[COLUMN] Access and Beyond (5): How do we address the gender question?

17 August 2017

Image Source: Research ICT Africa. Photograph by C Stork. Location: Mozambique surveys

I have no doubt in my mind that gender issues within the ICT community, in their various strands, are a priority. The reality is that, there is a need, without a doubt to address the stark reality of gender imbalances in the way in which men and women (the focus of this research) make use of the internet. The digital gender gap persists, with 24,9% of men accessing the internet in Africa in comparison to 18.6% of women, according to the recent ITU facts and figures of 2017. These numbers do show low levels of internet access in Africa, with women trailing behind. Getting women online equal to the number of men is not enough when getting online might deter them from staying as ‘netizens’. This has discussed a shift from closing the access gap to interrogating experiences of use between men. My final blog shares insights on possible ways to address gender issues in internet use and reflections on gender research.


Photograph by C Stork. Location: Mozambique surveys

I highlighted the following challenges to internet use in my previous column (4) on access, with some of them being gender specific and others experienced by both women and men:

  • Reproductive roles falling on women limiting time they can spend online
  • Trust between men and women in relationships limiting time and activities online
  • Unsolicited sexual advances putting women off on internet use
  • Financial cost of access and use
  • Privacy, safety and security
  • Lack of digital skills to navigate the internet

Context based interventions

Gender constraints on access and use require interventions that extend beyond information and communication technology and are based on the context. Issues in relation to how much time a woman can spend online without being seen as neglecting family obligations can not be remedied simply through technology. This requires closer analysis of family dynamics in terms of distribution of roles in the family. Perhaps a point of research would be how individual responsibilities may be balanced with internet use and develop policies thereof. Perceptions held by men and women about what their partners do online have an impact on the extent of people’s Internet use.

Often times men and women are concerned that their partners will be cheating on them. In most instances, women opted to go offline for the sake of peace. In particular, rural respondents stated a fear of violence as a result of going online. These reflect gendered power dynamics that people live with on a day to day basis that requite a contextual approach to gender issues. One would need to build trust between partners that may extend to trusting a partner who is online as well.

Digital literacy

Digital literacy is a critical intervention needed for both Internet and non-Internet users. It is rather pointless to expect people to simply adapt to having the internet without prior skills on how it works and how it can benefit them. There is a need to educate users and non-users on what they can do online, how to find the information they want, where to find it and securing their digital footprint. In the scope of the study, it was mainly women who expressed worry about the content that they would be exposed to, once online. It needs to be highlighted, in digital literacy, the ways in which they can shape the content they access and make use off when online. Without interventions to redress broader social and economic inequality in society more the entry of more sophisticated services and devices will amplify digital inequality.

It is rather pointless to expect people to simply adapt to having the internet without prior skills on how it works and how it can benefit them. There is a need to educate users and non-users on what they can do online, how to find the information they want, where to find it and securing their digital footprint.

Digital literacy also needs to cover issues on digital rights such as privacy, safety and security. Challenges to digital rights include the issue of self-censorship for political or social reasons, as well as fears of privacy invasion and safety concerns for children. The participants in our study did not frame these as rights issues, but given the growing discourse on digital rights, it is indicative of a lack of awareness. Different stakeholders, the government, civil society and Internet service providers could be drawn into educating users on what their rights are and the ways in which they can address the issues they face online that are impeding their Internet use. Building a trusted environment for the Internet to flourish is also essential to optimising the reduction of transaction costs in the economy and enabling e-commerce. These interventions may potentially lead to increased access to the Internet as people will have the required skills and knowledge.

Building a trusted environment for the Internet to flourish is also essential to optimising the reduction of transaction costs in the economy and enabling e-commerce.

Policy interventions

Women, considered a marginalised group, are often targeted in digital policies. As women are concentrated amongst the poor, these pro-poor strategies also have the immediate potential of reducing digital gender inequalities. Other generalised interventions that improve privacy and anonymity and generally contribute to an environment of security and trust online would also enhance the experience of women on the Internet by improving their protection from unsolicited content or surveillance. This includes creating cybersecurity within a human rights framework which guarantees citizens’ rights. The possibility of achieving this online in many countries where even offline rights do not exist is one of the biggest challenges.

As women are concentrated amongst the poor, these pro-poor strategies also have the immediate potential of reducing digital gender inequalities.

Gender research

  • Looking back to the thinking behind this project, our research question focused on the experiences of men and women and did not interrogate a wide range of intersectionalities that shape men and women’s lived experiences. Not all men and women have the same experiences simply because they are a man or a woman.
  • Secondly, gender issues impacting on internet require a nuanced approach to collecting, analysing and interpreting the data. As stressed in my previous blog, there were some power dynamics that we did not question, for example whether the reason one opted to not go online when they were in their relationship was related the level of power the other partner had in the relationship? This was in the instance where the statements were made but not further qualified.
  • Thirdly, our assessment focused on men and women, we did not assess the experiences of those who identify as other genders nor interrogate experiences based on sexuality.

This was not the scope of the study nor did the selection of participants allow for it, but this is another area of gender that needs to be understood. In some countries, the context does not allow for it, while in South Africa, the environment is meant to facilitate conversations on how one identifies themselves on the gender spectrum and their sexuality.

Our research question focused on the experiences of men and women and did not interrogate a wide range of intersectionalities that shape men and women’s lived experiences. Not all men and women have the same experiences simply because they are a man or a woman.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the question of gender in access and beyond will continue to be interrogated. I have qualified this research in that it reflects on opinions on those we interviewed and we drew inferences from it. Our research sought to highlight gender issues in their particular contexts- urban, peri-urban and rural women and with a low level of income. It does not reflect on a nation as a whole, nor should it be extrapolated to reflect Africa. Research ICT Africa’s ’Beyond Access’ surveys that are nationally representative of household and individual use of the internet will further provide more evidence on the issues arising from this focus group. We will be developing this research to take into account different demographic information such as location, age, level of education, employment status and income to inform an intersectional gender analysis.

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Footnotes

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