Africa Again at a Disadvantage “If There’s Inequality in the Analogue World, It’s the Same for the Digital World”

Hardly anyone in Africa writes for Wikipedia – especially not women. Isla Haddow-Flood wants to change that. An interview with the head of the non-governmental organisation Wiki in Africa about the project "Wiki Loves Women".

Isla Haddow-Flood, 47, was born in Zimbabwe, spending part of her childhood there and the rest in the UK and South Africa. She now lives in Cape Town, where she is active in the fields of education, culture and gender equality. She runs the non-profit organisation Wiki in Africa – which has the goal of publishing more African content on Wikipedia.

Tell us how “Wiki Loves Women” came about.
“Wiki Loves Women” was the result of lengthy deliberation. I’ve had many years of involvement in the Wiki in Africa movement, which aims to promote African content on Wikipedia. The fact is that most of the articles published there about Africa are written by authors who come from outside Africa, and of course that influences the way people perceive the continent. For that reason we’re developing author communities throughout Africa. We always felt it was particularly important that content should be more balanced than it is anywhere else in the world, including with respect to gender relations. That’s why Florence Devouard and I started “Wiki Loves Women” in 2016. Then, when I was looking for a partner, I came across Brigitte Döllgast from the Goethe-Institut.
What difficulties do female Wikipedia authors face in African countries?
I don’t want to generalise or get caught up in stereotypes, but many cultures throughout Africa are still patriarch-dominated. Men are privileged compared with women. So with “Wiki Loves Women” we aspire to equality, which means we also have gender-sensitive men on board. Until that point, many of them were completely unaware of the difficulties women have to face on a daily basis. This project was a real eye-opener for them.
But in practice most projects are still run by men even now.
Yes, we started the “Wiki Loves Women” project in four countries: Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon and Côte d'Ivoire. Only the project in Côte d'Ivoire included women as project leaders. The reason: in the other regions we simply couldn’t find any female “Wikimedians” – in other words Wikipedia authors – who were able or willing to run a project of this kind. That’s why one of our goals was to provide appropriate training for women and gender-sensitive men. On top of that we specifically encouraged women to become active authors and write articles.
What kind of articles have now been written thanks to “Wiki Loves Women”?
All the articles describe the biographies of exceptional women in those countries – it might be historical figures or women who play an important role today in health, science, economics or politics. We also take a look at taboo subjects, for example genital mutilation in girls, or the problem of child marriages. These Wikimedia communities continued their work after the project had officially ended as well. We were even able to extend our activities to include Uganda and Tanzania, thanks to funding from the Wikimedia Foundation and logistics support from the Goethe-Institut.
The internet, many hoped, would become a democratising, levelling medium, in which everyone has equal rights regardless of their origin or gender. Wasn’t it overestimated in that respect?
The expectations of technology were certainly too high. It isn’t the car that changes the world, it’s what you do with it!  If there’s inequality in the analogue world, it’s the same for the digital world. To create fair conditions, you need digital literacy and an understanding of how knowledge communication works. These skills are essential for the democratisation of the internet. In addition, many African countries have a huge need for decolonisation. Many people are under the impression that they can only progress in career terms if they speak English or French. Unfortunately that’s true – but in accepting it, people are negating their own culture, language and identity. We want to encourage them to recognise their own cultural identity, indeed to celebrate it. And to achieve this, one of the very first things is to give people their own voice. Wikipedia is really useful in that respect: it offers a platform on which there is also space for African perspectives, so that the big picture becomes visible rather than just the viewpoint of the former colonial powers.
Do you encounter resistance when you do this?
Yes of course, any change will meet with resistance. In the global Wikipedia community there are white men from North America and Europe who don’t like it when women or “people of colour” tell them: “What you’re writing is wrong.” This resistance is often seen particularly with regard to articles about women who have achieved something exceptional. Male authors in particular repeatedly express doubt as to whether the woman is really exceptional enough, even though there would be no discussion if the article was dedicated to a man with comparable achievements. Of course aggressive messages are sent as well – even though that’s never been a major problem for “Wiki Loves Women”.
What influence does this campaign on the internet have on life in the “real world”?
“Wiki Loves Women” has many positive effects – some of which go beyond the internet. For example the project leader in Nigeria, Olushola Olaniyan, collaborated with a local radio station to come up with a programme in which a successful woman from the broadcasting area is introduced every week. In Ghana, Raphael Berchie and Felix Nartey (“Wikimedian of the Year 2017”) encouraged the women on their team: three of them now occupy leading positions in the “Open Community” (a digital community that campaigns for unrestricted media content, ed.). With “Wiki Loves Women” it has all been about seeing things from different perspectives: that of the global encyclopaedia user, but also that of each individual involved in the project.

Wiki loves Women


The project was set up by Isla Haddow-Flood (South Africa) and Florence Devouard (France). For many years they have both have been active in the Wikipedia and Open Content community, which campaigns for unrestricted availability of content on the internet. The goal of “Wiki Loves Women” is to increase the number of articles about African women on Wikipedia, as well as to develop the Wikipedia author communities in several African countries, in which the work also continues beyond the end of the project.
With the support of the Goethe-Institut the project ran from 2016 to 2017 in Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon and Côte d'Ivoire, and was subsequently extended to Uganda and Tanzania.