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Two Months after DRIF 2024: A Reminder of  Our Commitment to Connect the Unconnected

The commitment towards realising Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 2 of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, and Article 21 of the 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda, as amended underscores the principle that everyone is equal regardless of gender, race, colour, sex, language, religion, politics, or place of birth. These foundational provisions bar any form of discrimination and uphold the equality of all individuals before the law. As we reflect on this commitment, we must consider our progress and ongoing efforts to connect the unconnected, especially women and marginalised groups to ensure digital inclusion.

In April 2024, from the 23rd to the 25th, Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) was privileged to be part of the Digital Rights and Inclusion Forum (DRIF) in Accra, Ghana organised by  Paradigm Initiative, with the support of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC). DRIF has emerged as a crucial platform for addressing global challenges related to digital rights and inclusion, bringing together stakeholders, including policymakers, civil society organisations, technologists, and activists.

A major highlight of DRIF 2024 was the panel discussion organised by Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET), titled “Connect the Unconnected: Strengthening Women’s Access to Rural Broadband Connectivity in Africa”. The panel which was organised by WOUGNET’s Executive Director, Sandra Aceng featured distinguished speakers such as Josephine Miliza, APC’s Africa Policy Coordinator for Community Networks; Iribagiza David, WOUGNET’s Program Manager, Information Sharing and Networking; Eugine Masiku, Open Foundation West Africa’s Communications Officer; and Stephen Fosu, Network Administrator at Step Network. The discussion was moderated by Susan Mwape, Executive Director of Common Cause Africa.   

Urban-rural Digital Divide.

Uganda presents a stark example of the rural-urban digital divide in terms of Internet usage. In 2019, Research ICT Africa reported that Uganda has a huge urban-rural gap in Internet use of 70 per cent, where only nine per cent of Ugandans living in rural areas have access to the Internet and about a third (30%) of urban area dwellers use it. Only two countries – Rwanda (77%) and Mozambique (87%) – have greater urban-rural Internet access gaps. Multiple factors, including the lack of electrical and ICT infrastructure in rural areas, economic disparities, digital literacy gaps, geographical challenges, policy and regulatory issues, socio-cultural factors, and the unavailability of technology often exacerbate this digital divide. Addressing these issues is vital for achieving digital inclusivity.

As a way to counter this rural-urban digital divide with critical attention  given to women, girls and Persons With Disability, WOUGNET together with netLabs! initiated the “Strengthening Women’s Access to Enhanced Rural Broadband Connectivity in Uganda” project in Apac Municipality, Northern Uganda. This project was purposely crafted to provide sustainable, reliable, accessible and affordable broadband connectivity to marginalised communities and groups. Similar interventions have been implemented by StepNetwork, a technology company based in Ghana that specialises in building community networks and promoting digital accessibility and literacy in rural areas. As of 2024, StepNetwork has installed 3 community networks. While recognizing challenges associated with inaccessibility to broadband connectivity in rural areas, KIWIX,  a non-profit organisation introduced a free and open-source software project dedicated to providing offline access to free educational content. More interventions of this nature are needed to enhance broadband connectivity in these regions to bridge the digital divide and ensure that all communities specifically women and girls can participate fully in the digital economy.  

According to Eugene, he noted that the technology gap between rural and urban areas in Ghana, with connectivity issues complicating training and educational outreach in rural settings. ‘Kiwi for School’ software supports learning where electricity and infrastructure are limited, utilising community hubs and volunteer training to enhance local educational resources.

Strengthening Women’s Access to Enhanced Rural Broadband Connectivity in Africa

The Internet has become indispensable in numerous ways for both men and women, transforming how we communicate, work, and access information. It has revolutionised communication for men and women alike, enabling instant connection with others worldwide through email, social media, and video calls. In the workplace, the Internet has facilitated remote work, online collaboration, and access to global markets, enhancing professional opportunities and productivity. However, according to a 2020 Report by the World Wide Web Foundation, this has not been the case in Uganda where only 19% of Ugandan women are online, compared to the 27% of Men. This only worsens for rural women and girls as access to fast and reliable Internet shrinks as one strays further away from the capital.

In a bid to make a meaningful contribution towards connecting the unconnected, WOUGNET in partnership with netLabs! and with the support of the World Association for Christian Communication (WACC)  and APC implemented a project titled Strengthening Women’s Access to Enhanced Rural Broadband Connectivity in Uganda with 12 access sites established at Bedi Igen farmers’ group, Apac Secondary School, Apac General Hospital, and Atopi market in Apac Municipality, Northern Uganda. This panel session aimed at critically analysing the role of feminist-led local leadership, capacity building, and research in developing sustainable, reliable, accessible, inclusive and affordable broadband in Africa. 

