp. After their bank account was shut down by the government, their innovative means of channeling funds via BTC Pay, a platform that transfers Bitcoin to cash, allowed the coalition to keep mobilizing funds to help the protesters.[12] One of the members, Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi, was on the Times’ 100 list for her organization Stand to End Rape (STER), which provides resources to victims of sexual assault.[13] She is only one of the many women who are voicing their discontent and finding ways to make a difference. As Feyikemi Abudu, a key player in this movement has explained, she hopes the role of women in this movement will prove “that you need women at the top, at every level of society.”[14] Women have, in fact, taken on leadership in this movement by finding creative means to make their voices heard and by funding this movement.


Over the decades, Namibian women have experienced “gender-based violence, teenage pregnancy, [and] restrictive social-cultural norms limiting [the] full exercise of human rights and women’s rights.”[15] According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, one in four Namibian women are survivors of domestic violence.[16] Namibia’s cultural beliefs tend to justify domestic violence as a necessary discipline. In fact, “28% of women and 22% of men aged 15-49 justified beating as an acceptable way for a husband to discipline his wife.”[17] As a result, SBGV is normalized across Namibia, and although there are many laws against domestic violence, it is likely cultural views influence the reporting of such incidents by victims. It is likely that Namibian women normalize abuse due to society's view and their culture. Because of this, they do not report it, and even when abuse is reported, the police do not take it seriously. For years, Namibia has been attempting to tighten the gender gap by promoting gender equality and working with the United Nations to end SBGV.[18] However, Namibian women believe there is still a lot to fight for gender equality.

In October, the body of 22-year-old Shannon Wasserfall was found after she had gone missing in April 2020. Women and youth of Namibia have taken to the streets in response to this incident and have been protesting anti-femicide in Namibia. The purpose, which was all planned online (see image to the right), was to #ShutItDown and to have the government declare a state of emergency.[19] The protesters pledged not to stop until their government took real action in response to SGBV. In turn, the police detained 25 female activists, however, the charges against them were dropped and the President of Namibia, Hage Geingob stated that there is “a need to do more to fight the scourge of sexual and gender-based violence.”[20] Activists, however, criticized the statement for not having clear deadlines and accused the government of trying to buy time.[21] it is clear that Namibian women in this movement are demanding clear action rather than accepting empty promises.

Similar to Nigeria’s ‘Feminist Coalition’, ‘Sister Namibia’ is a non-profit organization advocating for women’s rights. While the organization was established in 1989, it has taken point in the recent protests via social media. Their Instagram highlighted an action plan for the government and what they expected moving forward (see image below).[22] The women in Namibia, like those in Nigeria, took advantage of social media as a powerful tool to voice their grievances. As one protester, Leebus Hashikutuva, explained, “All over the country, everyone is frustrated, concerned, traumatised – and everybody is tired… The revolution will not only be televised but it will also be tweeted and Instagrammed. We are using the power of social media as a collective.”[23]

South Africa:

Women in South Africa have a long history of being involved in social change. During the apartheid, for instance, women created the ANC Women’s League, a political party in South Africa that helped women become more vocal about social injustices.[24] The ANC guaranteed that women’s demands would be included in the Freedom Chart after the apartheid was over. The apartheid was a time in South Africa when black Africans were separated from white Africans and discriminated against. Black and white Africans were separated by color and the government forcibly removed black South Africans from rural areas designated as white[25] The freedom chart was a system designed to provide South Africans equal rights without racial discrimination. Another organization women created for active change during the apartheid was the Black Sash Six which was formed in 1955 by six women who fought for the right of colored people to vote.[26]

Women in South Africa have also been taking to social media under the hashtag #AmINext over the past year. The face of #AmINext is Uyinene Mrwetyana, a 19-year-old student who was raped and murdered in Cape Town in 2019. South African women have responded through the ‘Move One Million Movement’, an organization founded in July 2020, by Jerette Petzer that fights for accountability from his government.[27] Like many other movements across Africa, this movement has taken its campaign to Facebook, Twitter, and Telegram, in hopes to make a change in the system especially ahead of the next elections. In 2019, President Ramaphosa announced that measures would be taken to address violence against women.

