The emergence of the internet is touted as an opportunity for women in Africa to ‘play catch up’ after years of being ‘left out’ in the mainstream media. It is said that the internet is a platform of democracy and freedom where women can amplify their voices on and access critical information relating to their well being and empowerment nationally and globally.
But what are African women’s realities and to what extent can the internet be made accessible to them and have meaningful impact in their lives?
Globally, women have lesser access to the internet than men do, a clear indication that the global digital divide is highly gendered. In Africa, the gap is wider as significant social, economic and, to a lesser extent, political barriers continue to hinder women’s access to not only the internet, but new technologies in general. Some of these barriers include low ICT literacy and lesser access to and ownership to ICTs owing to little or no income at all. For women with access, patriarchal and cultural practices continue to limit that extent to which women can fully exercise rights to privacy, free expression and access to information.
International Telecommunications Union (ITU) latest statistics show a nominal, albeit significant 2.3 percent increase in the number of African women accessing the internet between 2013 and 2016. During that period, there has been a noticeable increase and prominence of online content platforms focussing on women’s issues, female opinion leaders with verified social media accounts, women in Tech and internet policy who are visibly in the forefront of regional initiatives on the development of the internet on the continent.
The irony of the statistics relating to access to the internet on the continent, is that seven out of ten of the worlds fastest internet populations are in Africa, where the women constitute almost 52 percent of the continents population of 1.2 billion population. Undoubtedly, these statistics are an indication that the barriers women face in accessing the internet and technologies can no longer be ignored if there is sincerity about bridging the digital gender divide.
Continuing advocacy for gender mainstreamed policies and legislation by African women’s rights and gender equality activists, must now define a clear and unified strategy to ensure that women’s access to the internet goes beyond quantitative measurement. The strategy should also clearly outline indicators of positive impact of the internet on the social, political and economic well being of women.
What would this involve? Consciously acknowledging that physical access to ICTs and the internet alone do not guarantee full utilisation, and going further to find out exactly which women go online and what they do when they are online. This will assist in the acknowledging that the varied uses determine the extent that women can appreciate the utilitarian value of the internet. Some women spend more time online and have the confidence and flexibility to use the internet for a variety of issues ranging from recreational use, transactional use and also for general economic welfare. Others will have very low digital literacy, and may only have access to Facebook or WhatsApp, without even the slightest inkling that they are actually connected to the internet on those platforms.
There is a tendency, by especially the media and academia, to treat women as a homogeneous group by ‘lumping’ them into one marginal group. Women have differences based on geography, age, race, marital status and even sexual orientation. It is these same differences that determine the variations of motivation and interest, to fully utilise the internet.
A regional strategy is particularly important, considering the general lack of political will by most African governments to prioritise bridging the digital gaps in their jurisdictions. This is reflected by the adoption of ICT policies by a number of African countries, which in trying to ensure gender equality and equity in access and use of ICTs, fail to understand existing power imbalances and gender relations at community level, and can therefore not be fully translated to gender responsive planning and budgeting of ICT development projects at implementation level.
This has been evident in even the country’s that pioneered gender mainstreaming in ICT policies. For instance Mozambique’s ICT policy adopted in 2000, has a whole section on gender and youth in ICT Development initiatives though decision making, training and content development among other. The strategy that followed only made reference to women and children as victims of pornography, abuse and violence online, thereby missing opportunities to deal with real issues affecting women’s access such as literacy and geographical location. Unlike past South African ICT policies that preceded its National Integrated ICT Policy White Paper (2016) which recognised gender equality in licensing, procurement and training, the current policy skirts over gender without actually defining the strategy. On the other hand, Zimbabwe’s policy, adopted in August 2016, recognises gender mainstreaming as a strategy integration of the design and implementation of ICT programmes for equal benefit.
It is critical for activists working in the sector to familiarise with their respective ICT policies in order to identify areas of intervention, support and continuous monitoring. This should so away with governments continued regurgitation of gender disparity provisions and ensure the incorporation of strategies that will bridge them meaningfully.
African internet governance conversations about connecting of the next billion users, should begin to take into consideration the fact that the current disproportionate access by women on the continent translates to a set back in its facilitatory role in the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.