More women tecchies needed

Date: January 1, 1970
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There is a lot of talk about how opportunities provided by new technologies can contribute positively to social and economic development in Africa. Yet, despite the expanding reach of these new technologies, much of the continent still does not have access to computers, the internet, or even telephone service.

Add in social inequalities such as socio-economic status, age, gender, geographic location and ethnicity, and the gaps between those that have and do not have access become even more apparent. The term “digital divide” has become a catch phrase to describe this gap.
For women, the “digital divide” comes hand in hand with many of the other gender divisions that keep women from accessing opportunities that would help them help themselves. When it comes to technology, women’s traditional roles, stereotypes, family and community responsibilities all play a role in lack of access, and must be considered when it comes to technology planning.
In developing communications infrastructure, many choices involve location of facilities, cost, and choice of technologies.  Infrastructure is concentrated in urban areas, while the bulk of women in Africa live in rural areas. In Uganda, Lesotho and South Africa an estimated 80% of women live in rural areas. Since technological infrastructure is in urban areas, this affects whether the majority of women can access these facilities.
One problem is that the participation of women in the design of infrastructure and technology is minimal. A very limited number of women are working in this field. The reason pointed out by a Computer Science Lecturer at the University of Lesotho and post-graduate student, Mathe Maema, “relates more to the socialisation of girls around subjects like mathematics and science.”
For women and girls such subjects as maths, science, and computers are discouraged. Refiloe Mapota, a female information technology (IT) student remembers how boys mocked her and other female student saying, “Computers are for men and not women.” She told how computer science was perceived as a tough course meant only for boys, while girls should study nursing and education, lithuto tse ts’ehali, literally translated as referring to feminine courses.
Access to facilities is sometimes constrained in ways that we do not think of. In many schools there are not enough computers available for every student. In a Ugandan school, it was noted that girls were simply not able to have time on the computer.
As a result if the socio-cultural norm that girls do not run, boys rush ahead to the computer room, are able to use them first, and usually refuse to share them. Since teachers do not prioritise girls using the computers, they are unlikely to initiate systems to encourage sharing.
Though information and communication technology (ICT) centres have sprung up all over the continent, women frequently point to lack of time to participate in these centres after attending to household work. Given multiple roles and heavy domestic responsibilities, women’s leisure hours are few.
Economically, women also have little disposable income to access new technologies. Lesotho Council of NGO’s Information Officer, Thandiwe Solwandle maintains, “women’s purchasing power is very low as women would rather support their families with the money than to get ICT related products.”
Solwandle also admits participation of women in ICT activities is very low and basic. She says that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and government need to take action to ensure women get greater access to, and comfort with ICTs in the country.
“There should be ICT kiosks in the districts where all people can go to access different forms of ICTs or a mobile computer laboratory so that people around can have time using and learning, even if it is only once a month,” she recommends.
Solwandle agrees that lack of women in decision making in ICT planning is part of the problem. Sofonea Shale, Development for Peace Education’s Coordinator explains that, “the field is dominated by males, the rich and educated.  These three categories are social results of domination that patriarchal society creates. Women because they are lower at the hierarchy are recipients and implementers of the decisions made at the higher level.”
He adds that in terms of content women who do access ICT still become recipients, rather than originators and opinion shapers. “It perpetuates their disadvantaged position. Beyond policy rhetoric, local government is a starting point. I say equip every council with ICT materials such as computers with internet.”
The poorest often fear that ICT materials and centers are not places for them. The very factors that structured their poverty – caste, illiteracy, gender also seem to exclude them by definition from modern technologies
Mobile telephone access is the only area where the gender digital divide is in women’s favour. Perhaps it is telling that many men perceive the cell phone as a potential threat, creating greater independence for women. 
There is a lack of capacity on the part of policy makers to address gender considerations and conduct gender analysis. Another failure by most institutions is to integrate gender experts into policy and regulatory teams.
Decades of experience have shown that without explicit attention to gender in policy, gender issues are missing from implementation. The evidence lies in the fact that women are vastly under-represented in government, business, political, economic and social institutions.
Until the ICT policy arena is itself engendered, it will be difficult to improve access for women and girls to the revolutionary tools of information and communication technology. In order for ICT to play a meaningful role in development, there is a need for proper policy and regulation environment to be in place, and for women to be at the planning table.
Teboho Senthebane is a freelance writer and founding member of Media and Arts Watch Association (MAWA) Ts’ireletso, in Lesotho. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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