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14. Using information technology as a mobilizing force

Historical background
Information technology and TAMWA
Technology and the media
Conclusion: TAMWA and information technology

The case of the Tanzania Media Women's Association (TAMWA)

Fatma Alloo

Africa has been portrayed by the media as poor and powerless. But the media have a role to play in the process of empowerment. The media can enable the people to challenge the powers that be and question the direction they are taking. In Tanzania, women are at the forefront of meeting this challenge. This case study will show the importance of technology in taking control of one's situation. Information technology can be used to destroy the 'poor and powerless' myth, and to mobilize a community for empowerment and social change.

Historical background

The inception of TAMWA as an association had its seeds in 1979, with a group of women who had just finished journalism school and were beginning work in various mass media institutions. We became aware that we were working very much individually. This method of work was also reflected in the way women's issues were covered in the mainstream press.

We found this situation unsatisfactory and formed ourselves into an informal group to produce radio programmes. The first issue we picked was schoolgirl pregnancies. We produced a total of five programmes on that issue with an in-depth analysis of the social context. These programmes were broadcast, and were very popular both in Kiswahili and in English. Listener response was enthusiastic. This encouraged and inspired us to produce another set of programmes on violence against women, beginning with domestic violence. It was never broadcast because most of the mass media heads were men who refused to see this as an issue. Since they had the decision-making power, we began to become aware of our limitations. Although many of us were demoralized and discouraged, since we had worked so hard on the programmes, the event taught us that we did not have a forum of our own.

Years passed and many of us went our separate ways, but in 1986, after going through many individual trials and tribulations as women, we regrouped and decided to officially launch an association on a formal basis. At that time the association had thirteen members (it has since grown to fifty-five, working in television, radio and newspapers). This kind of urban-based professional women's association is a relatively new phenomenon in Eastern and Southern Africa. Other such associations in the region have been initiated by legal and health professionals (Alloo, 1991).

While waiting for registration, which was to come after a year, we did a stage show on International Women's Day in 1987 to demonstrate different forms of media, including both conventional and popular media. The show was highly successful. We made an impact in the community and especially with the heads of mass media, who until then had not understood what we were really about. We felt that, for the first time, an understanding was beginning to emerge in the community.

We were registered in November 1987, and started a newsletter called 'Titbits' which we produced for ourselves. 'Titbits' covered a wide range of issues and was produced through the initiative of TAMWA members. It became our forum, through which we could express ourselves and respond to a need. Eleven monthly issues of 'Titbits' were produced. In the process, various talents were identified. Eventually 'Titbits' evolved into 'Sauti Ya Siti', which will be described below.

In January 1988 we did a seminar on the 'Portrayal of Women in the Media in Tanzania'. We chose this topic because we needed to understand our situation first. We also looked into how our language perpetuated the negative portrayal of women. The seminar was attended by about sixty women's groups who passed a recommendation that we needed a forum in the form of our own magazine. TAMWA met this challenge and in March 1988, just a month later, we launched our magazine, 'Sauti Ya Siti' 'Voice of Woman' - which was also named after one of the first prominent woman communicator in nineteenth-century Zanzibar, Siti Binti Saad. Siti was not only a singer, she communicated for justice.

We now produce this magazine on a quarterly basis, in English and Kiswahili versions. We charge more for the English version, so that it subsidizes the Kiswahili version, which we try to make accessible to the rural population. The literacy rate of Tanzanian women is among the highest for women in sub-Saharan Africa (USAID, 1985). 'Sauti Ya Siti' now has a circulation of 10,000 copies. The English edition is distributed via book shops and through subscriptions. The Kiswahili edition requires much more effort. We distribute copies to rural libraries (where each copy is read by an average of thirty persons), schools, ministries, women's groups (those who belong to our network and friends of TAMWA) and through street children, who sell in the regions and earn a commission. The latter sales system is organized by our focal point supporters: women who have trained with us in paralegal work, NGO management, and outreach work. We also target hairdressing salons.

Popular education materials are also distributed in this manner. For example, we produce brochures on the laws which affect women's lives, written in a simplified Kiswahili, with visuals and big letters for the new literates in Tanzania. These are disseminated through legal aid clinics in the countryside.

