Anatomy of a campaign: Digital activism as a tool for gender equality

We speak to activists in three countries about what goes into creating successful online campaigns and how such initiatives can influence the laws, policies, and attitudes that impact women’s lives.

In July 2020, the arrest of university student Ahmed Bassam Zaki in Cairo on the grounds of sexual harassment sparked a social media firestorm in Egypt. Hundreds of women were soon sharing their own experiences of abuse, in what became known as Egypt’s “#MeToo” movement. 

Zaki was later found guilty of sexually assaulting three underage girls and over 50 women have accused him of sexual assault. But while many people expressed support for these women, there were also hundreds of social media posts — mostly from men — drawing a link between harassment and the way women dress.

To counter those suggestions, Gehad Hamdy, an Egyptian dentist who at the time was 25 years old, posted a poll on her personal Facebook account and encouraged women to share their own stories of sexual harassment. 

“I went out for two hours. When I got back, I found 8,000 replies on the post, with a lot of people sharing their stories in the comments,” she said. This was the beginning of Speak Up, a platform that has since grown to nearly a million followers across social media platforms and has worked on over 700 legal cases against perpetrators of gender-based violence. 

Around the world, activists like Hamdy are building movements to address issues related to gender equality and gender-based violence, providing support to those who need it while also achieving significant legal and policy changes. Often, these activists operate with limited resources and face challenges of their own around online abuse. 

“Some people just can't bear to see a woman be this vocal about issues that have previously been swept under the carpet in the name of clture or religion,” said Hauwa Ojeifo, executive director of She Writes Woman, a platform that provides mental health support and services to women in Nigeria.

While digital campaigns are useful tools for reaching a large audience, on-the-ground impact in the form of support services or educational work is equally important. 

“All the work that we have always done has been on the ground. Impact is not an intellectual or abstract word for me,” said Trisha Shetty, founder of SheSays India, a women's rights organization that fights gender-based discrimination through education and awareness raising. 

Devex spoke with Hamdy, Ojeifo, and Shetty about what makes a successful digital campaign and how such platforms can lead to real tangible changes in women's lives.

Speaking Up for gender equality in Egypt

“I hope we see a lot of platforms like this in Egypt because we need a lot. There is space for all of us to work on this.”

Gehad Hamdy, Speak Up

Among the many messages shared in response to Hamdy’s original Facebook post were those from individuals who clearly needed psychological, legal, or medical support. Hamdy called on lawyer and doctor friends to be able to respond to these calls for help. As more and more women came forth, the Speak Up movement was born — originally as a Facebook page and later on Instagram and Twitter.

“It wasn't planned at all,” Hamdy said. “A lot of women, when they get harassed, believe it's their fault, and they can’t speak about this. So I think we opened that space,” Hamdy said. Speak Up now counts on a large network of pro bono lawyers and medical professionals and has also built connections with the local authorities, police, and prosecutors to help with cases.

Hamdy cites the case of serial rapist Michael Fahmy as one of Speak Up’s key successes. Fahmy, who was accused of posing as a “spiritual guide” and psychiatrist within his community in Egypt, had been luring young girls to his house under the pretext of offering psychological treatment. While Fahmy’s victims had been sounding the alarm about him for years, Speak Up’s sustained social media campaign sparked investigations that eventually led to his conviction in 2021. 

“It was a very complicated case; it took a year and a half to get him arrested,” Hamdy said. 

Speak Up also successfully campaigned for a tightening of the law on female genital mutilation, which was adopted in Egypt in 2021. The organization is now calling for a strengthening of the laws around cyberbullying and blackmail, which is leading to an uptick in suicide among Egyptian women, according to Speak Up’s research.

Despite these successes, Hamdy is adamant that more needs to be done to improve the situation for women in Egypt. While women today are more likely to report crimes, there is still a lack of sufficient infrastructure to support victims. 

“Sometimes when a woman reports, we can’t help her because there are no shelters for women who get abused, so she has no place to go. It's a very exhausting process … because we don't have laws against domestic violence in Egypt. And we need to change this.” 

Addressing mental health in Nigeria

“We have to recognize that in order for people's mental health to improve … we must improve our social justice systems.”

Hauwa Ojeifo, She Writes Woman

Ojeifo first began She Writes Woman in 2016. A survivor of sexual abuse and domestic violence, she had recently received a diagnosis of PTSD and bipolar disorder. “My organization was at first like a diary for me, an outlet,” she explained. 

At the time, the conversation around mental health in Nigeria was highly medicalized, with little acknowledgment of the psychosocial aspects, and there was barely any support available at the primary health care level, Hauwa said.

