IWD2021: Recognizing How Women of Uganda Network Has Used ICTs to Enhance the Wellbeing of Women During the Covid -19 Pandemic

It’s this time of the year that Women Rights Organizations look back and take pride in the efforts they have labored to improve the quality of life of women and at the same time challenge the rest of   the world to acknowledge that Women Rights are also Human Rights. March 8th is not only a thrilling day for women all over the world to celebrate their accomplishments, it’s a prominent time for organizations like Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) to commemorate the social, economic, cultural, and political triumphs they have registered in promoting gender equality using ICTs especially in the difficult times of the COVID-19.

Just like any other contagion, the unpredicted outbreak of COVID 19 caught Uganda and other countries around the world by surprise and thus greatly affected the well being of many people especially women and other vulnerable groups. This global crisis and notifiable disease inevitably forced the Ugandan  government to employ stringent measures to contain it and these included lockdown, social, physical distancing  and night curfew which significantly disrupted economic activity. As a result, many people experienced a reduction in their daily incomes due to loss of jobs, reduced flow of remittances, and loss of market for their products. In addition, Ugandans that depend on the government’s free health services due to poverty experienced limited access to health care.

While gender is oftentimes under looked in the face of epidemics, women and girls are most affected and this has the same for the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a technical brief titled “Gendered Dimensions of The Economic Impacts of Covid-19 In Uganda”, it was reported that women and girls are bound to be left out during COVID- 19 responses. The brief further indicated that during the COVID-19 containment, men were the most dominant under the essential workers’ category that was allowed to continue with work during the total lockdown while most women stayed home. All this and more left women in a state of desolation and vulnerability. Uganda’s experience has only been a reflection of other countries elsewhere.  

In order to address the impact of COVID-19 on women and girls, Women’s Rights Organizations worldwide have embraced ICT as a tool to empower women during the COVID-19 crisis. For instance, on the International Day of the Girl  that was celebrated in October 2020, International Telecommunication Union (ITU), World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) collaborated with the Permanent Mission of Bulgaria to host a virtual event on  ”Gender Equality in Science, Technology and Innovation: Driving Sustainable Future during COVID-19  and beyond”. The discussion focused on the progress achieved in empowering women and girls and the hindrances that affect women in accessing ICTs.

It’s against this background that WOUGNET enhanced the use of ICTs to address the plight of women during the distressing time of COVID-19. WOUGNET has been predominant and vibrant in mitigating the effects of COVID-19 by venturing into various mechanisms of ICTs as a tool for controlling the spread of the disease. For example, as a way of addressing the disinformation on COVID-19 that was causing a lot of panic and fear, WOUGNET made use of its SMS platform called “M-Omulimisa” to share information with rural women in remote areas that barely had access to internet platforms and televisions that constantly shared information about the disease. The platform therefore played a vital role in addressing the myth about the disease. For instance, in March, 2020, the daily monitor reported that the late Pastor Augustine Yiga of Revival Church Kawaala  commonly known as “Abizaayo  was arrested for uttering false information that COVID-19 that there was no COVID-19 in Africa.

Furthermore, WOUGNET has also been using radio campaigns in districts like Apac and Agago to create awareness about the rising cases of gender-based violence (both physical and online violence) as a result of the COVID 19 restrictions. This enabled women in these districts to learn more abought their digital rights in the online space and also got information on what to do and where to report in case they fall victim. This in accordance with WOUGNET’s report on domestic violence in the COVID 19 context, it was stated that violence against women and girls had become more persuasive due to the outbreak of COVID-19. This was associated with stringent measures (like curfew and limited movement) enacted by the government which exposed women more to abuse because of spending more hours under one roof with the perpetrators of violence.

In order to respond to the aggressive working conditions like working remotely that arose due to the outbreak of COVID-19 as a way of complying with the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) issued by the Ministry of Health, WOUGNET in partnership with the Women Peace and Humanitarian fund built the capacity of the staff of its 25 member organizations to enable them to adapt to the new working environment. This was achieved by equipping them with various ICT skills like video conferencing tools such as zoom, google meet, google hangout calls to enable them work from home. These initiatives in a long run trickled down to the women beneficiaries through service delivery and thus improving their wellbeing throughout during the lockdown.

