Excitement is palpable as the Republic of South Africa once again rolls out celebrations to mark Women’s Month. Every year, in August, the Rainbow Nation marks Women's Month in commemoration of the more than 20, 000 women who marched to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956 in protest against the extension of Pass Laws to women. Women’s Month is a tribute not only to the thousands of women who marched on that day in 1956, but also a tribute to the pioneers of women in this country, who continue to lead efforts to address gender inequality, pay discrimination, and rape and gender-based violence.
This year’s event will be celebrated under the theme: “Women’s Socio-Economic Rights and Empowerment: Building Back Better for Women’s Improved Resilience”. The concept of Generation Equality links South Africa to global efforts to achieve gender equality by 2030. Notably, this year’s event coincides with Wikimania, the annual conference that brings together Wikipedia and Wikimedia project volunteer editors to celebrate free knowledge. Taking place from 11-14 August, the virtual event is anticipated to bring together thousands of attendees to discuss issues at the heart of the free knowledge movement. One of those key issues is the representation of women in both Wikipedia’s content and wider volunteer editor community.
As Women’s Month and Wikimania begin this week, there is much to celebrate, but there is also much work still to be done to address gender inequalities. The Commission for Gender Equality in South Africa highlights that one of the biggest challenges women face in the country is the feminization of poverty that has excluded women from participation in many spheres of society.
On Wikipedia, women have historically been underrepresented in both knowledge on the site, as well as in its volunteer editor community. Fewer than 20 percent of editors on Wikipedia identify as women, and 18.3 percent of the content in all Wikimedia projects, including biographies on Wikipedia, are about women.
The issues contributing to this gender gap are likely multi-fold, with reasons cited that women can tend to have less leisure time than men, to an editing culture on Wikipedia that is not always conducive to newcomers, including women. Further, Wikipedia relies on third party sources to verify information in articles. Women have often been left out of historical narratives and traditional sources of knowledge - making it difficult to write about women on Wikipedia when limited source material exists about them.
But thankfully, progress is being made. The English Wikipedia article about the 9 August 1956 Women’s March notes 14 women who were known to be key participants in the protest. Each of them now has their own Wikipedia article detailing their work and lives, including Sophia Williams-De Bruyn, known to be the last living leader of the Women’s March. The current article about Sophia Williams-De Bruyn was improved thanks to volunteers in Women in Red, a group of volunteers working to address systemic bias and create and improve biographies of women on Wikipedia. Many other initiatives and groups now exist within the wider Wikimedia movement to address these gender gaps, including Wiki Loves Women, an initiative designed to address gender inequalities across the African continent on Wikimedia projects.
The topic of the gender gap will be a spotlight at this year’s Wikimania, including a best practices session on how more women can be written into Wikipedia’s history, and a session that highlights the challenges Arabic women face when contributing to Wikipedia, whilst also celebrating their successes to date. Everyone is welcome to join or participate in these sessions which are free to attend.
This year, South Africa Women’s Day theme speaks to the need for a reformed society, a society where women and men alike enjoy equal opportunities to participate and engage in day to day socio-economic activities, including in their participation and contribution on platforms such as Wikipedia.
As South Africa celebrates Women’s Month and volunteers gather at this year’s Wikimania conference, there is a need to attract more women readers and contributors by narrowing the Internet skills gap among men and women and bringing in more diverse voices from around the world. For those interested in getting involved in addressing this challenge on Wikipedia, Wikimania is an opportune place to meet volunteers and learn how to get started on the site.
By Wikimedia South Africa Chapter Board Member