Koliwe Majama

Digital Rights and Policy Specialist

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.

The current debate around the sharing of infrastructure by mobile phone and internet companies is one that calls for sincere dialogue among key stakeholders, who include policymakers.
In October 2014, the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (POTRAZ), released its consultation paper on an infrastructure sharing framework for Zimbabwe. It recommended the sharing of infrastructure by service providers in the sector, a position that has been supported by ICT, Postal and Courier Services Minister, Supa Mandiwanzira.
He announced that government plans to adopt the recommendation as part of its plans to develop the sector and improve service delivery at a lower cost.
Available Services 
In developing countries like Zimbabwe, mobile telephony has been central in making services available to large sections of the population. These include mobile payment solutions (Ecocash, Telecash One Wallet) mobile banking in collaboration with banks, mobile news services with newspapers, among other services. However, a lot more needs to be done to increase the penetration of mobile services, particularly in rural areas.Undoubtedly, what remains a major inhibiting factor in widening the reach is the high cost of network infrastructure which has resulted in high service prices as operators seek returns on their investment by pushing the cost to the end user. It is largely for this reason that proponents of infrastructure sharing find the approach key to ensuring accessibility and affordability of ICTs platforms on a wider scale.

Infrastructure sharing is common globally and it has proven to be one of the most effective ways of promoting affordable prices and reducing the duplication of huge capital investments in infrastructure by service providers whose costs are recouped through exorbitant charges for users. The sharing of infrastructure varies, and depends on whether operators share network components that are either active or passive. The sharing of active infrastructure would involve the sharing of antennas, base stations, trans-receivers, switches and microwave radio systems. Passive sharing on the other hand would imply the sharing of towers, basements, electric supply, shelters and ducts.

Nigeria for instance has mandated passive sharing through a comprehensive policy that lists passive network components that can be shared. This move has resulted in the emergence of tower companies as specialist providers of site sharing such as Helios Towers Nintendo company of Nigeria.

Other African countries and companies already implementing the sharing mode include Zain & Essar in Kenya and Cell C, MTN, NeoTel and Vodacom in South Africa.

Unlike in other African countries’, sharing of infrastructure is not mandatory by law or policy in Zimbabwe. However, Statutory Instrument 28 of 2001 empowers POTRAZ, to issue guidelines on sharing for licensees and service providers.

For this reason, infrastructure sharing is minimal in Zimbabwe, and according to POTRAZ, service providers have a preference for passive sharing which stood at only 13.4 percent of the existing infrastructure nationwide in 2014.

Clarity of infrastructure sharing
In a statement issued last month by the country’s largest mobile service provider Econet, the company argues that their understanding of infrastructure sharing is the entering of arrangements by service providers that have invested in infrastructure in different geographic areas to share respective infrastructure on an equitable and reciprocal basis to avoid duplication. 

This alone is evidence of the need for further dialogue and clarity on the nature and substance of infrastructure sharing options available. Another advantage of infrastructure sharing is, indeed, the breaking of barriers for new players to enter the industry.This in essence means ‘piggy backing’ new players to engender healthier competition as service providers invest more in customer service, affordable and quality services.. In the long run, the investment on upgrades of infrastructure is shared evenly among those companies sharing the equipment, than being sustained by only one.For instance Net-One is on a drive to raise $200m to upgrade its infrastructure for fourth generation technology (4G), a cost, which could be shared among other players in the industry.
Economic benefits
Clearly, for the success of the sharing of infrastructure there needs to be sincerity by operators and regulators. The former must realise and acknowledge the economic benefits of sharing while the regulators must put in place an incentive-based policy as a way of encouraging and growing the culture of sharing of infrastructure on a level playing field. 

Another argument put across by Econet in its statement against infrastructure sharing is that the playing field in the telecoms sector needs to be leveled. They cited disparities in the contributions to the Universal Services Fund and the renewal of license fees, among other things. Service providers are expected to make a 0.5 percent contribution of their annual gross turnover to the fund. Econet has been cited as the largest contributor to the fund while in the past year Telecel reportedly faced challenges in complying with the agreement on the payment of its licence fees.It is important that at this point there must be no sense that the playing field is uneven. There is need for POTRAZ to publish all information that is relevant for stakeholders to foster openness and impartiality in the regulation of the sector. It should also be a two-way process in that the interested parties are able to interact with the authorities and play a role in ‘shaping’ a vibrant telecoms industry.In drawing up a regulatory framework on infrastructure sharing, the following should be viewed critically; fairness, pricing, safeguards and enforcement of the policy.Regulators should actually dialogue with operators to determine cost based pricing. This will ensure less disgruntlement as operators would still have control of their investments and maintain their growth strategies.The regulation should also ensure that there is clear dispute resolution mechanisms put in place, as there will undoubtedly be conflict at any given time.There should also be plans for a third- party infrastructure company that would ideally build its own infrastructure as well as buy existing infrastructure from current providers. There are two options available for such an establishment.The first being a government-owned company funded through a government fund such as the universal fund. This is the current position in Zambia and Rwanda where mobile operator, Airtel, has just concluded the sale of its tower assets to a government-owned infrastructure company, IHS Holdings.Alternatively, since all the mobile networks in Zimbabwe own their own infrastructure, they could be merged into one company in which they all have shares. The shareholding will be proportional to the size of infrastructure that each operator is bringing to the new company.