WOUGNET has also conducted and published several research studies during the COVID-19 pandemic as a way of creating awareness of the negative experiences of women and advocating for their rights. Furthermore, it used the findings to influence policy decisions on ICT and gender-based violence both on a national and international level. In accordance with this fact, WOUGNET submitted a report to the UN special rapporteur on the violence against women (VAW) in the context of COVID-19.  The report boldly indicated that VAW had increased due to the unforeseen outbreak of COVID-19. WOUGNET further tasked the government, civil society, and development partners, and all stakeholders to enhance the involvement of male allies in the fight against VAW. An article published by WOUGNET clearly illustrated the challenges that women face in accessing the internet during the COVID-19 pandemic. It stated that the gender digital divide increased during the COVID-19 pandemic thus limiting many women from working remotely and also indicated that most women depended on their husbands for data. In this article, WOUGNET advocated for women by tasking the government to scrap off the OTT tax to enhance internet access for women.

In the quest to enhance the wellbeing of women during the upsetting time of COVID-19, WOUGNET chose to challenge the hindrances of COVID-19, by embracing the sense of agency to use ICTs during the COVID-19 pandemic where ICTs have become very crucial.

As we continue to celebrate this amazing month for women, WOUGNET commends all Women's Rights Organizations, private sectors, and government institutions that have played a critical role in using ICTs to address the plight of women amidst the unprecedented face of COVID-19. We, therefore, #ChooseToChallenge policymakers and all stakeholders to integrate gender in all policies, laws, and measures geared at addressing the impact of COVID-19 and future pandemics.

If we are to #BuildBackBetter from the impact of COVID-19, an enabling environment should be created for women to participate fully in the decision-making processes regarding ICT for development. This is because they understand better the challenges, they have experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic where ICTs and the internet have become a meaningfully indispensable part of life.

Written by, Nampiima Maria Goretti

Program Assistant Volunteer, Information Sharing, and Networking.

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Gendered impact of COVID -19 on businesses: The case of women in the informal sector in Uganda

While the impact of COVID-19 outbreak on businesses varies depending on the industry, there's one group that has been hit particularly hard in the world; women-owned small-scale businesses.

A recent survey carried out by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce indicates how businesses have been impacted by the pandemic. For instance, the number of female-owned the business has fallen from 60% in January to 47% in July 2020 and male-owned business from 67% to 62% during the same period of time. This means females fell by 13 points and males by 5 points.  According to International Tarde Centre, more than 90% of women entrepreneurs reported a decrease in sales during the pandemic and have less than three months of cash flow to survive compared to 52% of men-led companies.

Such figures imply that women entrepreneurs were most affected by the stay-at-home orders issued early in the pandemic. After the closure of ‘’non-essential’ businesses (owned by most women), women were left with no option but to stay home and concentrate on their families. Due to the increased domestic responsibilities like homeschooling, child care, and household chores, they would not get time to do other works which could earn them a living. To add to that,  research conducted by the Facebook survey/inc.com, found out that31% of women had spent more time on domestic tasks since the pandemic started, compared to 26% of men. This affected their ability to focus on work thus a decrease in their growth.

As a result, women-led businesses were disproportionately hurt by the stifling effects of shutdowns, and more likely to close than those run by men. 

In Uganda, it is reported that 34.8% of businesses are owned by women which makes East Africa the top-performing country in Africa in terms of women entrepreneurship. It is also a country with the highest percentage of female entrepreneurs with 90.5 percent of women borrowing and saving money to start-up small profitable businesses with as little as what their pocket can afford. These small profitable businesses include; Salons, Fast food restaurant, Selling Clean Water, Tomato farming, Poultry farming, second-hand clothes, hawking, Photocopying, and Printing services.

It was unfortunate that on 30th March 2020, the president of Uganda, his excellency Yoweri Kaguta Museveni imposed a lockdown due to the pandemic that hit the world. This included the closure of non-essential businesses (owned by most women) apart from that selling foodstuff who were allowed to operate.

From that day, this has affected business people especially women since they carry the highest percentage of entrepreneurism in the country. It has been hard for men to regain their businesses, but harder for women because of unavoidable circumstances such as; businesses slowing down, some closing, and others have been forced to change businesses.

Joyce Atuhaire, the director of operations Agro Tourism Association said, “the pandemic affected women differently, some have lost businesses, others started new ones especially those dealing with perishable products due to lack of market.

 

The following were also various ways how women entrepreneurs were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic:

·         Most female entrepreneurs feel that increased family care demands have reduced their ability to focus their attention on their businesses, hurting their ability to generate income. For instance, women employees, especially during required home-based work were more inclined to resign due to increasing childcare needs.

·         The restrictions in the movement have led to more incidences of intimate partner and family violence, hurting the productivity of firms as they struggle to deal with its mental and economic impact on their work and employees.