South Africa is known to have one of the highest femicide rates in the world with approximately 51% of women experiencing sexual violence by their partners.[28] Activists have been taking to the streets and social media in protest of SGBV and femicide since prior to the pandemic. However, COVID-19 has increased the numbers as “violent men are taking advantage of the eased restrictions on movement to attack women and children.”[29] Protests in South Africa were prompted again this summer when more than 20 women and children were killed in a span of weeks. In June, South Africa’s President, Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa, condemned gender-based violence and the culture in his country that is silencing it. His statement was made after several women were killed in a short period of time. One woman, Tshegofatso Pule, was eight-months pregnant when she was stabbed and found hanging from a tree.[30]

Most recently, President Ramaphosa utilized the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children, an international campaign that takes place from November 25 to December 10 and called for a 5-day mourning period for victims of COVID-19 and gender violence and stated that “it will be appropriate that during the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children — which is the second pandemic we are confronting — we demonstrate our remembrance of all those who have departed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and gender-based violence.”[31] Yet, as one activist argued: "It's not enough for the president to say we won't tolerate violence. We want accountability. The government cannot just be saying they are taking a strong stance when they're not acting. They need to put action with those words.”[32] For systematic change to take place in South Africa, the culture of silence must end and activists must seek real change.

On December 1, the ANC Women’s Caucus protested at the Tshwane House, the municipal center, against sexual assault committed by a senior government official in the metro. The ANC Women’s Caucus argued that the Mayor reacted to the allegations with little regard and planned to hand a memorandum with their grievances to him and urged the city to take action.[33] On December 2, Right2Know (R2K) activists, gathered in front of Parliament to protest femicide, and SGBV and have also provided their demands in a memorandum. One of the demands included education programs to address GBV.[34] In the meantime, the Vodacom Foundation, a Corporate Social Investment (CSI) branch of the mobile communications company, Vodacom, announced that it is launching a free app, ‘Bright Sky’, to educate and raise awareness of GBV in South Africa. During the COVID-19 pandemic, having a mobile platform is an empowering and easily accessible tool, as it gives women facing GBV resources, support, and a safe space to share their experiences regarding abusive relationships.


Historically, Algerian women have been treated as less than men. Despite being marginalized by the Muslim community, Algerian women were able to spread feminism during the Independence War against France.[35] Additionally, they played an important role as bombers, during the Battle of Algiers. In 1956, a woman committed a terrorist act against the French, which was the main tactic of the National Liberation Front in Algeria, bomb attacks.[36] Algeria's female bravery has left a mark on the Algerian community and their history, but after the war, women continued to be oppressed, and continue to fight against gender inequality today.[37] The current movements have spiked interest in the history of the Algerian women movement due to the fact women are still fighting for equality of gender and they are looking up to their past generations for insight on social change.[38]

In October, the body of a 19-year-old girl, Chaima, was found raped and burned alive, resulting in anti-femicide protests across the country. The suspect in her homicide also attempted to rape her when she was 15. The case was dropped, however, highlighting serious concerns about Algeria’s justice system. Activists in Algeria, like many others, utilized social media as a tool to highlight the tragedy of this case amongst many others, and the grievances they have with the Algerian justice system. For instance, across social media platforms, activists condemned the crime and called for the death penalty with one common message taking social media by storm: “I am Chaima, I was raped in 2016 and I had the courage to press charges in a conservative society. I am still Chaima, it is 2020 and I have again been raped by the same rapist, who stabbed and burned me; #IAmChaima.”[39]

Algerian women are denouncing femicide and seeking real actionable change rather than a quick fix. Some activists believe that this change starts with the justice system in Algeria, as well as eliminating a victim-blaming culture. Women activists are arguing for stronger convictions for rapists which are now hard to obtain. In fact, Algeria has a law that although rape can be punishable by 5 to 10 years, if the rapist marries his victim, he can avoid that sentence.[40] The ‘Algerian Women for Change Toward Equality group’, is in charge of the anti-femicide rallies and argued against the death penalty that many were voicing their support for. Having counted 38 femicides in Algeria in 2020, they argued that “it is not through the death penalty that they will give her (Chaima) justice, it is rather the law that must be changed and applied.”[41]


Unlike the movements in Nigeria, Namibia, South Africa, and Algeria which were promoted by tragic deaths or violence, the protests and rallies in Malawi stemmed from an identifiable gender imbalance in their President’s public service appointments. The Gender Equality Act requires a 60-40 representation of men to women in public appointments. President Lazarus Chakwera was the leader of the opposition in 2019 when he promised to give leadership roles to women, however, when he was elected in 2020, he continued to emphasize this, yet failed to come through on his promise. In fact, only 20% of public service appointments were given to women.[42]

In Malawi, it is estimated that 42% of married women experience domestic violence.[43] The female-headed households are at a higher risk of suffering from poverty and 46.7% of children marry before the age of 18. UNICEF has been working to create and implement laws that impede children from marrying.[44] In 2018, the Millennium Change Corporation recognized that “the best way to reduce poverty is by investing in women’s economic empowerment.[45] Yet, in 2020, women in Malawi are still facing gender-based inequalities.

