How Africa can bridge the gender digital divide

Participants follow a panel discussion during Smart Women Summit in Kigali last week. Government Institutions were urged during the summit to help bridge the gender digital divide. Sam Ngendahimana.

Until now, only a few girls and women in Africa are dispelling the stereotypes associated with technology and science industries in general. There are still a small number of women in digital space compared to men, and the situation is similar in many other areas.

According to the 2016 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report, gender inequality is costing sub-Saharan Africa on average USD95 billion a year, or six percent of the region’s GDP.

Another report released recently by the World Wide Web Foundation indicates that Africa has the widest gap in internet use between men and women. Of all the population that has access to internet, women make up only 25 per cent of them.

Globally, this is called gender digital divide. According to Fode Ndiaye, the One UN Rwanda Resident Coordinator, this divide is jeopardizing the continent’s efforts for inclusive human development and economic growth.

“Gender inequality is costing Africa billions of money, but also gender digital divide is costing us a lot,” he said.

The World Wide Web shows that there is an estimated $408 million collected to expand internet access throughout Africa sitting dormant in public coffers. Yet, these funds are enough to bring 6 million women online, or provide digital skills training to 16 million women and girls.

“What we have seen is that resources are there, but we need to form partnerships, make sure that we have a clear vision and understand that we owe it to the women of this continent,” Ndiaye told the participants at the Smart Africa Women summit.

During the summit’s second edition last week in Kigali, it was revealed that women and men are slowly creating a culture through which a big section of women are entering the digital space.

The summit, part of the annual Transform Africa Summit, has given a platform to people to address issues limiting women and girls to be part of the current digital revolution.

For instance, the ‘Africa Smart Women and Girls Declaration’ which was launched during the inaugural Summit serves as a roadmap through which countries can draw examples of what needs to be done.

It recommends that countries increase access and affordability of technology infrastructure for women and girls, empower them with digital skills, and increase their participation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM).

“We should renew our call to action for digital inclusion, allowing women’s contribution to achieving the Africa single digital market,” Rwanda’s Minister for Gender and Family Promotion, Espérance Nyirasafari, said at the summit last week.

Attaining parity in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) access is something Rwanda is committed to. ICT initiatives are now transforming the delivery and quality of healthcare and other services.

An example highlighted by the minister is how rapid SMS for emergency labor and tracking of the maternal and child health have resulted into considerable decrease of maternal and infant mortality rates.

“Infant mortality rate decreased from 107 out of 1,000 live births in 2,000 to 32 out of 1,000 live births in 2015,” she disclosed, adding that embracing ICT use has contributed to women economic empowerment.

Mobile phone ownership in the country has also played a huge role in increasing women’s access to finance, Nyirasafari noted.

But there is no clear national data that shows the correlation between women’s phone ownership and access to finance. Nevertheless, there are a few indicators that ICT tools can empower women economically.

One digital platform, Buy From Women, is helping rural smallholder farmers in the country. The platform registers land titles, which helps women farmers to know the quantity of the inputs to use on certain land as well as forecast the expected produce.

According to Diana Ofwona, the regional director for UN Women, Central and West Africa, the platform has helped people reap economic benefits by increasing their produce, as well as getting access to wider markets.

“Over 3,500 women farmers from different cooperatives have been registered to the system. One cooperative has increased its production from 60 metric tonnes in 2016 to 155 metric tonnes in 2017,” she said.

In monetary terms, the cooperative which she pointed out, has moved from USD16,000 to USD65,000 in only one year, an indication of strong potential of how digital technologies can empower women.

Taking bold steps

Much as ICTs are deemed to be powerful enablers of economic growth and transformation, Amani Abou-Zeid, the African Union Commission’s commissioner for infrastructure and energy, said that digital technologies can serve as right tools to address disparities.

“Digital technologies and services can be effectively used by African countries to mitigate inequalities as well reduce employment gap between men and women. Digital skills can also be used to strengthening women’s and girls’ empowerment and their participation in governance and labour market,” she argued.

She mentioned that equal opportunities to access and usage of ICTs applications and services for social wellbeing will help young women to bring lasting changes in their communities. It is a role that she said governments have a big part to play, especially when it comes to advocacy and promotion of digital literacy for African girls in schools and universities.

Ursula Owusu-Ekuful, Ghana’s Minister for Communications, echoed Abou-Zeid’s remarks, saying that governments have to make deliberate steps to provide opportunities for girls to be able to innovate.

“In Ghana, we’ve instituted our Girls in ICT Programme where we go around the country, select girls from deprived schools who have never been exposed to anything IT and train them in coding as well as basic computer literacy skills,” she noted, highlighting that there are now 6,000 girls from Ashanti region, the third largest of 10 administrative regions in Ghana, who have been trained so far.

Statistics show that 70 per cent of all the software and applications in China is written by women. The minister believes the difference between Chinese women and African women is that Chinese are given opportunities, the training and the skills.

“Giving the same opportunities, I’m sure that African women can even do better,” Ekuful who was the first female CEO of the telecom company and communications minister in Ghana, added.

For Adedoyin Odunfa, the founder and chief executive officer of Digital Jewel, IT professionals have a role to brand ICT careers as careers that can enable women make impact in their societies.

“We should deliver a message that ICT can make a change because this is what appeals to women very fast than anything else. Women want to associate themselves with fields where they can make an impact,” she said.

Adwoa Boakye, founder of RecRoom, a virtual reality social club, is actually an example of what it means for girls to join careers where they think they would make an influence in their communities.

“The reason why I decided to do computer science is because I had a feeling that developing more [technology] platforms would help me make an impact that I wanted to make in a society,” she said during the panel discussion.

Boakye who’s also a Ghanaian based in the United States pointed out that parents have a bigger task when it comes to building interests of young girls to be part of the digital revolution, highlighting that she was always inspired by her mother to move on.

Going forward

Given the current fact that so many people, most of whom are women, are not connected, Ofwona said that countries ought to do business differently.

“Countries should develop and implement policies and strategies that are needed to close the gender digital divide, like policies that improve online rights and access to affordable internet,” she opined.

If women remain out of the digital revolution, Africa risks cost implications.

But Ofwona emphasised that addressing issues of high cost of connectivity and lack of electricity in many parts would not only connect the many women who are locked out of the digital revolution, but also bring the nearly 4 billion people who are still offline.

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