·         In addition, companies do not know how to address the mental health and well-being of employees during the pandemic. More than one-third of women-owned businesses have expressed increased anxiety due to the uncertainty of COVID 19 and concerns on how to support the health and wellbeing of employees.

Together, these factors could affect women’s opportunities to cope with the crisis and widen differences in health and capital when the pandemic fades. Restrictions in the movement have increased family violence thus affecting both the physical and mental health of family members especially women. These differences affect the performance and focus of women at work(business) and slow down the economic recovery.

Deepening economic gaps caused by the COVID-19 pandemic between men and women will jeopardize a fast return from a recession through huge gaps in productivity. The pervasive inequality could further widen due to the impact of the current crisis. However, there are some solutions to that. These include;

·         Support home-based work, care options, and flexible work schedules. Recruit, retain, and promote women during and after the crisis to prevent loss of talent.

·         Enable women entrepreneurs access to working capital and insurance products  to help stabilize their businesses.

·         Ensure the safety of employees and suppliers by addressing violence and   harassment at the company level.

·         Invest in digital infrastructure to boost home-based work opportunities and mobile internet access, where women scientifically lag behind men. Innovative solutions should be developed and simplified digital solutions to adapt their business models to be more inclusive during the pandemic because the pandemic has revealed digital connectivity is a critical element for business continuity.

 

Since female-owned businesses are most affected, they are more likely to face a big challenge in future investment plans compared to their counterparts (males). However, with the above solutions especially digital connectivity (can help them to work from home, sell their products easily, and it is time-saving) can enable them to continue with their work.

Investing in women's economic empowerment sets a direct path towards gender equality, internet access, and use due to affordability of ICT tools, poverty eradication, inclusive economic growth and sustainable development. Women make enormous contributions to economies by participating in businesses, and agriculture, as entrepreneurs, employees, or by doing unpaid care work at home.

 

Photo: Picture from the African Women in the Informal Sector- Bing images


Compiled by;

Babirye Roseline, program officer Gender and ICT policy Advocacy

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Together for a Better Internet: Safer Internet Day 2021

Globally, by January 2021, Internet penetration stood at 59.5% with 4.66 billion people using the Internet around the world. This is according to the Digital 2021 Global Overview Report which also states that the number of social media users is now equivalent to more than 53 percent of the world’s total population. Uganda has 12.6 million Internet users with an Internet penetration of 26.2% with 3.40 million social media users as of January 2021. It is therefore not strange to ask oneself about Internet safety, and how many of these people have been able to use the internet without self-censorship as they use the Internet.

I would like to compare internet safety to my home; the comfort, the freedom, the Peace, serenity, joy, and happiness I feel while at home. The autonomy of deciding what I want to do, putting into consideration the feelings of those around me, letting in who I want, and shutting the door to those I am not comfortable with. This would describe how a safe Internet should be. Many times, safety online has been described as “individuals protecting themselves and others from online harms and risks which may jeopardize their personal information, lead to unsafe communications or even affect their mental health and wellbeing”.

But why should anyone be afraid while using the Internet? Why should we constantly look over our shoulders while using the Internet? What if we all worked towards envisioning the Internet as a safe space to learn, share and grow, wouldn’t this make the world a better place?

Globally, every 9th February, Safer Internet Day is celebrated to promote the safe and positive use of digital technology for children and young people and inspire a national conversation. The theme this year was "Together for a better Internet" and it called upon all stakeholders to join together to make the Internet a safer and better place for all, and especially for children and young people.

To commemorate this day, Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) participated in a webinar hosted by Digital Literacy Initiative (DLI)under the theme “The role of Multistakeholder model in promoting a safer Internet.” On the panel where other organizations including; AYDIA Gender and Technology Initiative, ISOC Uganda Chapter, Maendeleo Foundation and Smart Youth Network. The panel discussed a number of issues for instance; Gender inclusivity, advocating for more women participation in safe spaces especially digital spaces, challenges faced by rural women, youth involvement in such forums and children’s safety online.  

“The Internet creates a platform for women to discuss issues that affect them towards development, yet women are threatened to fully participate and harness their potential while using the Internet. We should therefore normalize punishments for cyber harassers and abusers.” Aidah Bukubuza a Co-founder and Lead, AYDIA Gender and Technology Initiative.

