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Women and ICT in Africa: A new digital gap

Mobile and internet technology can help African women become more financially independent.

Last updated: 23 May 2014 07:24
Rainatou Sow

Rainatou Sow is the founder and executive director of Make Every Woman Count.
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Nearly 45 percent fewer women than men have access to the Internet in sub-Saharan Africa [Reuters]

In the past two decades, there has been a lot of talk about the transformative power of technology in society, yet little attention has been paid to an emerging digital gap.

In its report, "Measuring the information Society 2013", the International Telecommunication Union estimated that by the end of 2013, 2.7bn people (40 percent of the world's inhabitants) were using the Internet.

However, men are twice more likely to have access to the Internet than women. According to Intel's report Women and the Web: "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 regions like sub-Saharan Africa."

Though Africa has recently seen rapid growth in Internet access, women are vastly underrepresented in technology. The rise of cybercafes has benefited men more than women because boys and men have more freedom of movement to get to the cafes and have more access to make and spend money at them.

Furthermore, there is a disturbing trend of cyberbullying experienced by young women. They also find it difficult to access technology because of cultural restrictions and their lower status in society. 

Because women face barries such as poverty, illiteracy, and discrimination when getting training and education, we are witnessing the rise of a second digital divide.

It is important to understand that technology and access to the Internet is essential to women's empowerment across the continent and it is key to overcoming these barriers in the first place.

A step towards equality

Gender inequality remains deeply entrenched in many African societies. Many women and girls still do not have equal opportunities despite this being enshrined in the law. Yet Information and communication technologies are important tools for advancing gender equality, women and girl's empowerment, and a more equitable and prosperous world.

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Becoming technologically skilled can play a major role in gettting jobs, being competitive in the job market and enable these women to pull themselves out of poverty.It is clear that if this group is ignored, problems such as economic dependency, violence against women, and low self-esteem will continue to be perpetuated.

Access to Information and Communications Technology (ICT) can be essential for women entrepreneurs in starting and growing a business and overcoming barriers they face. A recent project by the United Nations and the International Labour Organization helped women in Tanzania use ICT to develop businesses. Beneficiaries of the project have described how something as simple as owning a mobile phone can help promote a grocery business and attract more clients. Access to the Internet can help sell handicraft products abroad.  

In Zambia, ICT has been used in the fight against gender-based violence (GBV). Organisations combating violence against women have used social media to help raise awareness and educate 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.

ICT can also allow grassroots women's movements to organise public actions and reach out across borders to mobilise international support. Thus, thanks to the power of the Internet, a new wave of activism has emerged through social media. One recent case that illustrates this phenomenon is the international mobilisation around Boko Haram's kidnapping of school girls in Nigeria. Across the continent, women's groups mobilised on social media through the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls to campaign for the release of the schoolgirls.

ICT has been the focus of many empowerment organisations for women across the continent as well. At Make Every Woman Count (MEWC) we believe that ICT is essential not only for our organisation to monitor women's political empowerment. It is also an important tool to train women with so that they are able to access the political arena more easily.

As an advocacy method, ICT 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. Online technology also offers anonymity, which is absolutely essential when speaking out on sensitive issues might endanger a woman's safety. ICT is a limitless platform for women's grassroots organisations so they have a collective voice in public, thus enabling them to make their voices heard more clearly. 

Without access to ICT, women are at greater risk of being left behind as agents of change and leaders in a rapidly changing global society. We must ensure that women, as well as men, at all social levels and in all countries, can access and use such technology.

Girls and women must be supported in becoming technogolically competitive and they must gain proper understanding of how to use it safely and effectively. With Africa's growing youth population and increasing competition for jobs and other opportunities, addressing these issues is imperative in any effort to promote women's employability and financial independence.

Rainatou Sow will speak at the Africa Together conference on May 23 at Cambridge University. 

Rainatou Sow is the founder and executive director of Make Every Woman Count. She is an advocate of human rights, women's issues and social justice and has worked with several organisations such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM), World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, and PeaceWomen.

Follow Make Every Woman Count on Twitter: @MakeWomenCount

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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