The future is 'smart' but is it equal? African women’s digital agency

As mobile and smartphone use expands across Africa, Fatimah Kelleher asks what role African women play in digital futures, and how we build a more egalitarian digital present where African women can fully use and become more active in technological innovation.

Fatimah Kelleher
6 May 2013

Africa’s move towards smartphones and mobile applications (apps) will usher in an age of more sophisticated digital data and content sharing.  Predictions that 69%  of mobiles  in Africa will have internet access by 2014 are being underpinned by a drive down in retail prices, which some analysts suggest gives the region more growth potential than any other.  However, it is also acknowledged that economic realities will keep mobiles out of reach for the masses for some time, while entrance into an age of more sophisticated digital data and content sharing will require a much needed education and skills impetus.  So what does this mean for African women and how do existing gender inequalities interact at various levels?   If this new phase of mobile technology represents a gear change in an individual’s opportunity for digital agency, what are the considerations at stake here for the majority of African women?

Proliferation of the mobile phone in Africa over the last decade has arguably contributed to polarised images being generated at a time when the continent’s infrastructural and social development challenges have been under the Millenium Development Goal spotlight.  On the one hand, there is the persistent visualization of an impoverished ‘dollar a day’ rural African with no access to anything much; and on the other the image of a comfortable and enabled Tech Pioneer blogging out of Nairobi, Lagos and Cape Town on everything from recent elections to the latest fashions.  In truth, the successful proliferation of mobile networks and  available handsets has led to many Africans today living in what could be described as a paradoxical modernity. Handset-wielding citizens connect by satellite over significant distances whilst still struggling without the basic facilitation of regular energy, clean water, a decent income, and other essentials.

It is perhaps this paradoxical modernity that has made the digital movements occurring within Africa exciting nonetheless – the potential leaps  in innovation are staggering, and hopes for a technologically egalitarian future have understandably been generated.  However, as Africa now moves towards further bridging the global “digital divide” by opening up the market for smartphone take-up, persistent sub-national digital divisions - such as rural / urban - that prohibit wider engagement with the internet, need to be addressed urgently. 

Enabling agency or mirroring inequalities?  In anticipation of the smartphone

Women and girls in particular continue to experience some of the starkest inequalities in terms of access and participation – the internet access gender gap for Sub-Saharan Africa stands at nearly 45%. The right to digital agency for many women – the opportunity and process of engaging individually and/or collectively through the ascendant tools of a digital information-led society – has subsequently been limited.  This reality was summarised by Carolyn Humbaba of the African Women’s Communication and Development Network (FEMNET) in her paper, “Women and ICTs in Africa”:

“Despite the revolutionary progress made in Africa in the ICT sector, ICT accessibility for women in Africa is still a big challenge. The majority of women in Africa still live in poverty making access to ICTs such as the Internet, and mobile short text messaging (SMS) a matter of hard choice. Due to financial constraints and limited economic power, most African women face the dilemma of choosing whether to spend their money on use of ICTs or to buy food for their families and meet other very basic needs of survival. The unequal power relations between men and women that contribute to differential access, participation and treatment of men and women in the Information Society is in most cases over looked in the various interventions that have been made over the years.”

Among educated urban women, the visibility of some key women players in the tech world has indeed started.  From the creative impetus of Jepchumba, Kenyan digital media artist and founder of the African Digital Art Community, to the entrepreneurial savvy of Nkemidilim Uwaje, CEO of Futuresoft Nigeria, some individual African women are gaining much needed recognition in the industry and helping to chip away at patriarchal assumptions of women’s inability to engage and lead within this sector. However, even in light of these successes, a cautionary note from Mary Olushoga of the African Women Power Network highlighted that African women - including techpreneurs - are still lagging behind, particularly given the overall much lower levels of women in technology hubs, dedicated ICT institutes and further education.

Of course, the fact that technology is a male dominated industry is not just an African issue, with countries in the global north also struggling to get more women shaping the digital age.  But such disparities bring us to the far larger and more pressing challenges faced by women who suffer from both gender inequalities and income and class inequities.  For Africa, where the divide for most women runs not just along gender lines but is also crossed with poverty  in the context of a growing wealth gap, the impetus for ensuring that women from all parts of society are able to access new developments in the continent’s digital progress remains paramount.