The Internet Society in Uganda and NITA Uganda did a survey to review different legislation on child online protection and noted that there is no comprehensive policy framework that targets child online protection. Lillian Nalwoga, the president at ISOC Uganda chapter further elaborated that the Stop It campaign with the aim of fighting child sex images has been launched and joined by various stakeholders that include MTN Uganda, Nita, and Internet Society Uganda from civil society. She hopes that continuous discussions and engagements will lead to having the necessary policy frameworks.

Asia Kamukama, the Executive Director of Maendeleo Foundation believes that rampant misinformation is a result of lack of digital skills and high levels of illiteracy in Uganda. She finds it critical for people to learn about online hygiene and misinformation.

Hakeem Ssebagala, the Programs Director at Smart Youth Network, focused his argument on how safe we are while posting, transacting, and whether people are aware of their safety online. Hakeem suggests that young people should be encouraged to attend such engagements, and practical engagements should be carried out to empower them with knowledge and skills. He affirms the need for digital literacy to help young people understand issues such as privacy, data protection, misinformation, and safe browsing. He further points out the need to closely monitor what children surf on the Internet.

As WOUGNET’s representative on the panel, I encouraged civil society to play their role through promoting digital literacy, empowering women and girls and creating awareness about ICTs for women and girls without leaving behind the rural and women persons with disability. I added that the government has a role to bring stakeholders together, empower women economically to help them use digital tools and contribute to sustainable development. I called upon all users to be vigilant on their Internet usage and encouraged STEM for women and girls.

Conclusively panelists urged that parent should nurture their children on how the online space works; train them to be good online citizens, and help them develop digital emotional intelligence to respect everyone online. They acknowledged the role of the multistakeholder model in the Internet ecosystem and added that stakeholders have a duty to ensure a variable regulatory framework and business climate that can accommodate issues of the Internet.

Online safety should be a shared responsibility for every stakeholder and everyone should play more than a minimal role in order to cope up with the fast technology evolution.

Compiled by Patricia Nyasuna

Program Officer Gender & ICT, WOUGNET

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The Impact of Online Gender-Based Violence on Women’s Mental Health in Uganda

While online Gender-Based Violence (OGBV) has become a norm in this 21st century where the internet is a part of our fate, its toll on the mental health of women who are victims is immeasurable. Many studies have provided facts on the impact of the general Gender-Based Violence on women however little has been documented about the impact OGBV has on the mental health of women.

Even though both men and women are potential victims of OGBV, research shows that women are more susceptible to the act than men and are more likely to face ill effects ensuing from OGBV. This may also be associated with the societal and cultural norms that usually victimize women more than men given the influence patriarchy has on society in our day-to-day lives. This, therefore, implies that the violation of women online is just a reflection of the rate at which women are often violated offline.     

Despite the efforts that have been undertaken by the government (through its laws and policies) and feminist organizations to increase women's participation in social, economic, and political spheres through the internet platforms, the rate at which OGBV prevails has crushed these efforts thus increasing the gender digital divide. This has not only affected their freedom of expression online but has also prevented them from championing different societal causes and accessing services online.  

In Uganda today, a number of women have been harassed and prejudiced through the use of technology which is an attack on their personal and professional growth. This is commonly done through Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and sometimes email. According to Mutebi & Wagabaza, 2019, online violence against women and girls entails cyberstalking, unsolicited sexual advances, sharing degrading images, false accusations, defamation, and slander. Supplementary to that, Non-consensual intimate images (NCII) commonly known as “revenge porn” is another form employed by perpetrators of OGBV.

Women that have succumbed to any kind of OGBV are most likely to undergo emotional damage that often times threatens their mental health. The impact of OGBV ranges from mild to extreme effects, these may include low self-esteem, depression and anxiety, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts. This is in accordance with the research conducted by Policy in 2020 that informed that out of the 720 Ugandan respondents that were interviewed, 32.8% reported having been victims of Online Gender-Based Violence. The report further highlighted that the experience impacted their mental health and this manifested through anxiety, depression, fear, and a sense of powerlessness. The report further indicated that 75% of the women interviewed reported having suffered from mental stress and anxiety as a result of the violence they had experienced online. The unforeseen outbreak of the COVID-19 also acted as a steering wheel for technology-related violence against women simply because the lockdown increased people’s access to the internet as they had a lot of downtimes.   

 A survey conducted by Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) between 30th May and 4th June 2020 among 50 young tech users from urban, peri-urban, and rural areas of Uganda indicated that 24% of the respondents had experienced OGBV. The report also conveyed that while some victims confronted the harasser, there is a category of women that kept such incidents to themselves which could lead to self-censorship, psychological or emotional effects.

