University women struggle for knowledge access in Africa

2 June 2010
The future female leaders of Africa are up against major barriers to knowledge access, which could mean lost opportunities in university learning and teaching the state-of-the-art research most necessary for academic success.  Online academic journals, and university textbooks are a few of the important resources that are part of this access to knowledge, which is pertinent particularly at the university level.   Not only do students need to pass their courses, they are also encouraged to develop innovative and novel ideas informed and possibly inspired by past research work.  This article questions whether such access of learning materials to all students and teachers at universities in Africa are fair to both women and men. 

The value of sharing knowledge

The 2008 (Abrahams et al.) study called, Opening Access to Knowledge in Southern African Universities, examines key constraints to access to knowledge in universities in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region.  The eight universities in seven countries found there was a “lack of awareness of what has been produced” in the African region (ibid).  Most researchers kept their work as unpublished outputs or as “grey literature” that was not digitized, likely to be filed away in some dusty office and thus was not accessible to the rest of the world.   Such lack of awareness of available African scholarly work could keep researchers from collaborating with each other. At the same time, researchers are unaware of work being done by one’s respective African counterparts.  Deeper studies as to whether men and women are experiencing similar constraints in the availability to research publications have yet to be explored.  Nevertheless adverse effects of knowledge production and relationships among African researchers are guiding a sparse research field of outputs that remain in a critical state in Africa.

The internet has been a major source of accessing and disseminating research through online journal databases and search engines like Google Scholar.  However, whether women students or teachers had equal access to the internet or even computers is debatable.  One university example showed first-hand experience of gender inequality from computer access.  According to a 2005/06 University of Zimbabwe study (Mbambo-Thata et al.), while students respected the “first–come, first-serve” rule for computer laboratory access, the findings showed that female students refrained from using the laboratory.  The women students were avoiding the aggressive behavior acted out by men students when jostling for first position for computer access.  Secondly, women students who were employed during their studies and/or had family obligations found difficulties in accessing computers under the first-come, first-serve rule.   The study found that “the notion of equal access seems to take precedence over their experience of unequal access (ibid).” 

The intersection between copyright and access to learning materials

Another element of the knowledge access picture is the copyright environment. The researchers in the African Copyright & Access to Knowledge (ACA2K) network are seeking to better understand the nature of African national copyright environments and the degree to which access to hard-copy and digital learning materials is being impacted by these environments (2009). Are copyright environments (ie, the combination of copyright laws and the practices in relation to these laws) serving to build access for these students and teachers?  One of the sub-questions the ACA2K network is looking at is whether there is a gender element to the intersection between copyright and access to learning materials. How, if at all, do copyright environments differentially affect access for men and for women to learning materials, particularly in the university context?

Probing gender dynamics in copyright follows the rationale of the work of Ann Bartow, who argues that copyright laws serve to help certain people maintain power over knowledge production, and  “because those people are predominantly male, the copyright infrastructure plays a role, largely unexamined by legal scholars, in helping to sustain the material and economic inequality between women and men” (Bartow, 2006: 1). Bartow argues that researchers need to look for potential gender inequalities in the copyright environment at the level of the author, at the intermediary level, and at the user level.

The preliminary ACA2K finding from interviews in the eight ACA2K study countries was that most of the chosen interview subjects – government/state actors, university actors, rights-holders/publishers – did not see, or had not considered, a connection among gender, copyright and learning materials access. However, there were smatterings of anecdotal evidence that were of interest. For instance, a Ugandan judge said that there were more women plaintiffs in copyright court cases than men in that country (2008: 5). While the team has yet to explain these anecdotes through gender analysis, the initial findings has sparked the team to complete further investigation on the significance of gender within the realm of copyright and access. The ACA2K project has thus decided to go a bit deeper in one of its study countries, Kenya, in an attempt to see if there is any systematic evidence of a meaningful intersection in that country between gender, copyright and access to learning materials. A gender consultant has been hired to support the Kenya ACA2K research team, and follow-up interviews are being conducted with some of the stakeholders originally interviewed.  Within their research guidelines on gender, one of the suggested questions include, “to what extent women are involved in the copyright and access to learning policymaking and implementation processes” (2009a: 12). This research work is timely as Kenya is in the process of reforming the 2001 copyright bill.  The current bill is highly in favour of protection for the copyright holder with very few exceptions to relevant reasons including university or academic purposes. The ACA2K team which includes the Kenya Copyright Board seeks to use its research to influence the policy makers towards a more fair view of knowledge access particularly for educational purposes for distance learning and special groups (eg, individuals with disabilities) (2009b: 9).

Bartow is of the view that where inequalities between men and women exist in terms of access to copyright resources, a “low barriers” approach to copyright protection, with strong legal limitations and exceptions, is likely to serve to decrease any existing gender inequality of access (2006: 23). Thus, to follow Bartow’s logic, it can be argued that interventions are necessary regardless of the precise gender dynamics of access to copyright resources or even peer Africa research work and computers at universities. In a resource-poor environment where learning materials are disproportionately more expensive than in developed countries, examples like copyright limitations and exceptions for educational and private use will only be of great benefit to women users at universities and to the future of women leaders in Africa.  Lastly, as this initial research in copyright and gender is the first of its kind, particularly here in Africa, the real hope is for the work to trigger increased debate and further policy development of gender issues within national copyright laws throughout the world.


References:
  • Abrahams, Luci, Burke, Mark, Gray, Eve, & Rens, Andrew, (2008). “Open Access to Knowledge in Southern African Universities”.  Study Series 2008. SARUA – Wits Publications:  Johannesburg.
  • ACA2K website. (2009). The African Copyright & Access to Knowledge Project (ACA2K).
  • ACA2K.  (2009a).  ACA2K and Gender Guidelines.  17 February 2009.  Unpublished.  
  • ACA2K.  (2009b).  ACA2K  Network Strategy for Influence & Change. 16 March 2009.   Unpublished.  
  • ACA2K.  (2008).  ACA2K Gender Strategy.  16 September 2008.  Accessed on March 17, 2009.
  • ACA2K.  (2008a).  ACA2K project -Where (and how) does gender come into play?  11 October 2008. Accessed on March 17, 2009. 
  • Bartow, Ann, (2006). “Fair use and the Fairer Sex:  Gender, Feminism and Copyright Law” American University of Journal of Gender Social Policy & the Law.
  • Mbambo-Thata, Buhle, Mlambo , Elizabeth, & Mwatsiya, Precious. (2009). “When a gender-blind access policy results in discrimination: realities and perceptions of female students at the University of Zimbabwe” edited by Buskens, Ineke, & Webb, Anne in.  African Women and ICTs:  Investigating Technology, Gender and Empowerment.  IDRC / Zed Books:  Ottawa.
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