Let’s #BreakTheBiases in internet connectivity, digital literacy, and online safety

The internet has long been touted as a tool capable of breaking down barriers and bridging the gender divide in particular. However, several challenging issues have rather made the internet another platform for perpetuating gender divide and biases.

As the world marks international women’s day today, March 8, under the theme #breakthebias, there is the need to highlight the challenges affecting the achievement of digital gender equity so both women and men can benefit from the potential of the internet and other ICTs.

For close to eight years, the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) has been promoting internet freedom and digital rights. Women’s rights online has been one of the major focus areas of the organisation’s digital rights programme.

Over the years, the MFWA has promoted women’s rights online through research and documentation, policy briefs, engagements with government and other sector stakeholders, capacity-building workshops, and online advocacy across West Africa, especially in Liberia, Ghana, and Sierra Leone.

Through these interventions, the organisation has identified and reported on some of the challenges that counter equitable access and use of the internet, particularly in the three countries.

Data from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) indicate that the proportion of women using the Internet globally is 48%, compared to 58% of men. The situation is no different in Liberia, Ghana, and Sierra Leone where many women remain unconnected. Some of the major factors that contribute to this reality include affordable access, digital literacy, and online safety.

According to Datareportal, the main device used to connect to the internet in any of these three countries is the mobile phone (Liberia – 71.01%; Ghana – 91.9%; Sierra Leone – 72.9%). Research, on the other hand, shows that women are less likely than men to own mobile phones. Thus, by default, women appear to be disadvantaged. This is largely due to the lack of financial independence on the part of many women.

Data analyses from these countries suggest that a number of women live below the poverty line or live in rural communities doing subsistence farming with no extra income for mobile phones. Even for those with mobile phones, studies show that high data cost is one of the challenges they face in accessing online spaces. For such people, affording premium data services is not an option.

Lack of digital literacy is another issue that needs urgent attention if women are to match up to their male counterparts in accessing and using the internet. The literacy levels between males are females are disproportionate against women in all the three countries. This situation is impacting digital literacy as well, especially as operating a smartphone, tablet, computer or any digital device requires a basic understanding of its functions.

As a result, sometimes, even though some women get access to digital devices, they are still unable to connect to the internet and benefit from it fully. The other side of the digital literacy challenge is the fact that it exposes women to cyber fraud and identity theft challenges which ultimately impact their willingness or otherwise to use the internet.

Online safety is also a big challenge for many women in using the internet. A lot of women are concerned about their privacy; and once they are not sure that can be guaranteed on many online platforms, they opt to stay offline.

Online harassment is another monster many women are struggling with online. Research findings cite online harassment in the forms of body shaming; cyberstalking; sexist, misogynistic and violent content and behavior; manipulation of personal information and nonconsensual distribution of images as some of the challenges preventing women from using the internet.

The MFWA, with support from the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherland and the Web Foundation, has been working with its national partner organisations in the region to build the capacity of women in the three countries in digital literacy and online safety practices. The organisation has also had some engagement with government officials on how to improve the situation. But there is more to be done to improve the situation.

We, therefore, call on governments, telecom companies, civil society, and the media to join the advocacy so that the biases and disparity in gendered access and use of the internet can be addressed.

Together, let’s #BreakTheBiases.

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