As we continued, we began to explore other forms of action in accordance with our objective to become a vehicle for increasing understanding of our situation as women and educating ourselves on our rights. In May every year we organize a Day of Action on women's health issues. One of the questions we ask of society is: why is it that so many of us continue to die in childbirth, when we have been performing our reproductive role from time immemorial (Sheikh-Hashim, 1989), and how long will we continue to be denied our rights in terms of appropriate medical care facilities and human rights? This day mobilizes the community over questions pertinent to our situation as women. The people attending effectively raise these issues in their various work places and organizations. We continue to focus these annual events on health, since it is an effective tool for mobilizing women. The process has a multiplier effect in building a gender-sensitized community.

Information technology and TAMWA

As we continue to work in TAMWA, various needs which relate to information dissemination and development education emerged. Generally, as members initiate new ideas, TAMWA undertakes the development of the viable ones (see Figure 14.1).

In producing 'Sauti Ya Siti' we felt the need for a Research and Documentation Unit, together with a Reference Library for material on women. This unit is operational and several basic studies have already been prepared and published by TAMWA, on subjects ranging from sanitation to traditional education. The community involved in the study participates in the evaluation stage.

The growth of TAMWA called for a more rational retrieval, selection and diffusion system. The need was met by installing a programme called 'File Maker' and creating data bases, one for books, and another for unpublished documents and reports. In 1994 the collection included 3,000 books and 2,800 unpublished documents, plus periodicals.

Figure14.1 TAMWA organizational chart

All documents in the library are classified using 'keywords'. Keywords are terms of constant vocabulary for particular ideas or facts which help describe the contents of a document. The keywords used to classify documents in TAMWA have been selected to reflect the theme and subjects dealt with by the Association. We also take trainees from the Tanganyika Library, who help us with needed expertise, while getting practical exposure to our Association and becoming gender sensitized.

Our Documentation Unit is having a multiplier effect, as it is popularly used by the community, especially the youth. Gender sensitization through basic research is quite effective in empowering both men and women, and it particularly affects young minds. We also have a close collaboration with the Tanzanian School of Journalisms, which trains young journalists. Right now (in 1994) the unit is in the process of becoming part and parcel of a non-governmental organization (NGO) Resource Centre, thus planting the seed of a gender-sensitized NGO community with our documentation unit as a basic source.

Another unit is the Audio-visual Unit, whose programmes are used by Radio Tanzania. At the moment, we feed into existing radio programmes using research conducted by TAMWA members. We have developed a small studio on our premises. The target is to launch a community radio in 1995. The Visual Unit is fully equipped and produces video programmes on the issues which are being researched, to show to women's groups as part of a process of empowerment. So far, we have produced three documentations of women's history, the first one being on Siti Binti Saad. This unit is currently producing programmes for television, which has now been introduced to mainland Tanzania. We have also launched artists and artists' groups in our attempt to support young artists and foster aesthetic values in society.

The Economic Unit is another step towards self-sustainability (see Figure 14.2). The goal is for the organization to earn sufficient income to cover its costs. The acquisition of proper office space and the appointment of a full-time administrative secretary have increased these costs. At present most of the funding still comes from donors, with the office costs being met from a 15 per cent administrative charge which is added to every project proposal. To meet the goal of self-sufficiency, entrepreneurship in various forms has found a place in TAMWA. Entrepreneurial activities in 1992 included an alternative fashion show, and the production of African clothing for men and women is now a project. Self-sufficiency is both a financial necessity and, in the long term, a requisite if TAMWA is to have an equal partnership with its counterpart organizations. Reliance on donor funds brings with it the temptation to produce for the sake of satisfying the funders rather than our own constituency, and the risk of losing our freedom to criticize the policies of development agencies. It also commits us to a 'project' approach rather than a 'process' approach, with all the costs in terms of lack of continuity and failure to build up an institutional memory which that entails.

The Children's Unit has transmitted our heritage through a book of children's songs and games. This material comes with an audio cassette. We believe that instead of growing up singing 'London Bridge is Falling Down,' our children should sing our traditional songs, which impart values relevant to us. The Health Unit engages in outreach on AIDS, targeting especially the youth, and engages in debates on reproductive health in order to influence policy decisions at the national level. This is a vibrant unit.