While it’s easy for some victims to move on, it’s never the same for someone that has experienced different forms of OGBV such as “revenge porn’’. It always takes a lot of resilience, social support, and rehabilitation for the victim to recover from the emotional damage. An assessment of women’s safety in the digital space highlighted that OGBV has the potential to harm the mental health of the victims and in some instances lead to suicidal thoughts.   For instance, after Judith Heard's nudes leaked without her consent, she could hardly leave the house in fear of being killed or stoned by the people that were throwing hate words and insults at her.  She was attacked and ridiculed on social media. This fear resulted in depression and later transited to suicidal thoughts which would have led to her death if not supported.

In addition, the victims are subjected to guilt and shame towards their families and friends which automatically affects their self-esteem. This does not only destroy the victim’s social life or career path but further affects their ability to cope up with normal stresses of life and also reduces their productivity. A case in point, in 2014 Desire Luzinda one of Uganda’s pop stars went into hiding after her ex-boyfriend posted nude photos on social media after a failed relationship. It was emotionally draining for her because she felt a lot of guilt and found it hard to explain herself to her mother and daughter and at the same time felt a lot of pressure from her fans that value ethics and morality. As a rising pop star, growing a fan base is one thing, and maintaining it is another. Although the nudes were leaked without her consent, this left a big toll on her self-esteem especially on musical stages because a number of her fans bashed her online for using her nudes to seek popularity and also earn money. This automatically affected her productivity in pushing her music ahead as she spent time worrying about what the public perceived of her.

As the perpetrators of OGBV hide behind fake accounts and personas, the mental health of victims is left in shutters as they are tormented, ridiculed, and judged on the online spaces. This inevitably affects their wellbeing especially the way they act, feel and also limits their ability to make choices. Therefore, legislators, policymakers, and all stakeholders including but not limited to internet service providers should create a safe, inclusive, and fairground on the internet platforms to ensure that both men and women freely enjoy their freedom of expression and access to information. They should guarantee that no one enjoys their digital human rights of freedom of expression at the expense of another person’s human rights. Instead of criticizing and penalizing the victims, safe spaces should be created by human rights advocates, private and government institutions to rehabilitate the victims to enable the spaces to become more resilient, reclaim their position in society, and rediscover their purpose in life to enable them to heal mentally.

The mounting number of victims that have experienced technology-related violence against women (tech-related VAW) has rendered ICT as a gendered issue, this form of violence creates a hostile online environment that disheartens women and girls from fully embracing ICT as a tool for sustainable development due to fear of their safety. In order to eliminate OGBV, Uganda should also embrace the five principles recommended by the Due Diligence Project which looked at state compliance to eliminate OGBV in five areas which included; prevention, protection, prosecution, punishment, and provision of redress and reparation.  The project does not only halt OGBV from occurring but it further accounts for preventing reoccurrence of further violence gives room for investigation and instituting proceedings against the perpetrators give an obligation to impose sanctions/negative consequences on perpetrators provide for compensation of the victims and removing the content that has been uploaded to destroy someone’s image.

Conclusively, while it's of great importance to compensate the victims of OGBV and punish perpetrators, it’s also imperative to rehabilitate victims to protect them from extreme effects of endangered mental health like depression, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts which may result in death.

Written by Maria Gorret Nampiima,

Program Associate, Information Sharing and Networking

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Digital Empowerment and Computer Skills Training: Enhancing Response to COVID-19 and Gender-Based Violence by WOUGNET Members in Uganda

We as Warm Hearts were very privileged to host Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) staff at our office. We are glad that we got an opportunity to be trained among the many local women rights organizations in Uganda. It was a life changing experience and opportunity for our staff to be trained by WOUGNET on video conferencing technology especially Zoom and Google meets. Warm Hearts Foundation as an organisation adopted this technology and skills provided by WOUGNET to amplify our work during the 16 days of activism. 

On 12th December 2020, we managed to host a Zoom meeting that was titled, “effectiveness of rule of law in ending GBV” moderated by the Executive Director. This was the first meeting Warm Hearts Foundation was hosting virtually and we were able to invite different people on board. It was an amazing experience seeing Warm Hearts staff apply the skills with limited excuses and interruptions which wasn’t the case before. We are excited that the civil society in Uganda digital support programme coordinated by WOUGNET has made our organization to get equipped with skills and technology required to sustain our organisation during this period of COVID-19 and after as we  continue to make the world a better place to live in especially in the lives of women. We therefore look forward to training more staff as well as the community with the digital literacy skills and knowledge acquired in order to empower more women and girls digitally.

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