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The digital gender gap is still rife in Africa and women are 50% less likely to use the Internet for the kind of transformative exercises that men use it for, things like looking for work and online learning courses. This was one of the key takeaways from an interview with Onica Makwakwa who is the head of Africa at the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI).

Ahead of Africa Tech Festival, we caught up with Makwakwa to discuss how to make sure African women are not left behind in the digital revolution.

You have managed and pioneered various national and international campaigns and policy change processes for women's rights, civil rights, consumer rights, media and digital transformation initiatives, what inspires you to do the work you do?

Onica Makwakwa (OM): Globally we're in this digital revolution, so it's important for me to make sure that we don't leave anyone behind. The reasons for leaving people behind could be anywhere from lack of affordability, access, as well as just lack of relevant content for people to be online. So, for me it's about recognizing that access to the Internet has the potential to help people transform their lives.

Unfortunately, you will find that a little over half of the world is online right now, in Africa we're around 40% or so. The people who are currently offline are the ones who probably need the connectivity the most from a transformational point of view – be it access to information about health, education, means of communication. So the question is how do we begin to close those gaps to make sure that we are truly connecting the unconnected, but also connecting them to an Internet that is meaningful, for them to be able to use it to help transform their lives?

Is there correlation between connectivity and gender?

OM: The digital gender gap is quite troubling. It's important for us to recognize that it's not necessarily unique. We are importing the same disparities that we have in society to the online platforms, yet online we have an opportunity to really close those gaps. When you look at the current statistics, women are 50% less likely to use the Internet for the kind of transformative exercises that men use it for – looking for work, learning courses, etc.

Because the Internet remains unaffordable in Africa, it also means that women are disparately impacted since they for the most part have to worry about bread and butter issues. It's a choice between paying school fees, feeding their children, or buying data for their phones.

And on the flip side, "women's issues" like gender-based violence can be enhanced by the Internet.

OM: Absolutely, three main things keep women offline: One is affordability. The second is the lack of adequate digital skills for us to utilize the Internet beyond just social media. The third is online gender-based violence. One of the things about the digital gender gap is that the offline disparities also come online. Quite a number of women experience violence online so may opt out of being in online spaces.

We are also seeing a shrinking space for women's voices online. When you look at content moderation on social media, when women are bullied, that content is not moderated, so the women de-platform themselves. However, when women fight back the bullying online, the platform has content moderation and they begin to censor our voices and take out our posts.

In South Africa, women started a movement called #menaretrash as a way to highlight and show examples of trashy behavior exhibited by men online. Today, if you typed #menaretrash on this social platform, you will be censored. Your post will be taken down and you might even be locked out for up to 30 days.

We would like to see this active content moderation when women are being body-shamed, where women are being slut-shamed, when women are being violated in the online spaces. We still have a long way to go, but online gender-based violence is quite troubling because it means that it also has the potential of further widening the digital gender gap where women do not have a safe space to express themselves.

So, education is not only about helping women get online, it's also teaching men how to build safe spaces and unfortunately teaching women how to protect themselves online?

OM: Yes, I absolutely love what you said, teaching the young men, because I think we focus a lot on censoring women. Exactly the path that we need to take online is to educate on the code of conduct that we all accept for being online, so that we are creating safe spaces for everyone.

We don't want a gendered Internet, but we want an Internet that has gender equality, where we can all exist, and learn, and thrive together.

Is the process of connecting the unconnected quite gendered in itself?

OM: Yes, the majority of the people who are not connected right now are actually women. One of the things that the World Wide Web Foundation does is conduct national gender scorecards on a few countries in the global south. And there was a time, I think two, three years ago, where that gap was actually widening, largely because women were just opting out of being in this space that is violent and unsafe for them.

I think now when you add the complexity of human trafficking, it makes it even more important for us to fight for an Internet that is safe, that is open, that is accessible, and that is affordable for everyone. We're still not getting equal pay, so naturally when things are skewed on the affordability side, we have a greater impact in terms of how we're able to enjoy that facility or not.

Do you think there needs to be more financial support for women?

