It came as no surprise to Joy Wathagi when the government honoured her last year with the Youth Volunteer of the Year Award.
Since her first year as a law student at the University of Nairobi, Joy, 23, has volunteered with various organisations in different capacities. Now in her final year of study, her profound interest in activism and advocacy for human rights around issues of Internet and technology policy in Kenya continues to gather momentum.
“I am enthusiastic about raising awareness and influencing policy touching on Internet access as a digital right. I am also involved with imparting digital literacy skills to the youth in the grassroots (slums, rural areas) as part of the Sustainable Development Goals,” Joy explains.
“The Internet is now an integral part of our economy and a necessity on many fronts. Lack of Internet connection is a nightmare in this age and highly inconveniencing, a factor I seek to address.”
“Essentially, digital rights are human rights, a fact that most people are yet to embrace. Denying people this right infringes upon their other basic rights, such as the right to access to information, freedom of expression and the right to privacy,” she argues, pointing out that the government should make available high-speed Internet to all at taxpayers’ expense.
In 2017, Joy represented Kenya at the [email protected] Fellowship in Geneva, Switzerland. The fellowship is an Internet governance forum (IGF) organised by the Internet Society, a global cause-driven organisation that seeks to ensure that the Internet is transparent and user-defined, with the aim of training and empowering the next generation of Internet leaders.
It is this engagement that stoked her fire to push for digital rights in Kenya.
“I drew gainful insights on various Internet policy issues at the IGF, which emboldened me to push for Internet policy discussions with renewed vigour,” she explains.
BIRTH OF DIGITAL GRASSROOTS
This resolve led to the birth of “Digital Grassroots”, a youth-led global network of young people that seeks to proactively engage other youth in addressing Internet problems at the grassroots level and to foster digital citizenship.
“Esther Mwema (Zambia, president), Adisa Bolutife (Nigeria), Dajana Mulaj (Albania), Katie Watson (US), Rebecca Ryakitimbo (Tanzania) and I met through the IGF. We realised that our countries faced similar Internet access challenges from poor connection, digital illiteracy to cultural barriers. Together, we founded Digital Grassroots in 2017 to address these challenges.”
Joy is the network’s Vice President and country director for Kenya.
“Digital Grassroots advocates for policy change through online and offline activism, digital literacy training, and an ambassadorship programme, she says, adding, “We’ve designed a curriculum on digital skills, incorporating areas such as Internet Literacy Class (ILC), Digital Natives Network (DNN) and Internet Activism (IA) on issues affecting a safe internet for all,” she says.
Through her law degree course, Joy has taken units on science and technology and the Internet and reinforced these with online courses on Internet governance to craft a perfect mix that has bolstered their campaign.
“Our courses are based online, and have a bias for Internet for security, Internet for economics, the Internet of things (IOT) which is the interconnectedness of devices and social networking.”
“According to statistics, 50 per cent of women in Sub-Saharan Africa contribute to their economies, but of these, only 28 per cent are connected to the Internet, and even so, not reliably,” Joy says, adding that Digital Grassroots is upbeat about improving the figures.
“Since we started, we have trained 106 youth from 36 countries drawn from four continents in the world. After training them, we make them ambassadors of our network in their communities to train other young people,” she says.
Joy is also a member of the Student Consortium for Human Rights Advocacy, an organisation that promotes Human Rights action as a tool to transform the society. Besides this, she is a volunteer youth coordinator at Amnesty International and a local coordinator for Students for Liberty.
“Students for Liberty is a network of students passionate about liberty from all over the world. Our network’s mission is to educate, develop, and empower the next generation of pro-liberty leaders through advocacy for fundamental human rights and freedom,” she says.
TOUGH BALANCING ACT
While Joy admits that juggling these activities with schoolwork is a tough balance, she argues that the interrelations between all these initiatives make it easier for her as “they all lead to the realisation of human rights and dignity”.
“I have participated in various policy debates and offered my contributions at the Kenya ICT Network, which I joined earlier this year to push discussions on the youth’s contribution to the digital space,” she says.
As a member of Cohort 5 of the Mozilla Open Leaders, a mentorship programme for young project leaders offered by Mozilla, Joy will be taking part in a three-day Internet Freedom Forum in Nigeria later this month.
“Internet Freedom Forum is an annual conference where participants from Africa and beyond converge to hold discussions, enrich and broaden the conversation on issues of Internet freedom and digital rights in Africa. This year’s will be the sixth edition of the forum,” she says.
On the side, Joy runs a blog, wathagi.wordpress.com, in which she writes on topics around Internet governance, technology, privacy rights in Kenya and Gender and Internet Access.
Last week, Digital Grassroots in partnership with the Internet Society of Kenya organised the first edition of Kenya Youth Convening on Internet Governance (KYCIG), bringing together digital experts and youth from Kenya and Tanzania to discuss the role of youth in shaping Kenya’s digital future.
“The aim was to educate young people about important Internet governance initiatives, and to encourage them to meaningfully contribute to ongoing governance debates in the country,” she says.
Definitely a young woman to watch.