Have you ever wondered how using a cell phone could counter hateful words or actions? Consider the example of Sisi Ni Amani in Kenya, dedicated to both traditional and new ways of communicating about preventing violence in Kenya, and established by a forwardthinking woman who was trying to affect change through easily accessible technology.

images of women
Image Credit: Luba Lukova

[About this series: The role of women in countering and preventing violent extremism is getting increasing attention worldwide, but a coherent international framework is still needed. To encourage this conversation and process, USIP is launching a guide, “Charting a New Course,” containing essays and exercises to help practitioners discuss the role of gender in countering violent extremism. Copies were distributed at a March 6 discussion, Women Preventing Violent Extremism: Charting a New Course, and the guide will be available online at a later date. The related projects, Women Preventing Extremist Violence (WPEV) and the Sisters Against Violent Extremism Mother Schools (SAVE), have been funded by the U.S. Department of State. Three of the essays in “Charting a New Course” were contributed by USIP experts Alison Milofsky, Georgia Holmer and Nancy Payne and appear here on The Olive Branch this week.]

In the 2013 presidential elections, Kenyans held their breath to see if forces would replicate the violence stemming from the 2007 election, which killed over 1,300 people and left 650,000 homeless. Participants in that violence acknowledged using text messaging to mobilize friends and groups to attack others. Sisi Ni Amani saw an opportunity to use SMS to promote peace. A partnership with telecom company Safaricom, which donated 50 million text messages, scaled the process to allow the local community to organize and use SMS alerts to proactively address individual incidents before they escalated. The 2013 elections proceeded relatively peacefully. The success of this should go in part to the vast network of Sisi Ni Amani’s volunteers. Their work suggests that the same tools used to foment violence and hatred can also promote peace and dialogue.

Yet technology for tech’s sake will not create the kind of widespread behavior change needed to prevent violence. Change starts with clearly identifying a problem, and then applying the right solution. In today’s interconnected world, those solutions can be technologies that we use every day. Applied the right way, these same utilities can scale up for much greater reach.

Media can change attitudes about gender. Media programming in many forms - radio, television, phones, tablets, computers and community engagement activities such as street theater or listening groups - can provide viable outlets to educate large numbers of people, and begin to affect attitudes and behaviors in ways that counter violent extremism.

Peacebuilders use media channels in conflict situations to address critical issues – such as gender equality, personal responsibility, peaceful coexistence and others – that contribute to violent extremism. One example is Sawa Shabab, a dramatic radio series airing weekly in South Sudan based on an educational, peacebuilding curriculum designed and produced with local partners.

Sawa Shabab follows the daily lives of different young South Sudanese as they face unique challenges while learning how to become peacebuilders in their communities. The underlying curriculum includes a strong focus on countering stereotypes, respecting diversity and promoting gender equality. Each episode ends with a question for listeners to consider and respond to via phone and text. On average, 150 listeners respond from across South Sudan after each episode. Over 60% of listeners in a survey said the appeal of the program is its focus on peacebuilding, and 99% of current listeners surveyed said they are interested in hearing the next season of the show. Based on focus group discussions, gender equality outcomes continue to resonate. After listening to the show, young female participants indicated that “being educated” is an important quality for young women. And awareness among male participants about gender equality had notably increased.

Even in low-bandwidth, low-power environments, peacebuilders are harnessing every day technology platforms to address seemingly intractable problems.

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