Technology and the media

Media, for us, encompasses all forms of communication, be it theatre, art, dance, songs and folklore or the conventional media such as radio, television, printed media, etc. When TAMWA was formed, we had a specific definition of the media, and we knew that our forum would be a magazine, 'Sauti Ya Siti'. Our goal was to produce a magazine of high technical quality. This was a conscious decision on our part as an organization. Information technology was to be used in TAMWA, we said, to change our society's behavioural patterns and attitudes towards women. For those of us within TAMWA, working with this technology would demystify our own concepts of technology vis--vis women. We began with desktop publishing. The Canadian Organization for Development Education (CODE) donated a desktop publishing unit and funded the printing of our magazine fully for the first two years. The support was to be reduced in phases, so as to achieve our goal of self-sustainability.

Figure 14.2 TAMWA Economic Unit

The desktop unit plays a role, not only in producing a high-tech, quality magazine, but in beginning to give us an income and making the magazine cost-effective. Five years later, TAMWA is producing a magazine, popular education materials (booklets), videos of women's cultural histories, radio programmes, posters, brochures, etc. - all using information technology. Contact has been established with publishers elsewhere in Africa, in India, and with the Women's publisher Kali. Another development is providing feature articles for other publications.

Being in the media ourselves gave us the consciousness that information is power. The 'haves' select how much and what kind of information trickles down to the people through the mass media. The development of this kind of media is a project, not a process. There is no participation from the people, and these media transmit to the people in a one-way, top-down process. This 'beaming down' approach creates dependency and sells us our own images in a distorted way. When we studied the history of conventional media in Tanzania (see, e.g. Alloo, 1988), we found that the print and electronic media was indeed introduced by the colonialists and used as an ideological weapon to control our societies. But the traditional popular media, such as folklore, songs, dance and theatre, could not be controlled by the colonialists, not only because they used the language of the people, but also because the participation of the people was built in (see Mlama and Lihamba, 1988).

As for Africa as a whole, the western media tries to sell us distorted images of ourselves. Africa is portrayed as a problematic continent rather than a continent with problems. Those images of worm-like bodies crawling with begging bowls have been powerful in perpetuating the 'poor and the powerless' ideology. These projections render us powerless and make us believe there is something wrong with our continent. There are similar generalizing images of Asia, portrayed as not so bad except for their 'sex trade and communal violence', and of Latin America, where the 'drug trade' is the problem. All of these images are dangerous. They handicap us in our struggle for self-analysis and dehumanize us in the same way as images which sell the woman as a sex symbol - a commodity. The western media act in this way because, so far, the powers that control these media are commodity-oriented. This media is powerful because it has access to information technology which we in Latin America, Africa, Caribbean, Asia and Pacific (LAACAP) countries lack.

A study of cultural development in Zanzibar revealed not only that the traditional media have remained powerful throughout various colonizing periods, but that conventional media were also powerfully used in the independence struggle. Zanzibar, with a population of around half a million, had 21 newspapers before independence. Their voices played an important role in the anti-colonial struggles of the Islands (Sheriff, 1987).

Throughout Africa, popular media are merging as a powerful tool of empowerment. It is a form which women identify with and use, and have used in the past, for empowerment. For example, we have our traditional cloth, Kanga, which incorporates written messages in the design (Alley-Hamid, 1995). The cloth is worn around the waist. Women wear it to portray feelings towards a spouse, in-law, or friend. This is a powerful media in a culture of silence. This is paralleled by an awareness in the west of the value of technologies such as audio-visual media in empowering women by creating true images of women and showing the oppression of women in patriarchal systems in a global connection.

TAMWA tries to understand these macro-dynamics as it forms strategies for information dissemination at a local level. Lack of access and control of media and information technology exposes us to the dehumanizing portrayal of women. Thus, control of information technology is crucial if we are to transform society through the media.

Until five years ago, Tanzanian government policies restricted the importation and use of these technologies. Thus Tanzania is very new to information technology. Even now the prices are high and software is quite inaccessible. Technology and infrastructure are the basis of the process of empowerment. We felt that we ourselves would be empowered in mastering technology as a production tool, and we could in turn use it to disseminate information. As women, we saw this as particularly important, since new technology has generally been the domain of men. The technology could also generate income. We have established an effective Publishing Unit based on this fact (see Figure 14.3).

The emphasis in our publishing work has been on media images, i.e. on achieving the positive media portrayal of women and permitting the voices of the voiceless to be heard. This, we feel, must be effected in a highly professional manner with aesthetically excellent programmes whether on the air, on video, or in the print media. Professional excellence is important for ourselves, for we must and can produce quality material in spite of the so-called 'third world syndrome' (insinuating technical incompetence). One of the problems of powerlessness is the psychology of feeling inadequate which leads to sloppy work. TAMWA's experience has shown us that women generally do fear technology and have to be pushed and cajoled to master it or even try it. But once women do take it on, they are unstoppable. The fact that we can produce so-called 'first world' quality in spite of being a so-called 'third world' group has been an empowering process. Besides publications, we do popular education materials, pam- phlets, brochures, cards, reports, etc. The income generated is helping the association towards its goal of self-sustainability. We now have an e-mail system which is an aid in networking and information dissemination.

