By Y. Z. Ya’u
Two days ago, a team of staff of the Centre for Information Technology and Development, (CITAD) went to Shara in Sumaila Local Government area of Kano State to conduct a COVID-19 sensitization programme for teachers and students as well as parents of Shara Primary School, a community school that CITAD and the community established about four years ago. Although enrolment has increased but we found a number of the girls have dropped out. In response to the unvocalized question of our team members, the community leader said that they had been married off.
They were still to be functionally literate but, painfully, they had reached the end of their educational pursuit. It also, in a way, marked the end of the chance for them to get formal entrepreneurship and vocational education. And today, we are here talking about digital gender inclusion in a context that girls’ horizons are not even given the chance to see beyond the primary school. These Shara girls have been digitally excluded because digital inclusion requires functional literacy. Without being literate, they cannot interact with the various devices (or at least many of them) as to get the best from access to information technology.
But Shara is only one instance at which you are painfully exposed to the trajectory that tells you how far behind women are left digitally. The lockdown presented another question. CITAD undertook a research and found a dramatic increase in incidence of domestic violence during the period. While technology provides a mean for victims to communicate to the outside world, for assistance, support, remedy, many of these women suffered, locked in their homes because they could not access technology to their aid.
Three key issues were responsible for this. First, like the Shara girls, women in general have lesser opportunities to acquire education than men. And as the point made earlier, without education you cannot make effective use of the treasure that is online. The second is that women are generally socially, economically, educationally and politically marginalized and, therefore, are generally poorer. They constitute the great majority of the people living below the poverty line in the country. This is why a number of researchers around poverty say that poverty has a feminine face in Nigeria. The effective use of technology is dependent upon affordability. With more women poorer, they are less able to afford technology and hence end up unable to access and use it.
The third point is about social norms in the society. Social norms as articulated around the vestiges of patriarchy, condition and frame the way in which technology is inserted in society and used by both men and women. Women are generally discouraged from using internet at two levels. At one level, women, especially married ones, are not supposed to communicate outside circles of people with who their husbands may not be comfortable. This patriarchal social expectation in the communication scope of women expects them not to indulge in “frivolous” communication and should, therefore, not be seen using the social media and even the internet as a whole. If they must use the internet, they should use it sparingly. Stories, some of which may be anecdotal, have it that many marriages have collapsed on account of the wives using social media.
Patriarchal society does not expect a married woman to have a male friend, talk less of hundreds, if not thousand Facebook friends, many of whom she probably does not know offline. She should not have many “followers’’ on twitter and belong to several chat groups on Whatsapp. All these would be frowned at. This aspect of patriarchy is about control of the woman’s communication sphere by man.
The second level at which patriarchy operates is a mirror image of the control level which is that women are seen as objects of pleasure, lacking subjectivity of their own. This is at the root of gender based violence in society. Gender based violence is not limited to the physical space or offline relationships. It is also reflected in online behavior, giving rise to the concept of gender based violence online.
While social control seeks to place restriction on the use of internet by women, gender based violence online create fears that make women to not want to use the internet. Like gender based violence offline, online violence against women tends to be less visible. In fact, it is less visible than offline violence, because it takes place mostly at the private level. For this reason, there is little attention about it and, in some cases, the résistance to accept that it is, in fact, a major problem.
But there is also an additional dimension that is often overlooked which is about access to policy structures in the society. These structures shape the ways we live, including the way we access and use technology. These structures act in such a way as to exclude women and their input in the policy making process. This has two effects on the types of polices we get. First, men who are dominant players in the policy making environment do not experience gender digital marginalization and, therefore, do not understand, much less make effective policies to address it. Secondly, women who experience digital marginalization do not have knowledge and experience of technology that could make them provide sound policies to address their exclusion. Either way, we end up with inadequate policies that do not solve the problem,
One specific aspects of gender marginalization that is lost upon men is about gender harassment online. As it is directed at women, men hardly see it as such. It is, therefore, invisible. And so, to the majority of policy makers, this problem hardly merits attention because it makes no sense to address an invisible problem. Yet, it is core to addressing digital exclusion of women for it works two ways. One, women fear the internet because of the online harassment and withdraw as well as internalize this fear to the point that it becomes instrumental for their distancing from technology. On the other hand, men use it to point to the need to protect their wives, sisters and daughters from this danger by erecting a barrier against the use of the internet by women. The result is that the two reinforce each other and serve to widen the digital marginalization of women.
As we mark this Media Day of Action against Gender Digital Exclusion, I would like to invite us to a handshake across the table to understand the pains of digital exclusion, not just on gender lines about and for the whole society, resulting from leaving women digitally behind. To do that, we must accept certain realities. One of this is that the exclusion of women in the policy spaces and other digital space spaces is not accidental. It is the construction and imagining of these spaces as masculine by patriarchy. Second, acquiring ICT does not, in itself, effectively contribute to addressing the gender digital divide without addressing the negative representation and portrayal of women online.
We have to engage in a handshake that has to bring both men and women into a mutual dialogue on technology and deconstruct the myths around the internet. Men and women needs working together to discuss how the internet is a tool that can help rather than subvert family structures. Ultimately, men and women have to work together to overcome the constraints that patriarchy has placed before women in the use of technology. The handshake is not an easy conversation. On the part of the males, it signals acceptance to give up on some privileges while for women, it requires rethinking of normalized ideas
Mallam Y Z Ya’u, the author, is the Executive Director of CITAD. The piece memorialises today’s media action day against digital gender divide