The question of whether technology can offer solutions to mitigate the sexual violence perpetrated against women and girls in Nigeria is timely considering the current state of affairs. It is also a question that has been asked and answered in other contexts by different innovators around the world with everything from anti-rape wear, to consent contracts, lipstick guns, anti-groping stamps, and even toothed female condoms.
As it currently stands technology is woven into virtually all aspects of our lives. With its promise of improved efficiency and increased connectivity, it has quickly achieved panacea status and is often rolled out as the answer, or at least part of the answer, to many of society's problems.
In many ways, the tech industry in Nigeria is currently having a moment. It echoes similar sentiments of its global predecessors; the idea that tech has most, if not all, of the answers. In the absence of effective governance to address the nation’s sexual violence problem civilians are searching for answers everywhere and the industry that purports itself as a provider of said is not exempt from this line of questioning.
The past few weeks have brought a gnawing issue back to center stage; the pervasiveness of sexual violence perpetrated against women in Nigeria. The reality of the precarious climate Nigeria’s women and girls are expected to exist in has forced governors of all 36 states to officially declare a state of emergency.
Several cases reignited this conversation following their circulation on most digital platforms. There was the case of Vera Uwaila Omozuwa (Uwa) who was raped and murdered in Edo state by a group of men in a church where she went to read, and likewise Bakarat Bello, an 18-year-old girl who was raped and killed in her own home in Ibadan. More pertinent to this conversation however are the accusations leveled at a prominent member of Nigeria’s tech ecosystem, Kendall Ananyi, the CEO of the broadband service company Tizeti. A twitter user, who claimed that Ananyi was a mentor at the time, accused Ananyi of allegedly showing her his penis and suggesting he would like sexual favors.
As the industry that’s supposed to have the answers becomes implicated as part of the problem, it forces us to ask the above question more critically; can tech really solve the sexual assault problem in Nigeria?
The global tech industry is male-dominated and the case for gender parity in tech ecosystems around the world is one that has been and is currently being made by many actors across many different organizations. A consequence of this disparity is the silencing of the most crucial perspectives that can actually ignite social change. A review of the current efforts being made to combat sexual violence through tech illustrates that the industry’s approach to sexual assault is also emblematic of the gender imbalance. Inventing preventive tech as opposed to designing digital initiatives that educate the general public on rape culture is the chosen strategy, and it is not a useful one.
Inventions like anti-rape wear that prevent potential assaulters from taking off the victims underwear, or the lipstick gun invented by Shyam Chaurasia that sends distress signals to the police when activated, fall into the trap dubbed the technological sublime; this is the assumption that technology, because of its novelty and ingenuity, is inherently effective and neutral, and likewise if developed with good intentions it will go on to produce good effective results irrespective of social infrastructures. The reality is that technology, like all things, operates within existing power structures that skew everything to the dominant ideology. In light of this, inventions like the above, although well-intentioned, ultimately put the onus of violence prevention on women. In a society already conditioned to blame women for their assault, it’s neither a jump nor a leap to see how such devices can be counterproductive. With reactive prevention as the focus, the rhetoric surrounding sexual violence will evolve from ‘Why is this violence happening?’ to ‘Why didn’t you protect yourself from this violence?’
The reality is that women have always and still do take many precautions to avoid sexual violence. Wearable gadgets and safety apps are mostly reactive not proactive. They operate from the premise that rape and assault are inevitabilities and not consequences of social conditioning that can be curbed by addressing the root causes of the problem.
Likewise, the above solutions perpetuate the myth that most rape and assault is done by strangers to unsuspecting victims. The reality is that most assault occurs in intimate settings between parties that already have an existing relationship, furthermore, rape culture establishes dynamics between men and women that condition the former to entitlement and the latter to shame and silence. There is no invention, gadget, or any other preventive tech that can re-socialize humanity, only radical digital initiatives that necessitate unlearning rape culture can do that.
If women were better represented in the tech space then the question - i.e. the title of this article - would most likely produce very different answers. We would see more technologies geared toward deconstructing myths around rape and sexual assault, more initiatives focused educating people on rape culture and how they can stop its perpetuation, applications that make it easier for victims to access both medical and legal assistance and initiatives that encourage bystander intervention. Nigeria’s tech industry, still in its nascence, has the potential to promote this approach; a proactive one focused on dismantling rape culture and eradicating sexual violence from its roots; the first and most crucial step is having women represented at the highest levels in the industry.