Digital story telling as a tool for change:  

“I have Listened, I have heard..” **


Sally-Jean Shackleton   * 
Women only non-profit organisation based in Johannesburg,
South Africa


** From Zanele Muholi’s digital story.

1.      Introduction

 “To share our stories with others healed. I think that our stories will heal other women too”

 “I feel like my voice has been heard, and I believe it will make a difference”

(project participants and story tellers)

Story telling has long been a tool for learning lessons, preserving memory and history, transmitting culture and tradition, entertaining others, for healing and caution. Stories have a value for both the teller and the listener. For those relating a story it has value in expression and healing, and for the listener in learning and sharing.

Every person has stories to tell, and it’s in the telling that we discover how much of our experiences and learning we have in common with others. Stories make our connection with others and with the world real. They weave together our individual experiences to reveal a picture of a community, a group and a country.

The ‘digital’ in digital story telling, refers to the medium used to transmit stories. Digital stories, simply, are stories produced, stored and disseminated using digital media. Digital stories are a powerful tool to address attitudes and behaviors – aspects that paper rights do not address.

Women’sNet has used digital media since it’s inception in 1998 to amplify women’s voices and share information and knowledge. We had an opportunity to participate in training by the Centre for Digital Story Telling (based in America) for Engender Health in 2005. The training encouraged us to initiate our own programme.

This, our first digital story telling collection, was produced with funding from the Foundation for Human Rights. We have focused these stories on gender-based violence – documenting stories rarely told, and rarely heard. 

The digital stories on this CD were developed by two groups of South African women - lesbian women facing discrimination and violence, and women who experienced domestic violence.

 We held two workshops, of four days each, at the end of which participants had developed their own digital 'movies', using their own words, narration, pictures and text. We used computers and software, scanners, digital cameras and audio recorders to build the movies.

These stories demonstrate the impact of violence on women’s lives. They also show the intersection of gender and other forms of exclusion or discrimination – such as sexual orientation, poverty and HIV/AIDS. The storytellers also celebrate their survival, their relationships and their perseverance.

The stories, and the accompanying booklet, are for use in human rights, women’s rights and gender education and training programmes. The booklet gives guidelines and ideas on the use of the stories in human rights training and education.

 2. About Women’sNet 

Women'sNet South Africa, a feminist organisation, is a vibrant and innovative networking support programme designed to enable South African women to use the Internet and other relevant Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to find the people, issues, resources and tools needed for women's social activism and empowerment. In addition Women’sNet amplifies women’s voices, using ICTs, to ensure women’s, and more specifically South African women’s, lives are reflected in media content.

Women’sNet approaches its mission through partnerships with non-governmental organisations – building their capacities to use ICTs strategically while facilitating content development and networking.

The organisation has pioneered the use of ICTs in women’s organisations, and offers the following services:

  • Websites with audio and print content relating to women’s and gender issues

  • A weekly news service on women and gender

  • Training courses on the strategic use of ICTs

  • A drop-in centre for free access to the internet and computers (open twice a week in Newtown)

  • A venue for computer training or training requiring access to the internet

  • Technology planning workshops for NGOs

  • Website planning or reviewing workshops

The Digital Story telling Project was funded by the Foundation for Human Rights.

3. The Project Objectives

The purpose of the project is to raise awareness of violence against women, provide innovative training material for trainers, locate violence against lesbian women in the gender-based violence sector, and empower the women participating with skills in using technology for self-expression. The process also created a safe space for healing. The project falls into Women’sNet’s quality content and capacity building programme, which includes a diverse range of content development and skills building initiatives.


4. The Trainers

The lead trainer was Women’sNet’s Programme Manager, Sally-Jean Shackleton. She was assisted by Anna Schroder (an intern masters student from Germany), Lerato Legoabe (Girls’Net Project Co-ordinator), Elizabeth Araujo (Project Co-ordinator, (s)he-bytes) and Nicolle Beeby (Website Intern). Women’sNet trainers have many years experience in participatory, practical and hands-on training.

This booklet was written by Sally-Jean Shackleton and Anna Schroder.


5. Who Participated

Participants for the 2 workshops were referred to Women’sNet by the following non-governmental organisations:

  • Gay and Lesbian Archives (GALA)

  • Out LGBTI Wellness
  • Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW)
  • Nisaa Institute for Women’s Development

While all participants had used a computer before, computer skill levels ranged from very inexperienced to fairly advanced.


6.  How the Stories were Developed

The digital stories were developed during a four-day workshop held at the Women’sNet Computer Training Centre in Newtown, Johannesburg.

 -  Our own voice

The starting point for the stories involved the development of a script – this process took a day in the programme. Each participant related their story to the group, with a focus on particular experiences or meaningful moments in the teller’s life. The group then gave feedback to the teller, focusing on the impact of the story on them and noting particularly strong aspects of their stories.

The script writing sessions are meant to focus the story teller and give her ideas on how to develop her story, using narrative techniques and visualising how the story will unfold with images. Facilitators draw out milestones in the story, develop metaphors and encourage participants’ expression.

 -  Visualising a story

On day two, once participants had finished drafting their scripts, trainers lead a tutorial on manipulating imagines using computer software. Participants were taught how to resize, crop, edit, and manipulate pictures.

In addition, participants who had brought photographs and documents with them for scanning, were shown how to select sections from a scanned image.

 Participants also used the Internet to source images.

 -  Recording voices

All participants narrated their own stories – recording their voices reading out their scripts, using audio software and computer recording equipment. These recordings formed the basis of the digital stories.

 -  Putting it all together

Trainers gave participants input on developing a story-board for their movies – basically putting images to their narrations or ‘voice-overs’. We used pen and paper to develop story-boards, moving on to technology when participants had enough ideas on where their images would fit in with their narrations.

This part of the workshop included lots of individual work by participants, with roaming trainers to help with story-boarding, finding suitable images, and building the movie with software.

Participants spent almost a whole day together watching the result of their hard work at a viewing of the digital movies at Women’sNet.


The digital story telling project offers an opportunity to:

  • Empower women through the telling of stories

  • Contribute to balancing the content available on women’s right to reflect women’s experiences without mediation

  • To demonstrate where women’s rights are compromised, or where paper rights are made real

  • To provide innovative training material for human rights and women’s rights organisations.


Ends: Viewing a selection of 3 stories from the CD.


Sally-Jean Shackleton
Women’sNet ( a feminist,
women only non-profit organisation based in Johannesburg, South Africa