Claudine, 30, lives in Kigeme, a small, last-mile village in rural Rwanda. Like many families n the region, she and her husband and 3 kids have a small farm where they grow beans and cassava. Claudine’s husband has a smartphone he uses mainly to listen to music and go on Facebook. Since the family’s farm grew in recent years, they could afford the device alongside the monthly data packages. She never even thought about purchasing her own smartphone and using the same old device she has had for a few years now. “I am not sure what I can use it for,” she says when discussing the possibility of having internet access. “It might cause problems in my house if I get messages from people I do not know.”
Claudine’s story represents two things; the first is the digital divide, and the second is its less known cousin, the digital gender gap. In its most basic form, the digital divide indicates a binary division of people into the connected and the unconnected, referring simply to the inequalities of technological access and use. The digital gender gap speaks to many of the same aspects of the digital divide but measures them by gender, being just one aspect of a broader system of discrimination that limits women’s and girls’ potential to participate in society. The gender aspect refers to a gap in digital skills and use of digital tools, participation in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, and a gap in tech sector leadership and entrepreneurship.
The digital divide is a technological problem, while the digital gender gap is human-centered.
But the problem is not only social. This exclusion has cost low-income countries $1tn (£730bn) over the past decade (In 2020, the loss to GDP was $126 billion). It could mean an additional loss of $500bn by 2025 if governments don’t take action, according to new research by the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI).
Africa’s digital gender gap is the worst in the world
By the latest estimates from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), most women in the world have never used the Internet. It is estimated that, in 2019, 55% of men in the world had used the Internet while only 48% of women had. 7% does not sound like a lot, right? But it actually represents 303 million people – almost the population size of the U.S.
The gap soars to terrifying heights in the Least Developed Countries (LDCs). According to GSMA, a mobile operators organization, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia had the most significant digital gender gaps in 2020, standing at 37% and 36%, respectively. But the difference between the two regions is substantial – South Asia’s gap dropped from a whopping 67% in 2017, while SSA’s gap remained untouched. Circling back to Claudines’s story, there are multiple reasons for women and girls being excluded from the digital world across the region.
Affordability is at the top, as the cost of connectivity keeps African women offline, as smartphone prices and high data tariffs exclude hundreds of millions of all genders.
But the gender pay gaps make the affordability problem worse for women. In a 2021 survey of device costs in 187 countries worldwide, the cheapest new smartphone cost an average of $104, and in SSA, that equals roughly 89% of a monthly salary. Women in the region earn around 70 cents for every dollar earned by men, and by that ratio, if a man could pay for a smartphone on one month’s wages, a woman would need to work an extra ten days to afford the same device.
Security is another influential factor, and women, generally and more particularly in SSA, have higher fears around online privacy and safety. The A4AI reported that in their focus groups in Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria, women remarked on the fear of being manipulated or targeted because of what they posted on social media, saying they felt the Internet was not a safe place for women and girls.
Finally, educational gaps keep women everywhere offline. Sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest level of adult female literacy (57 percent), and this gap definitely replicates itself into the digital world. Differences in mean years of schooling also copy into lower access to digital skill-building in an educational context. Educational disadvantages against girls become digital divides for women.
It is a complex, troubling reality that gendered social norms are not changing nearly as fast as technology.
Establishing a new digital reality must include the gender aspect
The A4AI’s financial findings show the opportunity that exists for governments willing to take action. With Covid-19 leading governments across Africa to change their perspectives of the digital world, viewing it as a new, robust source of economic growth, the investment must be inclusive and include programs, policies, and infrastructure that bridge the gender gap and allow women to come online.
And infrastructure is not the only angle. Efforts must address the economic, technical, and, most critically, social barriers of digital exclusion.
Multiple global initiatives aim to bridge the gap, and one, in particular, caught my eye. The REACT framework, developed by the World Wide Web Foundation, defines five core pillars that provide policymakers a holistic way to develop policy to promote women’s inclusion. Rights, Education, Access, Content, and Targets. According to the framework, an effective broadband strategy must include freedom of speech and privacy, digital skills early on, high affordability, useful content relevant for women, and purposeful targets that set a clear path for cross-gender digital inclusion. This comprehensive approach touches many pain points of the digital gender gap and could help governments across Africa set needed policies for change.
A lot of countries in the continent have digital policies, striving to reach full access in the coming decade, and many giant companies, including Facebook, Amazon, and Starlink, are already involved in establishing better infrastructure across the continent. But a digital economy without the full participation of women cannot scale to reach its full potential. Leaders and businesses must understand that digital inclusion is not only a good policy; it’s good economics.
Some African countries are already focusing on the gender perspectives of the digital gap. Botswana’s national broadband strategy includes gendered targets for smartphone access, digital literacy, and ICT graduates. Rwanda’s new Digital Acceleration Project will support the government to expand digital access and adoption by spearheading a series of innovative digital access and inclusion initiatives, with targets for girls and women). Also, half of the government-backed Digital Ambassadors program positions are reserved for women to be advocates within their communities and networks to encourage other women and girls to come online.
With access to the Internet and skills to use digital technologies, girls and women gain opportunities to start new businesses, sell products in new markets, and find better-paid jobs. They can pursue quality education and use health and financial services. Finally, they can participate more fully in their societies.
The writer is an entrepreneur and investor,leading sustainability-driven companies in Africa and the Middle East