The ‘Women Manifesto Movement’, composed of various organizations, was at the forefront of the most recent movement where they ensured their voices and demands would finally be heard. The group, in fact, did acknowledge that they were making progress in gender equality, by issuing a press statement via Twitter. The Officer of the President and Cabinet (OPC) invited affiliates of the movement to a roundtable discussion on October 26, which aimed at “appraising the movement of the efforts the government had undertaken on recalibrating parastatal boards appointments to ensure gender balance.”[46] The activists eventually praised President Chakwera after he appointed six female High Court Judges, out of a total of twelve positions.[47] The Women Manifesto Movement also organized a march against sexual violence on November 16 by utilizing Twitter to raise awareness and garner support (see image above).[48]

Comprehensive Analysis:

In Africa, lockdowns have caused a spike in already high numbers of SBGV and other social injustices. Women across the region have taken to the streets and social media to make sure their voices are heard and met with real action. With footage and hashtags circling the internet, the hope is that the revolutions get “televised” (see image to the right) and will not go ignored.[49] During the COVID-19 pandemic, social media has acted as an enormous tool for activists, especially women across Africa who have had limited resources, yet are tired of facing insecurities and injustices. The women protesting social injustices ranging from police brutality to SGBV across the African region have been successful in making their voices heard. These hashtags and social media posts have spiraled across the globe and garnered international attention. It is a step in the right direction, but it cannot be the only step. Women in Africa must continue their fight on and off social media to ensure the root causes of these injustices are acknowledged and fixed. Women need to start speaking up and not allow their cultures of victim-blaming to hold them back from doing so. They must ensure that their governments start implementing stronger laws against perpetrators of femicide and SGBV. More resources and government attention must be allocated towards victims of SGBV, especially with COVID-19 restrictions making it difficult to seek help and counseling. Social media should act as a tool, not as the sole solution.

Social media can act as a powerful tool for women protesting such injustices because it brings attention to a situation and attracts new activists to the cause. It also gives activists a safe platform to voice their grievances, rather than protesting in the streets of their cities which are often unsafe. However, with the current hashtags being used as the face of social movements, there is the possibility of them being misinterpreted. People tend to share hashtags to make a point but often do not realize that they are hindering the power of the hashtag by being performative on social media rather than taking action on the ground. One recent example is the ‘Blackout Tuesday’ during the #BlackLivesMatter social activism. Despite its intentions, too many people across social media were posting and using the hashtag. This destroyed the hashtag’s purpose because when an image is posted with a tag on Twitter or Instagram, it gets automatically added to a searchable feed, which people can find while using the tag.[50] The hashtag did proliferate but for the wrong reasons. During Blackout Tuesday, many people and influencers encouraged others to delete their pictures as protestors in the US and across the globe were using it to organize future protests and share information.[51] Social activist hashtags should be used to inform and spread awareness and always be accompanied with information to convey their true message.

Hashtag activism often belittles the issue by focusing on very specific incidents at very specific times. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign (see right), is an example of this.[52] Boko Haram is notorious for kidnapping young girls but only this incident in 2014 made the headlines. Women and children are still vulnerable victims of the group, but it is no longer a hashtag, and hence, it is no longer a major discussion. Unfortunately, while it elicits mass attention for a while, the root of the issues often get ignored with hashtag activism. This may also result in quick fixes to quickly dismantle the protests, rather than providing long-term solutions. For instance, while the Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS) has been dismantled, another unit, Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT), is taking over the duties of SARS.[53] Although the real issues being protested have not been addressed, activists who utilize social media and hashtag activism should remain persistent that their concerns are being met with concrete actions and changes in their legal system and culture, raise awareness and make resources available to those who are vulnerable to SGBV or victims of such crimes.

Furthermore, as activists start to utilize social media as their key platforms, their governments and opponents may eventually catch on and restrict their access. For instance, with the #EndSars movement, the Nigerian Government caught onto the power of social media and began to regulate it. The Northern Governors’ Forum called for “strict supervision and censorship of social media to thwart “subversive actions” and “avoid the spread of fake news.”[54] The reaction to censoring social media was highlighted via yet another hashtag: #SayNoToSocialMediaBill. Governments may try to impede social movements by limiting other basic rights such as speech and social media accessibility. Activists should be vigilant about possible restrictions from their governments.

Social media activism is also at risk of attracting fake news and disinformation by those who seek to undermine the movements or impede on the rights activists are fighting for. In our current technological landscape, it is easy to alter videos and profiles to fit the desired narrative. People with a minimal understanding of video editing or those unaware of fake news can be prime victims for disinformation as they will believe the information the video is providing is true. One such example is a video posted on Twitter showing Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari’s adviser, Femi Adesina, referring to the protests as “child’s play” alongside a message that read: “If you are not angry enough, I hope this video helps you.”[55] This message highlighted that the Nigerian government does not support the movement. While they were protesting against legitimate grievances, this particular video was old and the introduction was edited out. Television stations and channels have clarified this, yet it alludes to the dangers of misinformation circling on the web.

