Many countries have experienced rapid changes in the information and telecommunication sectors. Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have been rapidly introduced to the world in what many call the ICT revolution, and this could play an important role in transforming the quality of life. These new technologies have enormous potential to improve the delivery of services, increase productivity, raise living standards, and transform economies and development opportunities in education, governance, environmental management, healthcare, financial services, and the private sector.
It is increasingly apparent that the benefits of ICTs are unevenly distributed between and within countries, to a large extent because of the differences in access and the knowledge-base. There continues to be evidence of a “digital divide” between those who have access to ICTs and possess the knowledge and training needed to use them on the one hand, and those who do not on the other. Modern ICTs can eliminate inequalities in society through the ways they are designed, produced, used, and exploited.
The digital divide continues for numerous reasons. Not only are there dangers of a growing digital divide due to a lack of access, resulting from economic or geographic situations, but there is also seemingly a lack of training opportunities to adapt to the new technologies. In each society, only a small minority has access to the global ICT network, and while this number is expected to grow, the divide may continue to grow if the issue of differential access is not addressed.
Also, the digital divide seems to be gender-based. Because they have been not been involved in development and have not received the necessary training to use ICT, women have been for the most part, and especially in rural areas, excluded from the process. In a patriarchal society where men are the dominant players in decision-making, women, normally having not been at the forefront of development, are consequently not as open to changes and, in this case, to ICTs. Society has always encouraged and favored men in education, training, formal employment, as well as many other areas. However, in many countries, women shoulder most reproductive, productive, and community management responsibilities, many of which are not remunerated or reflected in national statistics.
The lower status of women in comparison to men is due to gender imbalances that arise from unequal opportunities and access to and control over productive resources and benefits. Statistics in Uganda show that although women constitute 70% to 80% of the agricultural labor force, only 7% own land and 30% have access to and control over proceeds (1).
Gender inequality is further reflected in the education and employment sector as well as in the formal sector and government structures. There are continuous gender inequalities at all levels.
The gender digital divide in Uganda is apparent and reflected in the lower number of women users of ICT and also in the lower number of women students in ICT and science, as compared to men.
In Uganda, for instance, at the Mbarara University of Science and Technology, only 20 females—11% of the total number of science students—have graduated from the Faculty of Science in Education since the degree was introduced in 1997. In the Department of Computer Studies, the average has been 33% (2). In her background paper, “Are ICTs Gender Neutral?”, Nancy Hafkin comments that there is a decrease in the enrolment of young women in computer science courses in the United States and Canada (3), reflecting the low number of women professionals in sciences and ICTs, and the inequality that exists in the formal education sector. The fact that no sex-disaggregated data on ICT women users exists is further indication of the gender-based digital divide.
Since women would only be recognized much later, the ICT revolution is perpetuating the already existing gender-based inequalities in access to education, training, as well as in other fields.
The existence of these inequalities and constraints makes the digital divide gender-based. A particular need remains to address these imbalances and their implications on the ICT revolution, especially to women if they are not to be deprived of the opportunity to participate fully in the emerging economy that is likely to shape the twenty-first century. However, some efforts are being made to address this through various initiatives; for instance, a new Canadian study indicates that the number of women with university degrees and disposable income using the internet is increasing (4).
At the Uganda Development Services Centre, based in Kamuli District in Eastern Uganda, the total number of students trained in various computer courses in 2002 was 80, 48 of which girls. It is these additional training opportunities through vocational institutes that can help bridge the gender digital gap. At the telecentres, the number of women users is growing, but only after deliberate efforts had been made to motivate and interest them to come and use ICTs. A CD-ROM, “Rural Women in Africa: Ideas for Earning Money,” is an example of a deliberate effort to increase women’s participation in the use of ICTs. Initiatives that take into account gender relations and concerns are usually more successful and, coupled with other factors like a favorable environment, will help bridge the gender digital gap.
1 Uganda Poverty Status Report,1999.
2 Mbarara University of Science and Technology, Programme and Order of Proceedings, 9th Congregation of the University, February 2003.
3 INSTRAW Virtual Seminar Series on Gender and ICTs: Summary of Discussions and Recommendations. Prepared by S. Huyer and T. Sikoska, 6 Nov., 2002. Page 5. www.un-instraw.org
Bridging the Gender Gap
Rita Mijumbi Epodoi