OM: Well, we need to mainstream gender in ICT policy. We have a program that we actually do training on this, a workshop on this, mainstreaming gender in ICT policies. That includes fiscal policies. It's okay to have a gendered budget because the whole point of you rolling out universal access is to close the gaps, so it actually makes sense for you to spend more in the areas where the gap is wider than in the areas where the gap is not as wide.

Having an approach that's gendered in its lens in terms of planning and developing policies for ICT is really important. All of the countries that we deal with have Universal Service and Access Funds. At the moment, the Universal Service and Access Funds in Africa, I would say, are not as well utilized as they could be.

They are an untapped resource to close the digital gender gap, because they're actually about connecting those who are on the fringes, and women right now are on the fringes in terms of the people that we still need to connect.

Focusing on content development could be a really great opportunity for women to get on the creation side of the Internet as opposed to just consumption, improving digital skills, as well as subsidizing public access. There is nothing in the rules around Universal Service and Access Funds that says they should only be used strictly for deploying infrastructure, in fact there are good examples from other countries and regions on how they've also been utilized for offering public access, to subsidize devices and develop digital skills.

What are the most exciting developments at the moment?

OM: So I think for me, the exciting thing that has happened, and I know it's happened in the middle of what we consider a crisis, is that we have a great opportunity because COVID-19 has actually shown us that we need the Internet for survival – it is no longer a luxury. That to me presents a really great opportunity that we need to have different conversations around how we are committing to connect everyone.

The Internet is no longer a luxury, but a public necessity that now needs to be deployed and regulated similarly to electricity and water.

It's really a paradigm shift where we begin to recognize that this is something that every member of society, regardless of their ability to pay, needs to have access, but that's difficult because it's also about pricing and profits.

So, we need to have a conversation around the ethics of profits at some point with regards to this. You have the Universal Service and Access Funds that are meant to make sure that even where it's not profitable, operators can still get to those points, but how do we make sure that actually happens?

Also, I feel like we have not built enough demand for getting everyone online. I often ask, so you want my grandmother to get online to do what? She's not going to get online and read in English.

Content development is really important, and we have not done well to develop and fund and really celebrate content that's developed locally, that is relevant and in local languages. So how do we really begin to have a mindset that also looks at decolonizing the Internet so that the content is also very relevant to the local people that must utilize it online?

We need to really look at that as it's an opportunity for entrepreneurs, it's an opportunity for celebrating innovation for preserving culture, an opportunity for Africans to not just consume online but to be creators and earn online as well. It's a big part of this desire for a vibrant digital economy.

What do you think the biggest challenges are going to be over the next five years around young people and digital literacy?

OM: There needs to be a whole shift in how we are training teachers, in also re-skilling current teachers, because you have to utilize this existing workforce. Education is not just about the tools and using digital, it's also the pedagogy and the style of teaching, and we have teachers who don't have that right now. It requires a whole change in policy, regulation, and outlook of our basic education foundations.

An example was here in South Africa during the lockdown, and we had probably one of the longer and much harder lockdowns on the continent. [With schools closed] there was a shift of the burden of teaching and learning to homes. In a country where we have such huge disparities and so many learners in neighborhoods that don't have public Wi-Fi, that don't have Internet at home, and teachers themselves who don't have access to the Internet.

It's not just the cost of broadband but the cost of devices is also quite prohibitive in this region. Some of the thinking that I'm hoping we begin to see with our government is pushing for local assembly of some of these devices in order to lower the costs, including local installation of software. This will actually create jobs in these economies and help retool a younger generation of developers.

Interestingly there's a lot of research outputs from our World Wide Web Foundation and A4AI that are quite relevant to the challenges and opportunities of this COVID-19 and lockdowns period. The Rural Broadband Policy Framework provides guidance to help close the persistent divide especially for rural areas; a look at mobile device prices for reaching universal access and more recently the Women's Rights Online report for closing the digital gender gap.

In addition the A4AI joined the World Bank to advocate for the $100+ billion investment needed to connect everyone in Africa by 2030.

Lastly, but certainly equally important, we have developed a meaningful connectivity target. This builds on our earlier work by A4I developing a now globally accepted Affordability standard of 1G of data for no more than 2% average monthly income. The meaningful connectivity target is a framework to track the components of connectivity that matter most to users and help decision makers adopt the policies needed to connect people to an Internet that is useful and empowering.