Written by two feminist researchers from Sudan who wish to remain anonymous.
Attention to bridging the gender digital divide has recently increased globally with a focus on connecting the unconnected in the Global South. Internet accessibility remains a major hurdle facing many people, including women in Sudan. We conducted the study “Examining the Digital Exclusion of Women and Online Gender-Based Violence in Sudan” to highlight the issue of the gender digital divide in the country by exploring the barriers that deprive Sudanese women of accessing the internet. The research finding shows that among many several factors that contributed to the widening of the gender digital divide in Sudan, poverty, gender dynamics, digital illiteracy, online gender-based violence (oGBV), and U.S. sanctions against Sudan are considered major problems.
As Sudanese feminist researchers from Hopes and Actions Foundation, we aspire to ensure that the Internet brings social and economic justice to women in Sudan. Our goal is for every woman to have safe access to the internet, and we advocate for an environment in which women can make use of the Internet for their benefit and the community around them.
Research question, rationale, and objective
Considering the volatile and conflict-affected, political, and economic context of Sudan, this research attempts to analyse the barriers facing women to access the internet. It is important to set this picture as a ground so that we can understand the struggles of Sudanese women from an intersectional perspective. In this research we argue that it is not just an infrastructure issue that affects women's access to the internet, freedom of expression, and active participation in technology. There are social, political, and cultural factors nationally that influence their access to the internet, freedom of expression, and active participation online.
Sudan's legal frameworks discriminate and marginalise women both socially and economically as gender-based violence (GBV) and domestic violence are still not criminalised. In this context, it is even harder to imagine the existence and consideration of technology-facilitated violence or oGBV. This is even more unfortunate as especially in the context of the current war in Sudan, Sudanese women are increasingly confronted by technology-facilitated violence on diverse social media platforms as a form of propaganda and trolling. The limited digital regulations and laws that exist in the country contribute to the exclusion of women from having easy access to the internet as they exercise patriarchal control over women. Hence, women have limited to no chances of legally protecting themselves from oGBV which can be extended offline, and this can force them to pull out of online participation. By no means we are suggesting that women’s experiences with oGBV are homogeneous. In this research, we have applied an intersectional lens to understand the multifaceted nature of discrimination and violence and examine these different experiences of oGBV.
Sudan's legal frameworks discriminate and marginalise women both socially and economically as gender-based violence (GBV) and domestic violence are still not criminalised.
Sudan also continues to suffer from an international crisis that has resulted in sanctions restricting politicians and everyday people (including women) from accessing and participating in technological infrastructures that could potentially provide economic and social benefits. As a result of the lack of literature reviews on sanctions' impact on the gender digital divide, this research aims to bridge this gap, since the United States imposed sanctions in 1997. Perry Bechky claims that “sanctions are a political tool – but a political tool that operates through economic regulation. U.S. economic sanctions are used to influence the behavior and decisions of states and non-state actors deemed to pose a national security threat or harm U.S. interests, sanctions are used as part of the U.S. Cold War strategy.” However, the impact of sanctions can be devastating and difficult to reverse even after they are lifted. Sanctions can deny internet access when people need it the most. U.S sanctions also prohibited the export and reexport of goods, technology, or services to Sudan, including telecommunication equipment as well as a long list of important hardware, software, online services, and other tools that are crucial to Sudanese people exercising their human right to freedom of expression online.
Research methodology, ethical considerations, and limitations
This research used a feminist qualitative method anchored by the lived experiences of 59 women in Sudan. The research adopted the feminist theory of intersectionality, and examined how intersectional discrimination against women resulted in the digital exclusion of women in four regions including Khartoum, Port Sudan, North Darfur, and South Kordofan. Focus group discussions (FGDs) included women from minority ethnic groups from South Kordofan and North Darfur. Additionally, it included university students, street vendors, housewives, political/women activists, teachers, journalists, and civil servants of different ages (between 19 and 60 years old). Some of the participants were also women with disabilities. The FGDs covered four states due to limited resources and the short timeframe of the project. Some localities where there is a higher population of women remained inaccessible due to outbreaks of Dengue fever, and armed conflict at the time of data collection.
Sanctions can deny internet access when people need it the most. U.S sanctions also prohibited the export and reexport of goods, technology, or services to Sudan, including telecommunication equipment as well as a long list of important hardware, software, online services, and other tools that are crucial to Sudanese people exercising their human right to freedom of expression online.
Additionally, in-depth, semi-structured interviews were conducted with five key informants, who were selected based on the gaps of information identified following the FGDs. Two mobile network operator managers, a US legal expert on sanctions, a legal expert, and a woman activist who has been a victim of oGBV were among the five women interviewed. The research is grounded in the commitment to do no harm. We have practiced feminist ethical principles and follow transparent processes to ensure ethical engagement with participants. The decision to keep everyone anonymous, including the authors themselves, was taken to prevent further visibility of those who had experienced violence and the possibility of further violence.
