Gender and Internet Governance in Africa

Chenai Chair
26 Oct 2015

Speaking points from African Internet Governance Forum 2015 in Addis Ababa

Session on Internet and Human Rights

As a researcher selected to participate in the gender and Internet governance exchange, what quickly became clear was the near absence of a gender perspective in Internet governance forums. The lack of this perspective is likely affect outcomes and recommendations around content, access and human rights online. The following talking points highlight work that has been done by the Association for Progressive Communications on gender and Internet governance issues. My presentation also highlights issues of sex and gender differences in access to information and communication technology (ICT) and in their use identified by Research ICT Africa.

Online Violence Against Women

Violence against women and girls online – such as cyberstalking, cyberbullying, harassment and misogynist speech – limits their ability to take advantage of the opportunities provided by ICTs for the full realisation of women’s human rights. Just as violence is used to silence, control and keep women out of public spaces offline, women and girls’ experiences online reflect the same pattern. Reports of harassment, intimidation, and invasions of the privacy of women human rights defenders, women politicians and other women in public positions are increasing. Similarly, for less visible women who use the Internet to build communities, socialise and access information, their online interactions are increasingly marked by violence.

The tactics employed to silence women and keep out of the public spaces are familiar. They include attacks on their sexuality, exposing personal information, and, in the digital age, the manipulation of images that are then used for blackmail and destroying their credibility. The consequence of this is that women and girls self-censor, reduce participation or withdraw from platforms and technology they are using all together. In addition, the normalisation of violent behaviour and the culture that tolerates violence against women that social media perpetuates and facilitates at rapid speed works to reinforce sexist and violent attitudes, and contribute to norms and behaviour that makes online spaces hostile towards women.

See: for a list of all the research outputs. ‘Good questions on technology-related violence’ provides a good summary of the overall research.

State censorship of content on sexual and reproductive health and rights

Concerns about gender and sexuality are often at the heart of public debates around the need to limit the rights to freedom of expression, information and privacy on the Internet. In many different contexts, the preservation of gender norms and order is used as a pretext to mobilise state and non-state actors to call for restrictions on access to the Internet, and the control and elimination of specific content that is viewed as against traditional values, particularly related to the family and women’s roles.

While the Internet has become a significant site for sex and sexuality education and provides important access to information on a range of topics such as HIV/AIDS, contraception, abortion and right to choose for women and girls, sexual pleasure and sexual health for women and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, there is a trend among certain states to censor content on sexual and reproductive health rights.

Censoring this content significantly limits women and girls’ rights and evolving capacity to exercise agency and decision-making about a critical component of their development. For vulnerable or marginalised groups in particular, who have no other way of accessing this information, censorship serves to further limit their ability to exercise other rights that access to the Internet enables. Decisions on what content to censor are often framed within a protectionist approach that does not recognise women’s agency or the critical role that the Internet has in enabling a range of rights.

Countering stereotypes and prejudice

The right to freedom of information and expression play a key role in countering negative stereotypes that perpetuate prejudice and discrimination. The Internet has created a space for the expression of diverse experiences, needs and priorities, by democratising information dissemination and journalism and overcoming the traditional gatekeeping role of the media and public institutions. Through relatively cheaper and easier ways to collect, publish and share information to a potentially much broader audience, different discourses are able to proliferate and norms that discriminate against or silence marginalised sections of society can be challenged and dismantled. For example the social media tag used by Kenyans on twitter #SomeonetellCNN broke a stereotype of Kenya being a terrorist hotbed. It provides an environment where people with shared interests and concerns are able to overcome geographical and other limitations to come together and share ideas, provide mutual support, exchange information and organise for change.

Access to ICTs empowers women and girls to overcome their historical exclusion, and create narratives that challenge traditional norms and roles. Women, girls and the LBTI community have turned to blogging platforms and social media as a way to produce different kinds of representations and narratives of their diverse realities and lives, and to ensure that previously marginalised or invisible experiences are heard, seen and taken into account in this public sphere. One can find such platforms in the following sites: gender.IT, and

Issues of access

While access to ICTs in terms of gender has either described a digital divide between women and men’s access to ICTs, there are issues beyond ICTs that impact on issues of access. RIA research conducted by Deen-Swarray, Gillwald and Morrell (2014) ‘Lifting the veil on ICT gender indicators in Africa’ points out that income and education are the primary factors impact on access and use. So men and women of similar income and education levels have similar access and use of the Internet. The differences that arise from the descriptive statistics that should inequity between men and women reflects that fact that women are concentrated in the lower income and educations segments of the economy. ICTs aimed at improving the wellbeing of those at the base of pyramid will therefore not only improve equality of access and use more generally but specifically for women.

The conceptual framework of inclusivity and exclusivity developed in the paper provides a gendered lens through which to analyse the 2012 ICT access and use survey data from 12 African countries. “The descriptive findings show that women generally have less access to ICTs than men and this increases as the technologies and services become more sophisticated and expensive, requiring greater levels of income and education to access and to operate. An analysis of the data demonstrates, however, that the reason for this relates to the fact that women are more concentrated among lower income groups, at lower education levels and in rural areas, or – stated more generally – at the base of the pyramid. Where there is greater equality between men and women as reflected in education and income, there is generally greater ICT access and more equitable use.” Therefore interrogating gender highlights issues beyond ICT access that need to be addressed with different strategies that are not simply focused on connecting women.

How do we get more young people on board with these discussion given that most of these panels today had older people on them?

It goes two ways. There are opportunities for youth to participate if they seek them out-young scholar programmes such as those conducted by Research ICT Africa, Africa School of Internet Governance and Gender and Internet Governance exchange schools that had a high number of young people involved training future leaders in communications policy and internet governance. Janine Moolman from APC gave me an opportunity to speak on issues affecting gender as a young person, thus building my capacities. At the same time, there is need for governments to identify potential of those within their communities and groom them, not only within ‘women’s forums’ and girls programmes for example but in the development and participation of young women in mainstream activities. There are some states with youth parliaments; perhaps they can use those platforms to increase youth participation.

On the issue of censorship for state security or protection of children against human rights such as freedom of needs on internet governance, how can we form an oversight so that a balance is struck between the two?

Civil society needs to actively hold government accountable where it realises rights are being sacrificed for the assumed greater good. There needs to be mechanisms in place to hold policy makers accountable but accountability will only work if governments are willing to come to the table and listen to their constituents.

How do we translate principles into practice?

While there are policy frameworks to address both human and gender rights in most African countries, implementation at regional and national levels still lacks. Translating principles into practice needs to be an individual’s responsibility where one needs to be aware and accountable for the violation of rights of others. As online rights issues stem from an intolerance offline, translating policy into practice will require the a process of educating users of their rights and rights of others online

This was first published on NGOpulse