Figure 14.3 TAMWA Publishing Unit

I would like to mention here that to begin with we had male consultants as our trainers. They have since gone and established their own computer technology companies. Learning from TAMWA's experience as an organization, one of them has even established a glossy colour women's magazine with a more conventional portrayal of women! His example is another reason for us to emphasize the control of technology by women when we mobilize over issues of concern. Images portrayed through information technology are crucial.

Since 1992, TAMWA has focused particularly on the issue of violence against women. A special issue of 'Sauti Ya Siti' was produced with desktop publishing, radio programmes were transmitted, and positive images of women were produced including screen printed T-shirts and stickers. A national rally during the Day of Action included an art exhibition. On this day, we issued a call over the radio for those who felt concern over the issue to come. Some 50 per cent of those who heeded the call were men, and women came on their own initiative from upcountry. Out of this initiative, a Crisis Centre was born - the only one of its kind in Tanzania. The centre promotes legal literacy, provides counselling, and fights court cases involving violence against women. It also provides paralegal training, an exposure to and training in information technology, and some training in NGO management to members of upcountry women's organizations, who then return to establish community-based centres in rural Tanzania. This kind of development gives us hope and the strength to go on.

Conclusion: TAMWA and information technology

As TAMWA grows as an organization, and undertakes a restructuring this year (1994), we are becoming very conscious of information technology. But we continuously ask the question, for whom and to what purpose are we using it? If expertise becomes a status symbol, it is of no use to those whom we wish to empower. If mastering these technologies raises class barriers or leads to a glossier type of publication in a foreign language, this is not progress. If, through the control of information technology, one maintains two-way communication in the language of the people, and women are portrayed in a manner which will create growth and empowerment, then it is to be encouraged.

Another important aspect is the demystification of information technology for that class which needs it the most in order to have their voices heard. To this end we produce booklets which teach, in practical terms, how to produce a newsletter using locally available materials. These booklets are used in participatory methodology workshops with gender perspectives. In these workshops women use the popular media, portraying problems with songs, drums, storytelling and sung drama. Within these popular media, which have largely been women's domain, women have the 'sociological space' to manoeuvre and resist the images of women portrayed in the conventional media. The process itself, combining the appropriation of conventional (i.e. technological) media with the revaluation of popular media, empowers. To bung about positive changes in women's lives, it is necessary to identify forms of expression and mobilization.

Recently, we did a four day workshop for NGOs, looking at the project proposals in their programmes to assess whether gender sensitization is incorporated. The last day was reserved for media heads, the decision makers in the newspapers and radio. The response was encouraging, and we hope the impact, although slow, will be a steady one. With advanced information technology, TAMWA is beginning to become a sophisticated alternative means of providing positive media images. As long as it continues its role of facilitating the voice of the voiceless, it will remain a force.


Alley-Hamid, M. (1995), Kanga - A Medium of Communication, Dar-es-Salaam, TAMWA

Alloo, Fatma (1988), 'Women and Popular Media', paper presented at the Women's Visions and Movements Conference, University of Ibadan, Nigeria, 27-29 September

Alloo, Fatma (1991), 'A Regional Profile of Existing Women's NGOs and Networks in Southern and Eastern Africa', (mimeo), Dar es Salaam

ISIS-WICCE 11984), Powerful Images: a Women's Guide to Audio-visual Resources, Rome, Isis International

Mlama, P. and Lihaba, A. (1988), Popular Theatre and Participation in Morogoro Region, Dar-es-Salaam, TAMWA

Sheikh-Hashim, L. (1989), Unyago: Traditional Sex Education, Dar-es-Salaam

Sheriff, A. (1987), Slaves. Spices and Ivory in Zanzibar, Ohio, University of Ohio Press

TAMWA (1991), Origin, Development, Programmes and Prospects of Tanzania Media Women's Association, annual report

USAID (1985), Women in the World: A Chartbook for Developing Regions, Washington, United States Agency for International Development, Office of Women in Development

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