Discussion and findings
According to the research findings, several factors contribute to the gender digital divide in Sudan, including a social constructionist view of gender norms, power dynamics, personal status law, government regulations, lack of gender-sensitive regulations, oGBV, affordability, and U.S. sanctions against Sudan.
The FGDs data indicates that the majority of women do not feel safe in online spaces. It reflected that women experience different types of oGBV, including bullying, sexual harassment, blackmail, and threats. These acts have limited women's participation online, and driven other women to discontinue their online presence indefinitely. Furthermore, there is evidence that accessing the internet is linked to domestic violence, sometimes leading to the murder of women for having access to the internet and phone and in some cases for expressing their point of view online. This phenomenon is strongly connected to the fact that in Sudan young girls and married women are often forced to live under the supervision of their fathers, brothers, or husbands, which results in divorce, beatings, and/or other types of abuse.
The prevailing culture of men’s control over women’s-technological devices and their access to the internet was reported across the four regions. The majority of the participants pointed out that women of different ages, social classes, ethnicities, marital status, and locations (urban and rural) experience men’s control over their lives to access and make beneficial use of the internet. There were stories shared by participants about rural women in Khartoum, South Kordofan, and North Darfur about them being forbidden from using smartphones or accessing the internet by male family members who believed that using the internet negatively altered their behaviour and attitudes in a manner that was not in line with their communities' cultures.
There is evidence that accessing the internet is linked to domestic violence, sometimes leading to the murder of women for having access to the internet and phone and in some cases for expressing their point of view online.
FGD data indicates that many women aren't allowed to freely express themselves on social media or share their photos. To circumvent this, they create accounts with nicknames or different names so that they don't get recognised by their family members online. Women's struggles with oGBV in Sudan usually extend to offline violence which limits their participation in online spaces.
In South Kordofan (Kadugli, the Capital City), women are experiencing internet shutdown, due to the ongoing intercommunal conflicts. FGD participants agreed that only recently they got to know about the internet and its benefits. Furthermore, participants shared stories about the impact of government surveillance and restrictions on freedom of expression across the country. Women in Kadugli faced detention for expressing their views online.
The research also shows that certain groups of women are more targeted on social media. Intersecting factors included age, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, occupation, physical appearance, disability, and nature of activities on social media. They played a role in how certain groups of women are more vulnerable to experiencing oGBV and are less likely to obtain justice. For instance, young political activists who come from a marganilised ethnic group are more vulnerable to experiencing oGBV. Furthermore, the majority of oGBV victims refrain from filing a legal complaint for different reasons; including social stigma as one of the main challenges, as well as a lack of knowledge about their rights and a lack of trust in the juridical system. Exacerbated by the sanctions, the variety of settings and tools to address online abuse is not always easy to access.
From the perspectives of systemic and infrastructural violence, the research explores the U.S. trade embargo on Sudan and its impact on Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) access to crucial technologies to maintain telecom infrastructure. According to the global community, the sanction on Sudan is a response to the Sudanese government's support for international terrorism, relentless efforts to destabilize neighboring governments, and human rights violations. Economic and trade sanctions enacted by one government against another often have detrimental effects on the free flow of digital communications and communication technologies that activists, innovators, and ordinary users of technologies desperately need. Telecom Operators buy equipment and software from third-party companies at a two-fold increase in price which incurs higher operating costs on MNOs. Therefore, the data bundle cost is also increased, and women's ability to afford internet bundle costs is decreased due to the high rate of poverty among women.
sanctions are directly affecting Sudanese Women in STEM, and marginalising them professionally. This has also increased the restriction and control women face when trying to use the internet for information, education, and finding livelihood opportunities online.
In addition, these sanctions are directly affecting Sudanese Women in STEM, and marginalising them professionally. This has also increased the restriction and control women face when trying to use the internet for information, education, and finding livelihood opportunities online. This ongoing sanction should also be understood and seen in the light of violence as a form of excluding a nation, a generation, and a society from accessing the internet for learning and development.
Based on this analysis, it is also critical that the international community should consider the ongoing war which broke out on 15 April 2023, while this research was being finalised. The impact of the war and the renewed sanctions will tremendously exacerbate the situation in terms of access to technologies and further damage the existing weak ICT infrastructure, leaving citizens in total telecom blackout. Women's access to tech devices and the internet is much needed during wartime to ease their access to communication tools during emergencies, as well as access to information and online health services. While currently there is no data available on whether there is any change in oGBV following the war, it was observed on social media that the de facto authority is targeting journalists who write about the war and accusing them of being affiliated with the other warring party.
