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Kenya: Internet's Growing, but Women Are Offline

By Sam Wambugu

Mobile telephony grew faster than almost anyone would have predicted 15 years ago, to the point where at least 94 per cent of the world's population receives a phone signal.

The great news is that, as fast as mobile telephony took off and leap-frogged fixed telephony in the developing world, the mobile Internet has taken off even faster.

Digital technology can be a powerful tool to empower disadvantaged groups and improve socio-economic and health outcomes for women, men and children in developing countries. But thus far, these numbers have failed to bring large-scale change to women's lives. The digital divide is much more pronounced among the women compared to men.

The digital divide, or the digital split, refers to the differing amount of information between those who have access to the Internet - especially broadband access - and those who do not have access.

While access to the Internet has increased over the past two decades, the remaining digital divide has a profound impact on girls and women around the world. According to a recent study, approximately 4.4 billion people are offline, of which 52 per cent are women.

It is generally agreed that the gender digital divide stems primarily from the structural inequalities that exist between men and women in many societies. This means that women are less likely to reap the benefits of new economic and social opportunities of information and communication technologies, including employment and access to money.

Although gender disaggregated statistics on technology use in developing countries aren't officially collected, one of the few studies to explore this topic estimated that women comprise just 25 per cent of Internet users in Africa, 22 per cent in Asia, 38 per cent in Latin America, and 6 per cent in the Middle East.

Gender gaps in digital access stem from several issues, including women's high rates of illiteracy.

DIGITAL LITERACY

Women represent nearly two-thirds of the illiterate population worldwide. There is a lack of digital literacy in particular, with almost 40 per cent of offline women citing unfamiliarity with technology as a reason for not accessing the Internet.

Even in Kenya, most low-income households tend to have only one mobile device, if any, and it is often male members who carry it around. In homes where electricity is still foreign, mobile phones are charged at nearby powered shopping centres where women are less likely to patronise, compared to men.

The charging comes at a fee and some women have to make a decision between powering their phone and buying vegetables for the family. They therefore remain offline much longer than their male counterparts who are not affected by economic factors in the same magnitude.

While some argue that women may be more "technophobic" than men, a study from the University of Southern California and the United Nations found that, after controlling for socioeconomic factors like employment, education, and income, women are actually more active digital users than men.

Besides economic support, there are many benefits to Internet access. Health, criminal, and other types of emergencies might indeed be handled better if the person in trouble has an access to the telephone.

As we collectively celebrate the amazing numbers already achieved by the mobile Internet in closing the digital divide, we should also work hard, to make sure that the remaining challenges are met in order that existing and new users enjoy a mobile Internet that delivers the hope and promise the Internet can bring to everyone.

Part of the challenge in addressing women's needs stems from the lack of gender-disaggregated data, which makes it difficult to determine and draw conclusions on specific usage trends. Poor attention by policymakers in the information technology sector contributes to this dearth.

The starting point would be to make budget provisions and programmes in the next financial year aimed at enabling meaningful access to technology for women and girls.