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Africa’s digital gender divide

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Picture: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)/Taken on November 3, 2020 – South Africa, Cape Town Grade 11 learner Lana Piedt works on a microcope at the launch of 4iR STREAM Lab at Goodwood College in Ruyeterwaght. While some parts of the globe have been able to lessen the digital gender divide, this has not been the case for the African continent, as the data has indicated that the divide is instead growing, the writer says.

By Aphile-Amanzima Mazibuko

Despite the strives that the continent has made in gender equality, it is important to highlight the increasing digital gender divide in Africa. Since the onset of the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR), in the mid 2000’s, Africa has struggled to advance and adapt to advancements in technological and digital systems.

The 4IR allows for individuals across the globe to move between digital domains with the use of connected technology which enables people to better manage their lives. The adoption of the 4IR contributes to substantial economic growth and but also exacerbates existing environmental and security threats. Despite the prominent digital transformation, the United Nations Women have reported that globally 3.7 billion people do not have access to the internet in 2021 with more than 50 percent of this number being women. Whilst some parts of the globe have been able to lessen the digital gender divide, this has not been the case for the African continent, as the data has indicated that the divide is instead growing.

As witnessed across the globe, the rapid technological development rate is the defining characteristic of the present generation, due to its salient impact on the labour industry, governance policies, political and social interactions. Additionally, the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic accelerated digital transformation across the globe as multiple industries and government services had to adapt to lockdowns and changed how they operated through various technological systems.

Whilst selected countries have been able to introduce new technologies in various industries in order to meet the pressure brought about by digital transformation, research has indicated that countries specifically on the African continent have struggled to adapt to digital transformation. Despite the efforts and moderate digital progress that Africa has made throughout the decades, a need still exists to further their digital development.

This is because digital transformation has been seen to contribute to new avenues for economic empowerment through the internet, digital platforms, mobile phones, digital financial services and systems which offer great economic and social opportunities and further address gender inequality in science, technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) as well as in information technology and communications (ITC).

Whilst selected countries have been able to introduce new technologies in various industries in order to meet the pressure brought about by digital transformation, research has indicated that countries specifically on the African continent have struggled to adapt to digital transformation.

According to the United Nations, gender equality is the keystone for a prosperous, modern economy that provides sustainable inclusive growth, and further ensures that men and women can contribute fully to the betterment of societies and economies at large. However, research has indicated that the digital gender divide in Africa continues to widen as most of the new internet users since the year 2013 have been men. Moreover, women in developing countries are 14 percent less likely to own a mobile phone and have internet access than men. In 2022, the Group Special Mobile Association (GSMA) reported that 46 percent of the male population in Africa used the internet whereas the internet usage amongst the women population was 34 percent. The sub-Saharan region remains amongst the widest gender gaps in digital usage.

There are various root causes for the gender digital divide, including the barriers to affordability, education, access, lack of technological literacy, gender biases and social-cultural norms, which has led to gender based digital exclusion. The costs of accessing the internet varies across countries and partly depends on the development of each country.

In countries such as, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia the high costs of access is driven by taxes, which are paid prior to accessing the internet and social media platforms. This remains one of the main challenges to accessibility as less women can afford to pay for data or devices in order to access the internet. Furthermore, the exclusion of women in the digital world has impacted on knowledge production and education in different parts of the continent, and further limits women’s contribution to technological research and science.

The digital gender divide is further fuelled by lack of technological literacy and awareness of potential benefits through the use of the internet, which further hinders women’s and girls’ access to online services. In 2015, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development of Gender Equality in Education reported that young girls are less confident in ITC and scientific related fields compared to young boys, which ultimately leads to girls’ self-censorship and lower engagement in science and ITC professions. Equally, as the digital revolution unfolds and continues to shape the nature and content of jobs, the demands for skills have been transformed to adapt to the digital pressure and demands. Therefore, the low engagement of women in ITC professions contributes to the widening gender gap.

Furthermore, digital inclusion is crucial to allow women to access emerging technologies that offer platforms through which they can voice their concerns, identify their specific needs, promote access to basic services and peacebuilding advocacy. Moreover, multiple women-led organisations globally have been able to use technological instruments to support peacebuilding efforts. Therefore, the further promoting of the inclusion of women in digital technology industries, such as to amplify their communication and advocacy efforts, will help to promote meaningful engagement and to gain access to decision-makers.

As women are drivers of peace, increasing ways for them to engage through digital participation must be prioritised in order for women to effectively contribute towards peace and security and further advance the Women Peace and Security (WPS) Agenda. Moreover, online platforms provide women with access to social media platforms, educational services and the opportunity to disseminate information on political developments.

Digital inclusion is crucial to allow women to access emerging technologies that offer platforms through which they can voice their concerns, identify their specific needs, promote access to basic services and peacebuilding advocacy

Equally there have been multiple initiatives established for Africa to adapt to the digital economy. During the African Union Summit in 2020, an African Digital Transformation Strategy was adopted, in order to fully incorporate digital transformation technologies and advanced technological systems into the continent’s economy. The strategy further compliments existing frameworks and initiatives such as the Policy and Regulatory Initiative for Digital Africa (PRIDA); the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA); the Free Movement of Persons (FMP) and the African Union Financial Institutions (AUFIs) which further the development of a digital single market for Africa.

In order to accelerate the implementation and adoption of existing policies, frameworks and strategies, it is important for African governments to promote the leadership of women in digital transformation initiatives. Women need to be met in the spaces they occupy, in different formal and informal industries.

Moreover the inclusion of women in the growing digital economy will further enhance women’s contribution and leadership in the WPS Agenda. This includes scaling up finances and resources in women led businesses and establishing programmes to effectively support the education of woman and young girls in developing ITCs in order to harness digital transformation.

Aphile-Amanzima Mazibuko is an intern at ACCORD

This article was first published on ACCORD