A way forward: Research recommendations and advocacy for policy input
As we migrate from voice to data services to Over the Top platforms, the Internet of Things, and artificial intelligence, a central policy challenge and paradox is often amplified by a lack of access to digital technologies. Connectivity has been emphasized over the past few years as a way to bridge the gender digital divide. However, connectivity on its own does not ensure women exercise their digital rights as citizens, consumers, and producers. This research proposes the following recommendations to close the gender digital divide in Sudan:
Policy Recommendations for the State
- Restoring peace and civilian rule in Sudan is a prerequisite for improving the position of women in general and the gender digital divide in particular;
- There is a pressing need to review and reform the laws that discriminate against Sudanese women, including 1) reforming all laws that discriminate against women and end offline violence, including the Nationality Law, Criminal Act, Evidence Act and Cybercrime Law, Personal Status Law, and Labor Code, and 2) to reform cybersecurity law to criminalise oGBV;
- The Ministry of Justice should work on improving the mechanism of filing legal complaints regarding oGBV to encourage victims to report and ensure their right to free legal counsel;
- Legal institutions should also work in cooperation with the telecom authority to support the development of electronic evidence guidelines that allow the juridical system to follow the footprints of such crimes in online spaces;
- On a broader level, the Ministry of Social Affairs must create an enabling environment for women to have equal access to digital resources by developing a gender mainstreaming policy to close the gender digital divide;
- The Ministry of Social Affairs must appoint a gender focal point at the telecom authority to collaboratively close the gender digital divide, as well as run campaigns to ensure families end domestic violence against women both offline and online;
- Finally, due to the current ongoing conflict, the Telecom Authority must work on easing access to SIM cards, as many citizens left their ID original documents at home while fleeing the war.
Policy recommendations for the international community
- The international community must continue to work to end the ongoing war in Sudan, promoting peace, freedom, and justice, as well as to continue supporting a transition towards a civil-led government;
- The international community must continue to work on promoting the role of Sudanese women in peace negotiations and agreement, as well as their participation in government positions;
- The impact of sanctions and war will further harden the situation for Sudanese women displaced to neighboring countries. Thus the international community must work on immediately ending the sanctions regime against Sudan, as well as consider easing restrictions to access technologies for Sudanese online;
- The international community must work towards introducing economic policies to stabilize the free-falling economy as these are prerequisites to increasing literacy rate and digital literacy in Sudan;
- As part of U.S. 21st century diplomacy that relies on science, innovative technology, and access to an open, interoperable, reliable and secure Internet, the U.S. should undertake more extensive public diplomacy about its engagement process in Sudan; including but not limited to promoting peace, democracy, but also promoting women digital rights in Sudan;
- The Global Digital Compact must introduce an inclusive global framework that governs the impact of geopolitics and economic sanctions on the internet fragmentation by considering measures to prevent the unintended consequences affecting connectivity, and the gender digital divide;
- As for the private sector, social media companies must work towards effective reporting mechanisms against perpetrators of oGBV, as well as provide reports per judicial orders to serve as evidence in courts of law to support victims in attaining justice;
- Finally, further research must be conducted in Sudan, and other countries affected by the sanctions, to analyze the impact of sanctions on the gender digital divide.
 Sudan cybersecurity law doesn’t criminalise OGBV, furthermore, absence of electronic evidence guidance support the prevalence of oGBV that support online perpetrators to escape justice.
 Bechky.P. (2018). Sanctions and the Blurred Boundaries of International Economic Law. Missouri Law Review, 83(1).https://scholarship.law.missouri.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=4311&context=mlr
 Bezuidenhout. L, & Karrar. O, & Lezaun. J, & Nobes. A. (2019, 1 October). Economic sanctions and academia: Overlooked impact and long-term consequences. PLOSE ONE, 14(11). https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0222669
 El Saadany. M, & Campbell. N. (2022, 28 September). Sanctions Can Deny Internet Access When People Need It Most. https://www.internetsociety.org/blog/2022/09/sanctions-can-deny-internet-access-when-people-need-it-most/
 Kenyanito. E. (2023, 13 January). U.S. eases sanctions on tech exports to Sudan. https://www.accessnow.org/us-eases-sanctions-tech-exports-sudan/
 Khartoum is the capital city and is located roughly in the center of Sudan. Port Sudan is located in eastern Sudan (approx. 842 kilometers from Khartoum). North Darfur is located in the northwest area of Sudan (approx. 820 kilometers from Khartoum). South Kordofan is in the southern area of Sudan (approx. 585 kilometers from Khartoum).
 The U.S. Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues (S/GWI) has a mandate to promote the rights and empowerment of women and girls through U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally elevates the human rights of women and girls globally as a U.S. national security, diplomatic, and foreign assistance priority. Office of Global Women's Issues - United States Department of State