The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) Extremism Team will continue to track these trends across AFRICOM. The Extremism Team will utilize open-source intelligence and social media intelligence to monitor the possible misinformation and disinformation that are coupled with social media campaigns and movements. African governments and NGOs should ensure that educational resources on SGBV are available to women as a preventative measure, as well as for victims of such crimes. Lastly, the justice institutions across Africa should implement laws that guarantee that perpetrators of SGBV will be brought to justice. The Extremism Team will track the footprint on social media from women across Africa to analyze and better understand the impact of using hashtag activism. The Extremism Team will also investigate the implications of COVID-19 in Africa and how it may hinder activists and the government from implementing changes to tackle SGBV and femicide.

________________________________________________________________________The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1] UN chief calls for domestic violence ‘ceasefire’ amid ‘horrifying global surge, UN News, April 2020,

[2] Violence Against Women - Africa's Shadow Pandemic, All Africa, October 2020,

[3] UN Security Council resolution 1325 on women and peace and security (2000), UN Women, 2000,

[4] Financing for the Implementation of National Action Plans on UN Security Council 1325: Critical for Advancing Women's Human Rights, Peace and Security, Coraid, October 2014,

[5] Nigeria's Constitution of 1999, Constitute, May 2020,

[6] The countries with the 10 largest Christian populations and the 10 largest Muslim populations, Pew research Center, May 2019,

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[10] Women and Terrorism Hidden Threats, Forgotten Partners, Council on Foreign Relations, May 2019,

[11] Feminist Coalition, Feminist Coalition, October 2020,

[12] Nigerian Banks Shut Them Out, so These Activists Are Using Bitcoin to Battle Police Brutality, CoinDesk, October 2020,

[14] ‘We Are Able to Get Things Done.’ Women Are at the Forefront of Nigeria’s Police Brutality Protests, Time, October 2020,

[16] Namibia Weights Demands for Rape Crackdown Ater Street Protests, Reuters, October 2020,

[18] Achieving Gender Equality, Women’s Empowerment and Strengthening Development Cooperation, United Nations, 2010,

[20] Anti-Femicide Protesters Call for a State of Emergency in Namibia, CNN, October, 2020,

[22] What We Want Now, Instagram, October 2020,

[23] Why are anti-femicide protesters taking to Namibia’s streets?, Al Jazeera, October 2020,

[24] Women Rise Up Against Apartheid and Change the Movement, Facing History, n.d,

[27] Move One Million activists march against social ills, Sabc News, September 2020,

[28] President Cyril Ramaphosa condemns surge in murders of women and children, The Presidency, June 2020,

[29] South Africa has the continent's highest Covid-19 cases. Now it has another pandemic on its hands, CNN, June 2020,

[30] President Cyril Ramaphosa condemns surge in murders of women and children, The Presidency Republic of South Africa, June 2020,

[31] South Africa's Ramaphosa Calls for 5 Days of Mourning for Victims of COVID-19 and Gender Violence, Global Citizen, November 2020,

[32] South Africa has the continent's highest Covid-19 cases. Now it has another pandemic on its hands, CNN, June 2020,

[35] Algerian Feminism and the Long Struggle for Women’s Equality, The Conversation, October 2016,

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Algerian Feminism and the Long Struggle for Women’s Equality, The Conversation, October 2016,

[39] Algeria: Activists Protest The Rape, Murder of a Young Woman, Call For Greater Protection, albawaba, October 2020,

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Malawi Women Protest Gender Imbalance in Public Service Appointments, VOA News, October 2020,

[45] Women are Powering Change in Malawi, One, December 2018,

[46] We are making progress, Twitter, October 2020,

[47] Chakwera gets gender activists salute over appointments:’ inspires confidence to malawi women, Nyasa Times, October 2020,

[49] The Revolution Will Be Televised!, Twitter, October 2020,

[50] Why posting a black image with the 'Black Lives Matter' hashtag could be doing more harm than good, CNN, June 2020,

[51] Blackout Tuesday: Black Squares Dominate Social Media and Spark Debate, The Guardian, June 2020,

[53] End Swat: Nigerians reject police unit replacing hated Sars, BBC, October 2020,

[54] How social media regulations are silencing dissent in Africa, MSN, November 2020,

[55] Nigeria Sars protest: The misinformation circulating online, BBC, October 2020,



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