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Bridging the gender digital divide through ICTs


Gibson Mhaka
IN this digital age, Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) are proving to be powerful tools for accelerating the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations (UN) and there is no doubt that these global aspirations could be met well within the UN set time fame.

While the developed world has made significant strides in ensuring ICTs are embraced across the gender and generational divide, the developing world is still far from bridging this gap.

The rest of the world has been progressive towards gender equality and women’s empowerment under the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that were succeeded by SDGs but women and girls in developing countries still suffer from various levels of discrimination especially in accessing and using ICTs.

In order to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Unesco believes that unless issues such as the technological gap are addressed, women will not benefit equally from ICTs.

Gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but also a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world. There is no doubt that providing women and girls equal access to ICTs with their male counterparts will promote a holistic approach to economic and social development within communities.

A recent UN report says while there is recognition of the potential of ICTs as a tool for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women, a “gender divide” has also been identified, as reflected in the lower numbers of women accessing and using ICTs compared to men.

“Unless this gender gap is addressed, there is a risk that ICTs may exacerbate existing inequalities between women and men thereby creating new forms of inequalities. It is clear that the world could not eradicate poverty or create democratic and economically just societies if access to ICTs is not addressed,” read part of the report.

According to Intel’s report Women and the Web: “Men are twice more likely to have access to the Internet than women and on average across the developing world, nearly 25 percent fewer women than men have access to the Internet, and the gender gap soars to nearly 45 percent in sub-Saharan Africa.”

The gender divide in the use of the ICTs in sub-Saharan Africa has also seen a majority of women failing to access emerging opportunities, resources and information they can use to enhance their economic and social well being.

Gender and ICT experts in Zimbabwe say while there has been a lot of talk about the importance of ICTs in dissemination of information, little attention has been paid to address the digital gap between females and their male counterparts.

Bulawayo-based ICT consultant Mr Robert Ndlovu says the gender inequality that remains deeply entrenched in many African societies is also evident when it comes to accessing and using ICTs in Zimbabwe.

Without access to ICTs, Mr Ndlovu says women risk being left behind as agents of change and leaders in a rapidly changing global society.

“Many women and girls still do not have equal opportunities despite this being enshrined in the law. The girl child doesn’t seem to be part of the ICTs with the African society still relegating the woman mostly to care more about the kitchen, yet they are important tools for advancing gender equality, women and girl’s empowerment, and a more equitable and prosperous world,” said Mr Ndlovu.

“When women become technologically equipped, they can easily participate actively in the mainstream economy in those previously male dominated societies and thus enable them to pull themselves out of poverty. If this group is ignored, problems such as economic dependency, violence against women, and low self-esteem will continue in Africa.”

“We must ensure that women, as well as men, at all social levels and in all countries, can access and use such technology. Access to ICTs is also essential for women entrepreneurs in starting and growing a business and overcoming barriers they face,” he said.

There is no doubt that universal access to technology can be “game-changing” in improving the lives for women in Africa. Closing the digital gap has an effect of expanding opportunities for women, communities and nations at large.

“In a country where there is a growing skills base in the ICT sector, we need to get more girls involved in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics — the STEM subjects — and we need to get more girls taking an interest in ICT careers,” avers Mr Tendai Chamauya, a computers lecturer with a city college.

“But in a world dominated by modern ICT systems, bridging the gender digital divide in Zimbabwe will require much more than merely improving access to ICTs,” added Mr Chamauya.

It is clear that ICTs can allow grassroots women’s movements to organise public action and reach out across borders to mobilise international support.

Even the proposed draft ICT policy recognises gender mainstreaming as a strategy to ensure that concerns and experiences of both men and women are integrated into the design and implementation of ICT programmes so that all benefit equally.

As an advocacy method, ICTs can help empower African women to demand true reform that will bridge the gap between their legal rights and their enforcement. It gives women the opportunity to communicate their needs in their own ways, in real time and on a massive scale.

ICTs are widely believed to have the potential to spur development as well as disseminating developmental information regardless of distance. In Zimbabwe, ICTs are also viewed as critical to the attainment of various goals of the country’s economic blueprint, Zim-Asset.

UN Women’s regional director for East and Southern Africa, Dr Izeduwa Derex-Briggs described women as the centre to Africa’s development adding that access to ICTs would unlock a world of possibilities.

“Information drives technology, technology drives innovation, innovation is central to the development and growth of Africa. Therefore, putting women in technology puts women at the heart of Africa’s development,” she said at the inaugural African Summit on Women and Girls in Technology held September last year in Accra, Ghana.

Gender activist and director of ICT, E-Learning and Communication Strategies and Image Building in the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education, Mrs Vaidah Mashangwa says ICTs must be recognised as tools that support the empowerment of the girl child.

“Women are more affected than men in this constantly changing social, economic and cultural environment and it is high time they embraced ICTs especially in the rural areas. The lack of ICTs, among women in rural and urban areas limits their potential to access up to date material that can enhance their interaction with the outside world.

“When women have their own personalised communication devices, it permits privacy, enables enterprise and helps them to access basic services such as saving and banking money, discussing issues affecting them with other women through the Internet, WhatsApp and so on,” said Mrs Mashangwa.

While some women are fast catching up with technology and other new communication trends and are using them to their advantage, it has not been the case with the majority of women, particularly in the rural areas.

“When women use a cellphone or a computer, they feel safer and are more independent, hence the need to ensure women are part of this global reform.

For rural women, the ownership of cellphones also means they can receive money and send money through facilities such as EcoCash.

“Instead of travelling to the nearest town, they can actually cut transport costs by receiving money from their rural homes. Women should be part of this revolution if they are to benefit new knowledge of the various businesses they engage in,” she said.

In Zambia, ICTs are now being used in the fight against gender-based violence (GBV). Organisations combating violence against women have used social media to help raise awareness and educate members of the public about GBV. Access to social media is a particularly effective way to reach youth and mobilise them on a grassroots level in campaigns against GBV.

In countries such as South Africa, Tanzania, Pakistan and Bangladesh, technology is being used to advance women’s leadership and participation by creating online platforms for women across the globe, where they can connect and get information on how to run for office and get elected.

With Internet providers projecting the connection of one billion users — mostly from Africa — women need to claim their space and make use of ICTs to develop themselves.

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