Learning from WOUGNET’s feminist-led community network, during Josphine’s submission on the role of feminist local leadership, emphasising a community-centred model. She highlights community ownership of infrastructure, which allows revenue to stay within the community, fostering local economic development. In South Africa, to facilitate access, community networks are being placed closer to the women who manage them. She stresses the importance of safety awareness for marginalised groups and mentions policy developments in Kenya for more affordable community networks.

Challenges Faced While Strengthening Women’s Access to Enhanced Rural Broadband Connectivity in Africa

The technological gap between rural and urban areas is a significant barrier to equitable access and use of digital resources by women and girls. Eugene from Open Foundation West Africa explains the technology gap in terms of access and literacy between rural and urban areas in Ghana which has in turn complicated training and educational outreaches in rural settings. 

One must note that one of the critical challenges faced by most African countries in their quest for equal access and enjoyment of broadband connectivity is the lack of proper infrastructure. Despite the establishment of the Uganda Communications Universal Service and Access Fund (UCUSAF) in 2001 by the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), an initiative to promote universality in access and use of communications services in Uganda through the establishment of communications projects in areas that are unserved or underserved by the market operations, women and girls in rural areas continue to grapple with lack of affordable and high-quality internet connectivity. Stephen Fosu from Step Network gave his experience working with rural communities in Ghana. He stated that lack of connectivity to electricity remains a significant challenge in rural areas. To counter this, they have adopted the use of solar energy low-power consumption technology which requires minimal infrastructure, making it ideal for these settings.

Additionally, Africa continues to struggle with Gender-blind policies that ignore the disproportionate effects of inaccessibility to the Internet amongst women and girls. During the session, David from WOUGNET expressed his concerns over existing policies that overlook gender specifics. Some of these policies like the National Broadband Policy of 2018 operate under the assumption that everyone is affected in the same way, regardless of gender, and thus do not address the unique challenges faced by women and girls and this often perpetuates existing inequalities while failing to provide equitable access to broadband connectivity to women and girls in rural areas. David thus advocated for the formulation of gender-inclusive policies that support women’s access and active participation in rural broadband connectivity. 

Recommendations and possible solutions to Challenges Faced While Strengthening Women’s Access to Enhanced Rural Broadband Connectivity in Africa

  • Involvement of Feminist Local Leadership. Feminist leadership plays a crucial role in enhancing women’s access to rural broadband connectivity by advocating for gender-inclusive policies, empowering women within their communities, and ensuring that connectivity projects are designed with women’s specific needs in mind.
    • This leadership focuses on capacity building and providing targeted training to improve digital literacy and technical skills among women, enabling them to utilise broadband effectively. 
    • Additionally, feminist leaders promote community ownership of infrastructure to retain revenue locally and foster economic development. 
    • They also prioritise creating safe digital spaces for women, raising awareness about online safety, and addressing socio-cultural barriers that hinder women’s access to technology. 

Through these efforts, feminist leadership significantly contributes to bridging the gender digital divide and promoting equitable access to digital resources for women in rural areas.

  • Enhancing rural broadband connectivity requires a multifaceted approach, including the involvement of feminist local leadership to address unique community needs. To this effect, Josephine Miliza from APC emphasised that using the community-centred model is essential. This approach promotes inclusivity, sustainability, and local empowerment, thereby fostering economic and social development within the community. Both state and non-state actors should develop and advocate for gender-sensitive and inclusive policies and regulatory review processes to cater for women and girls’ access and participation in rural broadband connectivity.
  • There is a need for robust broadband and rural electricity distribution infrastructure as this is essential to bridge this digital divide, enabling rural communities to access online resources, participate in e-commerce, and connect with global markets. 
  • Emphasises the need for community-driven infrastructure support that considers local cultural and economic contexts. 
  • There is a need for ongoing funding and support beyond monetary contributions, such as policy influence and physical infrastructure, to bridge the digital divide effectively.

Conclusion

The discussions and experiences shared at DRIF highlighted the importance of continuous efforts and collaborative strategies to bridge the digital divide. By addressing the challenges and leveraging the lessons learned, stakeholders can make significant progress toward inclusive digital access for all.

Written by Iribagiza David, Programme Manager, Information Sharing & Networking at Women Of Uganda Network. 

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