During the 17th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the General Assembly recognised the importance of the internet to the promotion and protection of human, civil, economic, social, and cultural rights including the right to development. The Special Rapporteur underscored that access to the internet facilitates not just the enjoyment of several individual rights but also the progress of society as a whole. Beyond expression, the internet facilitates communication and the exchange of information. It allows people to carry out business transactions to enable income generation as well as learn new skills. 

Understanding the Digital Divide

The digital divide refers to gaps between demographics that have access to the internet and ones that do not. The digital divide is accentuated by and socio-economic and cultural inequalities that distribute benefits and burdens unequally.

Africa has an internet penetration rate of just 39.8%, whereas the rate among the rest of the world is 60.9%. Access to and benefits from information and communication technologies (ICTs) in Africa are constrained by limited technical infrastructure. Although Africa has seen considerable growth in the connectivity industry, its late entry to the connectivity race still leaves the continent with the highest connectivity costs in the world. The cost of access and a lack of computer literacy and language skills add to the constraining factors that slow the rate at which the digital divide separating Africans from the rest of the world closes.

These constraints are exacerbated by offline inequalities with gender-based determinants that disproportionately affect women globally, such as income, economic freedom, access to technology, education, and cultural norms. There is also a gendered disparity against women in the content available and user behaviour on the internet that make it a male-oriented space. These inequalities transpose offline gender inequality into the digital space identifiable as the digital gender divide.

The Digital Gender Divide in Africa

African women find themselves at the intersection of two demographics adversely affected by the digital divide: Africans and women.

Although major strides have been made in the promotion of women’s rights, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)—the UN Agency that oversees communication—noted that the proportion of women using the internet “is a quarter less than the proportion of men using the internet in Africa.” To date, Africa remains the only continent whose gender digital divide has been widening since 2013

Globally, women make up a majority of the world’s poor, but the black African woman is disproportionately more affected by poverty than any other group. This narrower group tends to lack access to STEM skills to further any aspect of their personal, social or economic goals.

Africa’s digital gender divide results from and reinforces systemic gender inequalities driving the discrimination and socioeconomic and sociocultural exclusion of women.

A lack of access inevitably results in diminished participation in ICTs by women. Women in the ICT industry constitute only 28% of professionals in the sector worldwide, and slightly above the norm is Sub-Saharan Africa at 30%. Surprisingly, sub-Saharan Africa presents the world’s highest rate of women entrepreneurs, at 27%. Thankfully, though, two African countries—Uganda at 34.8% and Botswana at 34.6%—have the highest percentage of women entrepreneurs globally. Despite this, these ventures have little expectation of growth and expansion. The challenge attributed to this is the limited access to technology to improve their daily operations. Nearly 90% of companies nowadays require the input of technology to successfully expand, with the digital gender gap boding poorly for the inclusion of African women in digitalisation and expansion efforts. Without equitable access to digital technology, Africa’s women are less able to benefit from the poverty-alleviating boosts to education, job opportunities, civic participation, and entrepreneurship that the internet affords.

The World Economic Forum, calculating based on observed progress in achieving digital gender parity, estimated that the overall digital gender gap in sub-Sahara Africa will close in approximately 135 years. Africa has been undergoing a process of rapid digitalisation and increased access to and use of the internet, thanks in large part to the proliferation of affordable smartphones. Mobile phone connections serve as the only mode of internet access for many in low-and-middle-income countries (LMICs)—most of which are African. This is especially true among women who, according to a study by GSMA, are 10% less likely to own mobile phones and 23% less likely to use mobile internet. The tragedy in this for LMICs—is that:

  1. Closing the gender gap in the mobile internet usage could add up to $700 billion in GDP growth in these countries over the next 5 years;
  2. Closing the gender gap in mobile usage and ownership could generate an estimated additional $140 billion in revenue to the mobile industry over the next 5 years.

Efforts towards digital inclusion in Africa, then, should be particularly sensitive of the peculiar inequities that affect women. This way, we can promote the empowerment of women while at the same time improving the overall lack of access and use of ICTs in Africa. This is a worthwhile pursuit for Africa as inclusivity in the digital economy is lauded for its power to multiply its benefits and value. It goes beyond empowering the privileged and aims to diversify the demographic engaging and benefitting from advancements. It is not productive to exclude a large part of the population because of their gender, socio-economic status, or any other characteristic.

Because women have proven to be as capable men in tech-driven industries—and can play an important role in uplifting their continent—an important question is how do women grow into an environment that is male-dominated and what factors will elevate women in this sector?

Bridging Africa’s Digital Gender Divide

The success of Africa’s digital economy stands to gain from the inclusion as partners in the development of the continent’s ICT ecosystem. Improving digital access among Africa’s women and girls starts with education. Both for women—from a young age and throughout their careers—and for the communities that surround them.

Strategically encouraging digital literacy in women would reduce the gender gap while equipping them with more skills that augment their personal growth and ability to work. Aside from acquiring technical skills relevant to the modern economy, increased familiarity with the internet allows women to gain education, access employment opportunities, and venture into the digital economy as entrepreneurs. The government, private sector and civil society need to invest in STEM and digital skills training for women and girls.

Mentorship, from a young age and through career transitions, is a proven approach to nurturing people towards success. Digital literacy and mentoring initiatives by organisations such as UN Women help equalise educational opportunities for girls and young women. Incredible initiatives within the African Continent such as Hernovation by Laura Chite, Pwani Teknowgalz by Ruth Kaveke, and Akirachix seek to develop skills such as web development, programming and robotics for young women. Such programmes allow women to enhance their digital competency and also serve as support networks that help African women in digital spaces grow to inspire other women.

Technology itself is a means to further include women in the digital realm. By establishing more online digital platforms which provide easier access to information, finance and markets to women, this new digital space can open up tremendous opportunities towards contributing to the digital economy. See for example the UN Women “Buy from Women” Innovative Platform in Rwanda.

Lastly and most importantly is to leverage the power that the dominant players in the digital space possess. Active commitment from men is required to take a stand towards ending the discrimination women face in this sector. Through the HeForShe global solidarity movement at the 2019 Transform Africa Summit, UN Women sensitised men on gender inequalities and emphasised the role that they need to play to combat this discrimination. Educating the wider public helps make digital spaces conducive for the successful integration of women.

All members of society need to take action to foster inclusivity. There needs to be consistent and strategic data collection that creates awareness of the gap in the digital divide. Information is key in catalysing the behavioural change needed to transform the digital divide. The understanding that African women are an ignored source of potential value to the digital economy is a catalyst for increasing efforts that include them in ICT initiatives. It is a reminder that, if we want to move Africa forward, we cannot afford to leave African women behind.