This model is working in China where the country’s three mobile carriers created a new company, China Tower, which took over ownership of the three firms’ telecom infrastructure while ambitiously planning to build one million new towers in the next two years. The asset value conferred to China Tower is more than $16bn.

However, what remains apparent is the need for the overall convergence of the telecommunications and broadcasting sectors to address the shared infrastructure debate.

MISA-Zimbabwe’s Model ICT Policy Framework 2013, stresses the need for shared infrastructure through which multiple services are offered over the same infrastructure, translating to network efficiencies.

Converged networks allow operators to offer ‘triple play’ services, where subscribers can access telephony, the internet and television over a single broadband connection.

The current situation in Zimbabwe where several services are offered over wireless networks has resulted in spectrum congestion, hence the need for a single ICT policy and regulatory framework.

Co-authored with Chris Musodza and published on BizCommunity Africa

For me the most provocative aspect of Robert Mugabe’s presidential run-off campaign this time around is the abuse of word empowerment and its simultaneously use of women — particularly in adverts that are inserted in mainly the State media.

I am particularly revolted by an advert in support of Robert Mugabe’s ‘empowerment’ policy or stance (whatever you may call it) inserted by a group who I am hearing of for the first time, called the Young Women Movement (YWM). The advert is set on a very femininely pink background, has an image of a fairly middle aged woman (who to me represents the minority class of Zimbabwean women who have managed to maintain such a fair facial skin, albeit sunken eyes) and has a headline that screams, “Enough is enough! Zvakwana! Sokwanele!”

On first sight of the advert, I thought to myself, ‘At last someone has finally found the right words to summarise the pain that we Zimbabwean women have had to go through and maybe sought to encourage us to stand up for something worthwhile’; but alas the advert proceeds to read:

“Women of Zimbabwe, enough is enough, there have been too many lies and demonisation of our country. Zimbabwe has done a lot for us (that is when I began to blink!!!) Age of Majority Act, Equal pay for equal work, Maintenance Act, Domestic Violence Act. Women can and now own land, businesses…” (There I thought, well, Okay!) Then the advert goes on to say…”On 27th June, vote for the consolidation of women’s empowerment.”

I cannot believe that a sincere women’s movement would utter such nonsense! To a Zimbabwean woman, empowerment is not defined by a couple of Acts that are not supported to ensure that the woman is able to benefit from them.

To us empowerment means being able to walk into a supermarket, or stand at the counter of the kiosk at the corner in the township I live in, and being able to buy pads or the basic cotton wool — and not to be told the price has gone up or that they have run out. Or being able to walk into a pharmacy or local clinic and get contraception of my choice! Empowerment means being able to take good care of my bedridden HIV positive relation at home because I have running water at the house; and not that water becomes so scarce I cringe every time my two year old son requests to use the loo. Empowerment means being able to get equal pay to my male counterpart if I even make it through college. And not this thing of fees being topped up every semester such that I have to ‘fundraise’, because it is obvious that my parents salaries are way below the monthly expenses of my siblings — and grandparents who by the way are still in the same reserves they were in during the days of Ian Smith (so much for land empowerment). I do not know of a single ‘ordinary’ woman who worked on the Baas Jones farm, who during the land resettlement programme got a portion of the land that she had toiled on for so long. But I do know of a few prominent female ‘liberators’ who went on to take over that land.

Empowerment to us means being able to stand up and speak on issues that affect us and being heard. And not to be shut up in prison when we do — like Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu, the Women of Zimbabwe Arise activists arrested while participating in a demonstration on May 28, 2008. Or being slain in front of our children like Abigail Chiroto, Wife of Harare’s newly elected Mayor, who was abducted and found dead on June 17 for being married to the wrong man. Empowerment means having a roof above my head and not being classified ‘dirt’ (Operation Murambatsvina) in a clean-up campaign that seems more important than that I have a home.

My take on the adverts being placed by YWM is, “Enough is Enough!” We are tired of being used by politicians when they realise they have run short of a political gimmick. And woe to the woman who thinks that she can speak for the women of Zimbabwe, without even consulting them.

The average woman in Zimbabwe stresses throughout the day about how the hell to run a household, raise children and care for the ill in this crazy economy — not to mention worrying about her family’s safety because of her own or husband’s affiliation. No one has a right to speak on behalf of the Zimbabwean women unless they can stand up and wholly identify themselves with the majority of us angry, stressed, hungry mothers and wives itching for change and true, not theoretical empowerment!

First published on Walking the talk

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