Africa this year commemorated “Women’s Month”, as March is known in a number of countries, faced with the reality of a highly gendered digital divide. That such a situation seems set to persist serves as a reminder of the need for a coordinated strategy in ensuring the inclusion of women and girls in the continent’s digital transformation.

Despite having the highest growth in internet penetration across the globe,  Africa remains the only continent whose digital gender gap has widened since 2013. According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the proportion of women using the internet is a quarter less than the proportion of men using the internet in Africa.

Barriers contributing to the gap on the continent include unaffordable access, threats to access and use, low digital literacy and confidence, and the lack of relevant content, applications and services. Globally, women are in the majority of the world’s poor, but the African woman is disproportionately more affected by poverty. Eighty percent of the women in Africa live in the rural areas where they have less access to such basic needs as health care, education and other public facilities or services. Working women on the continent are engaged in unpaid care work, lack access to decent work or are paid lower wages.

It is this background that motivates the African School on Internet Governance (AfriSIG) to focus deliberate gender lenses on its planning and coordination.

The School strives to give prominence to and increase the participation of women in internet development and governance work. The AfriSIG organisers keep track of women prominently involved in mainstream internet development and policy work in order to incorporate them as facilitators of full sessions or resource persons in panel discussions. This not only gives them the opportunity to share their experiences and skills, but also allows them to network and motivate the female fellows attending the school.

Although the school has not yet achieved gender balance in attendance, the fact that 46% of alumni are women reflects the considerable effort made in the face of continued global dominance of the internet governance environment by men.

In its annual call, the School reaches out to gender equality and human rights defenders. This is done as an attempt to move away from the notion that internet governance issues are technical. Through partnerships with organisations and projects including Women’sNet, the Women of Uganda Network  (WOUGNET) and the Association for Progressive Communications Gender and Internet Governance eXchanges (gigX), the School has built the capacity of women and sexual rights activists across the continent in order for them to make the connection between gender, women’s rights and internet governance..

Culture and patriarchy continue to shape the access and usage trends by impinging on rights to access, association, privacy and free expression of women online. African women who access the internet often face technology-related violence, including non-consensual distribution of intimate images, sexual harassment, stalking, hate speech and offensive comments.

Women politicians are at the receiving end of sexist comments – with their looks, marital status or private sexual life used as a measure of whether or not they deserve to be in public office. African online societies judge female politicians more harshly than they do male politicians across the continent. Women who use the internet are, in some instances, forced into conservative or subordinated use of the internet because of their personal relationships or the general impact of social norms that manifest into online gender-based violence, even in the public sphere. A study by the Media Foundation for West Africa confirms that online harassment hinders women’s full participation in public processes and discourse.

The gender session of the AfriSIG curriculum makes the connection between internet governance and the more social issues of gender, human rights and development. Most times it has been necessary for facilitators of the session to go back to basic gender concepts before discussing the trends in use, in order to demonstrate how everyday power replicates itself online.

The session also raises awareness on the need for formulation and implementation of more gender mainstreamed information and communications technology (ICT) policy on the continent. However, research indicates that even where policy exists, there are challenges in its implementation.

For instance, universal service and access funds (USAFs) should cater for underserved, geographically and socially marginal communities on the continent. However, only three of the 37 African countries with USAFs have policies that explicitly aim to connect women and girls through these funds. There is generally little appreciation of the importance of allocating funds to reduce the barriers that keep women offline.

Sustainable Development Goal 5 speaks to the importance of enhancing the use of technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of women. The organisers of AfriSIG are cognisant of the fact that although there are inequalities in access to the internet on the continent, the situation is worse for women as they face a triple digital, rural and gender divide. Unless gender issues are incorporated in national ICT policies in Africa, the digital divide will continue to widen and most rural-based women on the continent will continue to be excluded from the benefits of ICT.

By Koliwe Majama, AfriSIG organiser

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