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According to an article by R Bahrini 2019, it’s very apparent that access to a meaningful internet and technology has played an immense role in promoting and enhancing the social and economic growth of developing countries and has further facilitated their inclusion into the global economy. Access to the internet and Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) has not only allowed people to communicate from a distance, but it has also transformed the value chains of different economies and has enormously reduced the cost of production. Internet access proved more to be an indispensable tool to development and a basic need when the world was brought to its knees by the unpredicted outbreak of COVID- 19 pandemic that had a damaging impact on every economic activity. The internet facilitated the continuity of work for different companies, ministries and organizations through online conferencing platforms as the global community was advised by the World Health Organization to avoid crowds as a strategy to combat the pandemic. Supplementary to that, access to the internet-enabled students all over the globe to use digital tools such as laptops and smartphones, to pursue their academics remotely amidst the life-threatening epidemic. Despite the milestone in technological advancement and the registered benefits of the internet in developing countries like Uganda, women and girls are continuously deprived when it comes to accessing and using the internet and digital tools compared to their male counterparts thus widening the gender digital divide. According to a study that was conducted by the World Wide Web Foundation in 2020, Uganda was pointed out as one of the African countries with the largest gender digital divide in Africa with 43% of the men more likely to use the internet than women in Uganda. These findings indicate that the growing gender digital divide in Uganda incapacitated the attainment of the UN Sustainable Development Goal number 9 which called upon member states to work towards attaining universal internet access by 2020.  This has curtailed the maximum benefits that Uganda can potentially arrive at as a result of equal access to the internet and technology for both women/girls and men/boys.

It is therefore of great importance for all stakeholders in Uganda to work hand in hand to close the gender digital divide if Uganda is to fully benefit from the immense benefits that the internet and ICTs can render to its economy. This is crucial because policy-making, engagement, and implementation require a definite center of attention and direction. According to M Owiny (2020), closing the gender digital divide requires the engagement of key policymakers in the policy-making processes so as to build consensus and tap into the diverse body of evidence to back up arguments, different perspectives, and statements.

How CSOs are  Contributing to the Closure of the Gender Digital Divide

As a champion of women’s rights online, Women of Uganda Network (WOUGET) acknowledges that gender-sensitive ICT policies are the basis of any attempt to close the gender digital divide. Over the years, WOUGNET has successfully influenced the formulation and effective implementation of gender-sensitive ICT policies and has achieved this through research, creation of content such as policy briefs, and policy advocacy on issues like e-governance among others.  WOUGNET also serves as the secretariat for the Women ICT Advocacy Group (WIAG), a coalition that advocates for gender inclusion in ICT policies and programs.  The organization deems that policy advocacy towards bridging the gender digital divide in Uganda can only flourish if civil society organizations work in cooperation with government entities/institutions through continuous dialogues and implementation of initiatives to arrive at windows of closing the gender digital divide This is why the World Wide Web Foundation, WOUGNET and the Centre for MultilateralMulti-lateral Affairs (CfMA) decided to develop a civil society position paper on promoting smart policy options in closing the gender digital divide in Uganda with specific recommendations each stakeholder (CSOs and policymakers) should take to close the gender digital divide in Uganda.

As guided by the World Wide Web Foundation, WOUGNET further recognizes that for a gender-responsive policy to be achieved, the policymakers need to be guided by the R.E.A.C.T policy framework. The framework ensures that ICT policies do not exclude women but rather create a more accessible and empowering internet for both women and men; R.E.A.C.T literally translates to Rights, Education, Access, Content, and Targets. The framework suggests that it’s imperative for policymakers to put into consideration the five principles (Rights, Education, Access, Content, and Targets) of the framework when formulating ICT policies so as to respond to the connectivity needs of women and girls.

In the quest to close the gender digital divide in Uganda, WOUGNET in partnership with the CfMA conducted an Online Policy Round Table Discussion on the 28th of July 2021. The policy roundtable discussion was conducted under the current project titled “Promoting Smart Policy Options in Closing the Gender Digital Divide in Uganda '' with support from the World Wide Web Foundation. The primary goal of this discussion was to engage policymakers to understand the R.E.A.C.T framework and discuss policy advocacy issues related to the R.E.A.C.T framework and gender digital divide in Uganda so as to identify strategies for bridging the gap together.

 

The policymakers that participated in the discussion included representatives from government ministries and agencies such as the Ministry of Gender, Labor and Social Development, Ministry of Science and Technology, Ministry of Education and Sports, Ministry of ICT and National Guidance, National Information Technology Authority Uganda(NITA-U), Uganda Communications Communication (UCC) and Uganda Telecommunications Limited. The discussion was also attended by a few civil society organizations (CSOs) that play an equal role in promoting women’s rights online. These included; Access Plus, Barefoot law Uganda, Policy Uganda, FIDA Uganda, and Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC). The issues discussed included; simplified understanding of the R.E.A.C.T framework to the policymakers, and steps that can be undertaken by policymakers to CSOs to specific policy initiatives and specific policy proposals to ensure that women have access to the internet. This was guided by WOUGNET and the CfMA creating specific questions in regards to R.E.A.C.T frameworks to enable further understanding of the frameworks to allow policymakers and the few CSOs present to discuss the decision-making processes and strategies that can be considered to enhance everyone’s rights online. They also brainstormed about steps that can be undertaken to ensure that education is used as a tool to equip women and girls with the skills they need to utilize the ICTs and the internet effectively. The dialogue registered immense benefits such as identifying priority areas that need immediate action in the great effort to close the gender digital divide. These included and were not limited to mindset change in communities, investment in STEM by all stakeholders, engagement of cultural and religious leaders in the struggle to end close the gender digital divide. They also proposed continued partnerships between CSOs and government entities in formulating gender-sensitive ICT policies. Participants also acknowledged the need to engage the beneficiaries of the different ICT innovations or policies especially those at the grassroots so as to fully understand their challenges in regard to access to the internet and digital technologies. While individual access may not be attained in the short run some participants suggested devising strategies of embracing shared ICT tools, especially in communities to speed up the penetration of the internet and technological advancements.

The CSOs present in the discussion commended WOUGNET for spearheading a coalition of CSOs to combine efforts to advocate for gender-sensitive ICT policies. Government agencies also pledged to work hand in hand with the CSOs to close the gender digital divide and mentioned programs such as the National Development Plan 3 that CSOs can tap in to rally efforts toward closing the gender digital divide.

Conclusion

If gender-sensitive ICT policies are made a priority by the state, Uganda will be in a position to achieve the Digital Uganda Vision 2040. The digital vision seeks to empower all Ugandan citizens including women to reach the goals of universal inclusion, economic progress, and poverty eradication through digital innovation combining initiatives across various sectors. This will ultimately enable women in Uganda to connect, learn, use, and experience a revamp in their productivity and as well benefit from various opportunities online.

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