The spread of COVID 19 has impacted the global economy and transformed the way we communicate, connect, and share information. As of 13th May 2020, according to Johns Hopkins University and Medicines, there were 4,247,709 COVID 19 confirmed cases and 291,334 deaths reported in 187 countries/regions. In Uganda, there were 126 confirmed cases of COVID 19 with no deaths since the first case was confirmed on 21st March 2020 of a male Ugandan who returned from Dubai and tested positive.
It is clearly seen that the pandemic has exposed how men and women access and use the internet because the patterns of access and use of the internet according to Web Foundation is determined by demographic factors such as; the level of education, age bracket, level of income, geographical area and other social aspects of life.
In this period of the pandemic, no matter how poor or rich individuals, societies and the states are, choices have to be made and internet use should be given key priority because it is evidenced that internet has provided a crucial link to information on COVID 19, facilitated work from home in response to the roadblocks erected by countrywide lockdowns and curfews through video conferencing devices such as Zoom, BlueJeans, and Google Hangouts(Google Meet) among others and enables families to keep safe and stay in touch with one another where the movement has not been possible.
Furthermore, the COVID-19 policy measures that were announced by the President of the Republic of Uganda, His Excellency Yoweri Kaguta Museveni starting from 18th March 2020 during his addresses to the Nation such as suspension of all religious gatherings, closure of schools, bars and restaurants, regular washing of hands with soap and alcohol-based sanitizer and social distancing measure including suspension of public transport to prevent the spread of the virus have affected how women use the internet. These policy measures have led to the reduction in women’s sources of income for buying the devices and the data bundles especially women who are self-employed in the informal sector where over 13.67 million Ugandans between the age of 14-64 years are engaged and being the most hit by COID 19.
According to Research ICT Africa 2019 state of ICT in Uganda report, affordability of the internet devices such as smartphones and computers for internet connections remains one of the biggest challenges to internet use in Uganda where even those with relatively lower costs have been beyond the financial means of the large number of citizens. Furthermore, the price of the data bundles even though relatively low is simply beyond the means of the majority of people for meaningful use.
In 2018, regressive social media tax (over the top tax) of 200 Ugandan shillings (0.05 USD) and mobile money tax of 0.5 percent charged on every withdrawal transactions introduced by the government put a serious brake on internet use yet out of the 14 million population that use the internet in Uganda,99 percent are social media users(Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and Skype).
Women of Uganda Network research findings on examining Women Access to digital platforms conducted in 2019 revealed that majority of Women in Uganda depend on their spouse to get data bundles, however, this comes with added costs with the spouse demanding to know who else she communicated to with the data they obtained. Worse still they said, that this is a source of conflict in the homes and some ending up as victims of domestic violence. Similarly, there has been limited relevant content on COVID 19 especially for the marginalized groups of people who cannot read and understand English since most of the content disseminated are hardly in the local dialect yet African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedom principle 6 advocates for cultural and linguistic diversity as one of the main pillars of fundamental internet rights and freedoms where individuals and communities should have the right to use their own language or any language of their choice to create, share and disseminate information and knowledge through the Internet. The implication of all these is that COVID 19 has not only halted provision of other health services to the population but has made the focus to shift to the prevention of virus alone hence hindering many women in Uganda from meaningful use of the internet to access information on the virus and some of the policy measures adopted by the government since internet use is determined by the level of education, age, level of income and geography yet women are still trailing men to embrace technologies hence limiting their capacity to use the internet.
Therefore, in order for more women to meaningfully use the internet during this COVID 19 crisis, it is the responsibility of the government to ensure that everyone is connected to the internet by reducing the cost of the devices and mobile data bundles to a maximum cost of 2 percent of the average monthly income of every population. More still, Civil society organizations in partnership with the government and internet service providers should build the capacity of local citizens especially women to develop local content that is consistent with the human rights standards and laws to accelerate its demand and adoption.
Compiled by Isaac Amuku - Program officer Information sharing and networking