Image from Rights Con Brussels 2017 website
Wikipedia describes internet access as “the process that enables individuals and organisations to connect to the internet using computer terminals, computers, mobile devices, sometimes via computer networks“. Though right to the internet access is recognised as a human right by the United Nations (UN), access in the real world is a product of privilege and inequality. According the report by Women’s Right Online in 2015 women are 50% less likely to access the internet than men in the same communities.
As our cities turn smart and countries turn digital the gender gap in terms of internet access is disturbing. The lack of access directly relates to the loss of rights of women and minorities. Sadly there is a long way to go before we close this gap.
Organisations and governments validate and measure internet access by factors such as the number of devices used, affordability of data and the existence of connectivity to receive that data. While these seem like a straightforward measure to rely on, it is unfortunately not that easy. Women and other minorities constantly face societal hurdles to access the internet. In some communities women and other minorities are banned from owning mobile phones. There are also internet shutdowns and the unequal distribution of networks in urban and rural areas.
Organisations and governments validate and measure internet access by factors such as the number of devices used, affordability of data and the existence of connectivity to receive that data. While these seem like a straightforward measure to rely on, it is unfortunately not that easy. Women and other minorities constantly face societal hurdles to access the internet.
Hence It’s important to understand the ways in which access manifests – especially to provide solutions for those who are not connected.
Cost of devices is one of the factors preventing women from accessing the internet.But communities across the world have been using some creative ways for negotiating access to devices and thus access to the internet. While several organisations are focusing on getting more devices, Indonesian women and the urban Indian women are getting online with the help of cheap and affordable Chinese phones. Women in Ghana and rural Uganda are accessing internet through shared mobile phones, and women in north Sri Lanka are using jail broken phones which are much cheaper than locally bought phones. Community centers have been setup in Columbia, India and Africa by various organisation where donated electronics are used to access internet. 
The cost of internet connection is another huge limiting factor in many countries. Even when women have access to devices they have no access to internet. To circumvent this the government in Cameroon is enabling access to internet through community spaces which provide machines as access points. In other places women are using services such as Free Basics to get online. Some groups from Malawi deal with expensive internet by simply using cheap internet provided by neighbouring countries.
Organisations are also getting experimental to increase access. While the likes of Facebook and Microsoft are rolling out zero rating plans which, to be fair, provide internet where there is none. They might be motivated by profit, but such plans are still known to have played an important part in reducing the gender gap. However the limited scope of internet provided creates knowledge gaps based on privilege.
Facebook and Microsoft are rolling out zero rating plans which, to be fair, provide internet where there is none. However the limited scope of internet provided by these plans creates knowledge gaps based on privilege.
There are some organisations who are doing it well and reaching out to the unconnected, take for example VOTO mobile’s efforts to reach rural women from Ghana. VOTO mobile understood that women in Ghana have access to only the shared mobile phone and most times this is owned by the male members of the family. VOTO built a system where women could access their content based on their convenience in the pull format (as opposed to push notifications). They also understood that sometimes women are able to access the mobile phones not from their own family or friends but from others, like an NGO worker. So they also built a way for someone else to dial in and wait to pass on the phone. They designed notification systems where the phone owner would get an SMS informing when the content is available. VOTO’s system was in used successfully for messaging during the recent Ghanaian elections. 
The other major hurdle for women using internet is know-how and the fear of unknown. The survey from women’s rights online highlighted the fact that women mainly use internet to maintain family ties through social media. It also highlighted the fact that women are less likely to use internet to find jobs. While this is true, some communities of women show surprising perspectives on the use of internet and devices. Like a group in Manipur called Rural Women’s Upliftment Society uses Whatsapp as a way to host support groups for domestic abuse survivors. While we were all advocating use of websites to promote businesses, women from various parts of the world re-purposed Whatsapp to promote their homemade products – they found it far more cheaper, convenient and usable.
While we were all advocating use of websites to promote businesses, women from various parts of the world re-purposed Whatsapp to promote their homemade products – they found it far more cheaper, convenient and usable.
Many organisations run programs to on-board new users of internet everyday. What these programs have in common is a top down approach to teaching internet. The internet is usually spoken of as a giant box and often viewed as a commodity. When in fact it can neither be quantified nor has contours. The internet is a free flowing medium that connects machines like our senses connect us to the world and people. Some movements are changing this conversation like a group of feminist hackers from Brazil who are building an autonomous feminist network or a network infrastructure that is gender inclusive. They have built a whole community infrastructure from scratch – including the hardware involved in repeating and transmitting information.
Mozilla in its recent health report on the internet noted that online harassment and mass surveillance reduce participation from minorities. Major technology platforms like Facebook, Wikipedia and Twitter have recognised this and have been fighting to provide safer spaces for years now. It is difficult to fix already built structures – the way communities and women are working around this is by creating strategy frameworks for handling harassment, for eg cyber security for domestic violence by hackblossom. Women are also increasingly creating their own tools, be it bumble for dating or Hamdam – a period tracking application for women in Iraq.
Everyone deserves equal access to internet, and our current efforts are directed at policies to enable a neutral internet and enabling access to devices. If we truly want to create equitable spaces and uphold the principles on which the internet was built it is also vital to start looking at it from different perspectives, broaden the access dialogue, and take critical note and document what we are overlooking because of our one sided view of the internet.
It is important to have conversations with these realities in building any tools or even smart cities and digital countries.
If we truly want to create equitable spaces and uphold the principles on which the internet was built it is also vital to start looking at it from different perspectives and broaden the access dialogues.
1. Digging into Data on the Gender Digital Divide, Alliance for Affordable Internet, A4AI Blog, 7 Oct 2016. http://a4ai.org/digging-into-data-on-the-gender-digital-divide/
2. Snapshot: Grameen Foundation’s “Mobile Midwife” Service in Nigeria – How to generate and use, GSMA mWomen Global Development Alliance, 2010. http://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Mobi…. Also see “How do you reach a rural woman via a mobile phone if she doesn’t own one?”, VOTO Team Blog, 17 Aug 2015. https://www.votomobile.org/2015/08/17/reaching-rural-women-without-phone…