Initially, engagement was mostly limited to people liking a post or sending a private message, rather than commenting publicly. The turning point, Ojeifo said, was when she began to openly share her own story. 

“When I first started, we used to talk in third person. … Being open, creating space for others with lived experiences to begin to tell their own stories, has completely changed the game and changed the way other people view us as well,” Ojeifo said. 

Since Ojeifo started sharing her personal story, She Writes Woman's social media following has grown substantially.

Besides engaging in advocacy around mental health in Nigeria, the organization also offers a toll-free helpline and teletherapy services staffed by professional counselors and psychologists. 

“One addresses the immediate issues that I believe are imperative for us to fill in the gaps within the system. And the other approach is about changing the system entirely,” Ojeifo said. 

In January 2023, then-Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari signed into law Nigeria’s mental health bill, the country’s first piece of mental health legislation since gaining independence in 1960. A significant win was the inclusion of individuals with lived experience of mental illness in the process, including Ojeifo, who became the first person with a mental health condition to testify before the Nigerian Senate. 

In February 2020, Ojeifo became the first person with a mental health condition to testify before the Nigerian Senate. 

“We knew that we couldn't get everything that we wanted into the law. … But it gave us an opening. Now we sit in meetings for policy. Now we sit in meetings for the national plan for suicide prevention,” Ojeifo said.

Mental illness is still surrounded by stigma in Nigeria, and Ojeifo has faced many challenges along the way, including attempts to discredit her due to her mental health. 

“To be honest, sometimes I do feel like this work is a burden. It's triggering and re-triggering,” she said. “I recognize the role of self-care, but I always say we cannot self-care our way out of a mentally unhealthy environment.”

Fighting sexual violence in India

“You cannot talk about equality without addressing inequality, and those who are addressing inequality are for sure being targeted.”

Trisha Shetty, SheSays India

When Shetty started SheSays India nearly 10 years ago, the country was still reeling from the brutal gang rape and murder of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh on a Delhi bus in 2012. The incident triggered protests throughout the country and intense debate about the scale of violence against women.

“This was one of the issues I really cared about,” said Shetty, a lawyer and herself a survivor of child sexual abuse. In the months that followed, Shetty began to scrutinize the existing support and justice system for rape survivors, looking at the gaps that needed to be filled, and eventually established She Says India as a youth-led feminist organization in 2015.

The organization provides free legal counsel to survivors of sexual violence, helps them access health care, and also conducts on-the-ground advocacy work in schools and workplaces. 

“More often than not, what happens to survivors is it's the first or second safety net that you reach out to, their response, that further traumatizes you because they are not sensitized,” Shetty explained. “We wanted to make sure that no survivor ever has to pick up a phone; they can go on our website and make a calculated decision based on what they were subjected to.”

SheSays India’s gender advocacy manager, Mubasshira Qureshi, who is also a lawyer, met Shetty at a protest against a controversial law that offers amnesty to non-Muslim illegal immigrants from neighboring countries. Qureshi now runs gender sensitization sessions at schools and colleges, where she talks to young people about topics such as consent and their legal rights. 

For Shetty, it was important to have a young Muslim woman leading the organization’s work on the ground because of the vulnerable position of minorities — especially Muslims — under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government. 

Mubasshira Qureshi, SheSays India’s gender advocacy manager.

Mubasshira Qureshi, SheSays India’s gender advocacy manager.

“I realized very early on that a lot of people love to talk about gender equality,” Shetty explained. “But the second you start talking about inequality when it’s caste-based, religion-based, minority-based, gender-identity based, then it gets uncomfortable.”

One success of the organization was the #LahuKaLagaan campaign — which means ”tax on blood” in Hindi. The campaign, which was launched in 2017 when the government was reworking India’s tax structure, led to an end to the 12% to 14% luxury tax rate for pads and tampons.

By having a clear goal and messaging from the very beginning and working with actors, musicians, and comedians, the campaign was able to reach 24 million impressions on Twitter, now the social platform X, in less than 24 hours. 

“Essentially, it became one of the biggest hashtags that Twitter has ever seen on their platform,” Shetty said. 

Marital rape, which is not yet recognized as an offense in India if the woman is over 18, is another major issue SheSays India is looking at.

According to Shetty, every time she speaks about marital rape online, most of the comments are abuse from male rights activists. She described the impact of a young boy who participated in one of SheSays’ educational sessions and posted a slam poetry video about the topic.

“It went viral. He managed to communicate this issue. So for me, that's impact,” she said.

Written and produced by Naomi Mihara
Edited by Helen Morgan

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