Walking the Talk: Feminist research to understand the African gendered digital divide

By Chenai Chair

 “It is not easy for a girl to leave home and purposely go, maybe, to a cybercafé to access the Internet. This is because girls have responsibilities like household chores well…[some] girls are also not interested in the Internet, and some choose to stay home, and those who have some interest don’t put in effort to convince their parents about the importance of using the Internet.”- Young adult urban female Rwanda (After Access: Youth, Deprivation and the Internet

Gendered digital inequality research

Gendered insights on mobile ownership and internet use in 10 African countries; After Access 2018

Over the past five years, my journey into information and communication (ICT) policy research has made challenges pertaining to women and men’s levels of Internet access abundantly clear to me. Research ICT Africa, as part of a broader ‘2017 After Access Household and Individual Survey’ on challenges of digital inclusion in the global South, found that Rwanda has the lowest Internet penetration (9%) of ten African countries surveyed, and an enormous gender gap (62%) in Internet use. This gap is, interestingly, very much in line with the gender gaps seen in India (56%) and Bangladesh (62%). Although least developed countries generally have lower Internet penetration rates, and high gender gaps than some of the more developed economies in Africa (like South Africa, which only has a 12% gender gap), Rwanda’s gap is much higher than other least developed economies surveyed (cite the gap). In Tanzania, the Internet gender gap is only half that of Rwanda, at 32%.

While the numbers measure the male/female sex gap in Internet use, gender is more complex than the numbers. We therefore can’t just talk about sex and numbers here. Power dynamics, sex and sexuality, cultural and social norms, race, ethnicity, location, income and level of education are all factors which make gendered digital inequality a complex issue. The issues therefore extend beyond the numbers, although this is more difficult to measure.

Policy challenges?

The reasons for these gendered challenges are clearly beyond sex and numbers, but what else could it be? Does policy failure play a role?

While in some places, policy is problematic, in others, policy has little bearing on gendered digital divides. Rwanda, for example, has the largest digital gender gap. This seems rather contradictory given the fact that the Rwanda Government has a policy commitment of promoting gender equality and digital inclusion.Gender equality is enshrined at a constitutional level in the country, women have the same rights to inherit land as men, and girls are equally likely to attend schools as boys. In relation to its digital readiness, policies and infrastructure interventions indicate the regulatory and policy environment has been developed in order to ensure uptake of the Internet for women and men alike. Yet the gender gaps stands at 62% between women and men.

How do we understand this apparent policy paradox? I think we need a new approach, a new methodology.

Feminist methodology to the rescue?

At the Internet Freedom Festival in Spain 2019 and at the Data, Technology and Gender gap session at RightsCon 2019, I spoke about feminist methodology as an approach to understanding the gendered digital divide. Feminism allows for a critique of power relations and enables us to question assumptions of what can be known, who can know and the nature of knowledge itself as we understake research.

The Feminist principles of the Internet,which were developed collectively by feminists working in the space, “offer a gender and sexual rights lens on critical internet related rights”. It prompts researchers to move away from siloed work – moving from knowledge extractors to co-knowledge production with the communities whose challenges we seek to address through research and policy.

So through funding fairies in the form of the Feminist Internet Research Network (FIRN), Research ICT Africa will be walking the walk and taking on  An intersectional feminist approach to gender disparity within Internet use in Rwanda. Through a feminist lens (encapsulating feminist research and conceptualisation), we aim to critically understand gender disparities in Internet access and use from the point of policy in places and lived experiences of access and use in broader, social, economic and political contexts. A feminist approach to Internet research provides us with an approach to critical gender policy development and implementation while enabling us to understand the lived reality of men and women impacting on access, as well as the interventions required to address gender disparity by different stakeholders together with policy interventions. The issue of access requires an intersectional and feminist approach that problematises the impact of access to ICTs – that it does not necessary result in a positive and empowering change.

The theoretical underpinning we have opted for, draws from intersectionality (as posited by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw). An intersectional conceptual framework may be used to better understand how policy “constructs citizens relative to power and privileges with regard to their status, health and wellbeing” (Crenshaw 1989 in Tandon, 2018; 12) .Our methodological framework draws from a mixed methods approach underpinned by feminist values in ethics, data collection and analysis. The mixed methods approach will draw on quantitative and qualitative data.

In sum

While the young woman at the start of this piece is unable to go to an Internet café to access the Internet because of household chores, assumed lack of interest and needing permission to go use the Internet, there is need to understand the social and cultural issues at play. Our hope with this research is that by taking on a feminist approach we may  go beyond sex and numbers to understanding the gendered digital divide in internet access and use. Wish us luck!!