Despite the gains made in enrolment numbers over the last decade, UN figures show that in 47 out of 54 African countries, less than 50% of girls have a chance of completing primary school. Early drop-out and poorer learning outcomes means that female adult illiteracy and innumeracy remains a major challenge, and this is at a time when the system is struggling with garnering the right levels of educational investment.  As a result, the move towards more sophisticated digital content devices and services – especially in light of the English language dominance of much of that data – could widen the existing chasm between the “plugged-in” and those without access.

Women as innovators and creators, not just consumers

Basic mobile phone uptake has already started stimulating myriad ways of empowering women - from the purely individual agency of a Nigerian female cross-border trader communicating with her distributors in Cameroon, to the targeted initiative of the Kenyan M-Pesa banking model aimed at providing greater financial access and control.  Indeed, economic empowerment has been a key goal of  engaging women through mobile telephony, and this has had some degree of success within Africa.  Today, however, the Global Information Technology Report 2013 highlights that the innovations with the greatest impact will move from telephony to the mobile internet, and as such the need for women’s increased skills and capacity to engage with devices like the smartphone as more than passive consumers of digital information has become essential. 

Mobile network operators and their partners are certainly already savvy to benefits of creating a base of mobile women (mWomen), but as the nature of content consumption and sharing on the mobile internet has already become increasingly iterative, the move towards engaging more women as content innovators, creators, disseminators and influencers is now at hand.  It’s a compelling idea, but also rings alarm bells, not just in light of women’s lack of access to the devices themselves, but also in view of the challenge for many women of  engaging fully and confidently with the content.

What can be done to ensure that a larger constituency of African women become more active participants, if not leaders, in digital futures? Mobile technologies that address the challenges being faced by the education system itself, such as training female teachers in rural locations, have been advocated for some time and are one area of development that needs greater leveraging.  Addressing the gender stereotyping of technology as a boy's domain is also key. More broadly, as smartphone uptake is likely to also be linked to the development of locally relevant and contextually desirable app ("affrinovation") it is clear that the specific needs of women as girls as future creators within the digital sphere, and not just consumers, need to be in the mind of Africa’s budding appsters. 

A further important consideration of women’s digital agency and smartphone use is the role of the Internet in both promoting and combating gender-based harassment and abuse.   In 2010, the Because I am Girl Report on digital and urban frontiers by Plan International noted that for the most part, many women have found that having a mobile phone has led to them feeling safer.  However, women and girls – adolescents in particular – have become increasingly vulnerable to various forms of online abuse and sexual exploitation as ICT uptake has increased across the world.   The spectrum of potential abuse is broad and includes simply being able to access degrading and exploitative pictures of women on the one hand, to cyber-bullying, spousal manipulation, and online grooming for sexual trafficking.  But if addressed proactively,  access and participation in cyberspace also offers African women an opportunity to tackle these issues.  Innovations such as Take back the Tech! to end violence against women project in Uganda, a national initiative linked to the global campaign run by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC)  is one example of how this is being done.

Ultimately, sophisticated data content devices becoming the norm should ideally lead to the facilitation of each woman’s individual ability to safely and autonomously tap into a digital movement, business opportunity, service, or discussion.  The potential for women who have previously struggled with being heard, both regionally and globally, is already demonstrated through such examples as the growing voice of female Muslim social media activists in Africa, and the collective activism of an organisation like Shukumisa in South Africa, pooling online resources for rape survivors and their families.  Previously disenfranchised women, whether in groups or as individuals, defining and outwardly articulating themselves within new and larger social spaces, is essential if African women are to equitably create their own histories within the growing clouds of data being created in cyberspace. 

But this is a dream that will not be realised without recognition of how pervasive women’s current inequality is at present.  Digital advancements within the continent can play a major role, but alone they will not empower women.  Other sectors must also do their work (independently and in collaboration with the digital sector) to legally facilitate their rights, provide quality education, employment and the provision of key services that will enable them to participate as equal citizens within the continent.  As the smartphone is warmly welcomed into Africa in the coming years, let’s ensure that the digital future does not sideline the majority of women’s needs to effectively utilise the technology, lest that lead to reproduction and a further entrenchment of current inequalities.

Read more articles on Our Africa - women analysing a changing land

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