The internet has a pivotal role to play in empowering women and girls across Africa, but preexisting forms of gender discrimination and marginalization are underpinning a widening digital gender divide. The root causes preventing millions from getting online need to be urgently addressed because until we close the technology gap, longstanding gender inequalities will be exacerbated, and new expressions of discrimination will manifest.
More women are coming online, but progress is slow
In a speech to the UN General Assembly for International Women’s Day 2023, UN Secretary General António Guterres spoke about how “centuries of patriarchy, discrimination, and harmful stereotypes have created a huge gender gap in science and technology.” Warning that “gender equality is growing more distant” and will take 300 years to achieve on the current trajectory, the Secretary General called on governments, civil society, and the private sector to work collectively to bridge the digital gender divide.
ITU estimates that in 2022, 66% of the world’s population used the internet. This is a 24% increase since 2019, with 1.1 billion more people coming online. Despite this substantial uptake, 2.7 billion people remain offline – the majority of whom are female. According to GSMA’s Mobile Gender Gap Report 2022, mobile phones are the primary way people in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) access the internet, accounting for 85% of broadband connections in 2021. But over 1.7 billion women do not own a mobile phone, and women globally are 14% less likely to have one than men, with the largest disparities in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
Worryingly, GSMA found that globally the gender gap in mobile internet use has worsened from 15% in 2020 to 16% in 2021. And although women’s uptake of mobile internet in LMICs continues to grow, adoption has slowed, with just 59 million women coming online in 2021 compared to 110 million the previous year. This significant shortfall means many women and girls are missing out on the benefits of digital, social, and financial inclusion, and this is especially acute amongst those burdened with intersectional discrimination linked to characteristics like race, caste, religion, poverty, and disability.
Smartphones are key to connectivity
Smartphone ownership offers life-changing connectivity by opening portals to crucial resources, markets, and services for education, healthcare, business, and finance. Providing important and timely information that might otherwise be hard to obtain, handsets are a vehicle for formal and informal learning and enable social and civic networking and participation.
According to the UN, over 90% of jobs worldwide now have a digital component. Digital literacy expands a person’s employment and economic prospects and facilitates greater earning potential. Without digital adoption and use, women have fewer employment opportunities and face additional barriers to workforce participation. Unequal access to the digital realm is undermining women’s economic independence, financial prospects, and decision-making power. It limits their life chances, increases their risk of gender-based violence and exploitation, and makes it harder to escape abusive situations or obtain justice when rights have been violated.
Barriers to internet access faced by women and girls
For many women and girls in the Global South, low literacy and digital skills are major barriers to phone ownership and use. They are more likely to live in poverty and have less schooling, and this translates into underconfidence in utilizing technology. A Web Foundation study found that women are 1.6 times more likely than men to report a lack of skills as a block to internet use. Language exclusion is also a challenge. Nine in ten users in Africa have to switch to a second, often European colonial language, to use apps and websites, while over half of the world’s 7,151 languages have no digital footprint – effectively shutting out those who only speak local dialects. To overcome this, more local language internet services and operating systems are required, alongside video content tailored to women’s contexts and needs.
Another hurdle is money. Global Digital Inclusion Partnership estimates that for 2.5 billion people, buying the cheapest available smartphones would cost over 30% of their monthly income. For many women, this is unaffordable, particularly as they are more likely to have lower earnings. Mobile data is a burdensome cost, partly because of exorbitant pricing. African countries have some of the world’s most expensive data due to issues such as high taxation in the telecom industry and unavailability of infrastructure. Coming top on the continent is Equatorial Guinea, where one gigabyte can be a whopping $49.67.
Only half of the 1.1 billion people in the Least Developed Countries have access to electricity – 13% of the global population – and many more face regular disruptions to energy supplies, making it harder to keep devices charged. Especially in rural and remote locations, reliable and affordable electricity is limited or absent. With over half of Africa’s women living in rural areas, energy scarcity too has a gender dimension.
Strengthening online safety
Harmful social norms in the offline world impede women’s and girls’ access to and experiences of the digital domain. Gender stereotypes and power hierarchies within households can result in males having priority over using digital tools. Some communities view the internet as posing a risk to the traditional social order, with male family members acting as gatekeepers that control and monitor female access to devices and the internet. Safety concerns also discourage online engagement, and not without cause. A report by Equality Now found that governments are failing to effectively address an alarming increase in online sexual exploitation and abuse of women and girls because national and international laws are not keeping up with advances in technology and cybercrime, leaving perpetrators unpunished.
Governments need to urgently review and update legislation and policies and implement comprehensive laws that clearly specify the legal responsibilities that digital service providers have to people using their platforms and for the content posted on their sites. Equality Now and Women Leading in AI have launched the Alliance on Universal Digital Rights (AUDRi), a global campaign calling for “the adoption of a universal digital rights framework, rooted in human rights law and underpinned by an intersectional feminist, anti-discrimination analysis.”
AUDRi has produced a set of Digital Principles that articulate how human rights should be applied to the digital sphere, with binding agreements buttressing these rights so that governments and the private sector can be held more accountable.
Strengthening digital inclusion for women and girls in Africa is crucial to upending harmful gender norms and stereotypes, and preventing backsliding on women’s rights. Across the continent, digital technologies must be better harnessed to accelerate progress towards closing the gender equality gap. To achieve this, state institutions, policy-makers, industry, and civil society have to collaborate to understand and eliminate the root causes hindering women’s and girls’ digital participation, and enact universal legal protections that foster a safe, inclusive, accessible online world for all.
This article was originally published in IPS News.