1,500 copies of this book have already been circulated amongst public and private sector decision-makers, to civil society and women’s organisations, and to representatives of the media and agencies for cooperation and development. This was done on the occasion of the six follow-up workshops organised in six countries on the research results, and at the Tunis Summit on the Information Society in 2005.
Supporting the women of Francophone Africa to benefit equally from development policies
Being in charge of the Synergy Gender and Development team of the non-governmental organisation Enda Third World in Dakar (Senegal), Marie-Helene’s role is to identify the main obstacles that prevent women from benefiting equally from development policies. The Synergy Gender and Development team thus developed several programmes and pilot projects around themes of economic independence, health and communication for women. Marie-Helene and her team have been actively involved in the World Summit on the Information Society process, and within the African Information Society Initiative.
She talks to us about her motivation for writing this book on the gender digital divide in Francophone Africa. “Our programme, ‘Women’s communication’ is a result of the idea that, if nothing is done specifically for the women of Francophone Africa – as soon as possible – in the matter of the active appropriation of information and communication technologies (ICTs), the development gap between men and women, that is already evident in most areas, will widen even further. To this end, we have carried out various activities: technical solutions, training, network and information services, advocacy, publications, lobbying…”
Figures and indicators help to document the extent of the gender digital divide
Worthy of mention among the publications referred to by Marie-Helene, is a work that poses the problem of gender and ICT, that is “Citoyennes africaines de la société de l'information, manuel de première urgence à l'intention des décideurs” (African citizens of the information society, emergency manual for decision-makers”), available on the internet at http://www.famafrique.org/regentic/e-citoyennes.pdf.
“However, for the terms of this advocacy to be useful to decision-makers, they should be supported by data figures and indicators that prove the extent of the gender digital divide in Francophone Africa. This is the reason for the research that was carried out in the six representative countries of the sub-region. The publication “The Gender Digital Divide in Francophone Africa, a Harsh Reality” presents the results of this work,” she adds.
Marie-Helene admits that “intuitively, nobody can deny the existence of gender disparities within the ICT sector, mostly against women. Now we have figures available to prove the extent of these disparities. Over and above the figures themselves, the research has proposed a methodology to measure the various aspects of the gender digital divide.”
Unequal opportunities, roles and prejudices stand behind the marginalisation of women in the ICT sector
Talking about these disparities, there are several factors that make women in Africa less able than men to use ICTs. On this subject, Marie-Helene confirms that “in truth, women, including those in Africa, are absolutely capable – if they are given the same opportunities – of the same ICT skills as men. The marginalisation of women in the ICT sector, like in other sectors, is not due to men or women, but to the unequal opportunities given to women, which prejudices them.
Talking about the roles socially assigned to women and men, she emphasises that “the roles of women, limited to the private, domestic and social spheres, are given no value, and are therefore not taken into consideration in economic and budgetary policies. On the contrary, the gender roles assigned to men pertain to the public, economic and legal spheres, and their concerns are thus given more value, and taken into account in budgetary and public allocations. This does not allow for a reduction in inequality.”
With regard to the use of ICTs by women, Marie-Helene suggests in her book that women will not really benefit from the digital revolution, and that they will continue to be consumers and ‘helping hands’. In fact, we have noted that with regard to ICT use, short term vision and imperatives of survival take precedence over prospects and innovation, as much amongst women as men,” she explains.
Women would use ICTs more for personal and social reasons than men, while “men use ICTs within the context of the roles assigned to them: economic, professional, civic and political,” she continues.
Mobile telephones bring 'freedoms' to many women across Africa
However, the book emphasises that mobile telephone access is the only area where the gender digital divide is in women’s favour. “This is a new state of affairs that is allowing women to be liberated from their traditional lack of freedom in the private and domestic spheres, and enabling them to communicate and have access to information, to public and civic life,” she explains. Over the millennia, the isolation and marginalisation of women in terms of their ability to communicate has often been a way to keep their social status inferior to that of men.”
Marie-Helene does, however, emphasise that “the mobile phone, amongst other things, is perceived by men as a potential threat to the balance between men and women.” In this regard, several quotes in the book mention disruptions in household relationships, especially in terms of breaking men’s control over women, and giving rise to feelings of mistrust.
Awareness raising is essential as much for women as for policy-makers
The content of this book should be used by political and civil society decision-makers to develop national ICT policies that take the gender aspect into consideration. Research has indicated that many stakeholders have little understanding of ICT-related issues (limited to technical, private and financial domains) and of gender (limited to social, non-profit, family and voluntary domains). It is proving to be essential for stakeholders to understand these issues, as they are involved in drafting national development plans.
On the one hand, officials of ministries responsible for ICTs do not have the capacity to incorporate the gender aspect into national ICT strategies. On the other hand, officials of women’s ministries in Africa are not overly concerned with ICT issues, or do not have the necessary expertise to integrate ICTs into national plans for the promotion of women.
For Marie-Helene, it is both essential and urgent “that ICT technicians become aware of, and trained in, gender issues, and that those responsible for policies of social promotion (of women and men) become aware of, and trained in, ICT issues. There should, moreover, be permanent mechanisms of consultation between these two sectors, which is currently not the case in any part of Francophone West Africa.
Certainly, the results of this study are a basis for activists, researchers, analysts, political and women’s organisations’ decision-makers. However, it is still too early, as stated by Marie-Helene Mottin-Sylla “to know whether the disturbing results revealed by the study have acted as a detonator or support for concrete action, as much for women as for policy-makers”.
The book has been widely circulated, and is available on the famafrique site:www.famafrique.org. The book “The Gender Digital Divide in Francophone Africa, a Harsh Reality” is currently available on the internet in French, and in English on APC’s www.genderit.org site.
Book in French: http://www.famafrique.org/regentic/indifract/fracturenumeriquedegenre.pdf
Book in English:http://www.genderit.org/resources/africa_gender_divide.pdf