By Rachel Kwainona
Participation is essential for development and empowerment as described by, among others, Chambers (1983). Access and usage of digital technologies is a means to empower women, give them access to information and life-enhancing opportunities, and foster women’s engagement. The digital transformation offers immense opportunities for economies and societies.
However, the benefits of the digital transformation are currently not equally balanced between societal groups and genders, access, use and ownership of digital tools are not gender-neutral. The term “digital gender divide” is frequently used to refer to these types of gender differences in resources and capabilities to access and effectively utilize ICTs within and between countries, regions, sectors and socio-economic groups (see UN Women, 2005).
They’re a number of disparities for the empowerment of women through technology to be realized. Cooper(2006) stated that there are a number of root causes of the digital gender divide, including hurdles to access, affordability, education (or lack thereof) and lack of technological literacy, as well as inherent biases and socio-cultural norms that lead to gender-based digital exclusion.
There is recognition and need for action to ensure that women and girls participate and are empowered to access information, ICT and partake in the digital world. In this digital age,where social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are increasingly becoming instrumental to free expression.
The main agenda is to focus on how many women and girls have access to an ICT gadget ? such as a smartphone, computer or a laptop. To buttress on the issue of digital gender gap, women and girl lack accessibility because a few individuals have access to internet data connection and the literacy to understand ICT or the digital web.
Across the globe, citizens are increasingly witnessing the rise of social movements through internet-based platforms to organize, communicate and share significant information that affects their livelihoods but women are marginalized in these conversations due to lack of access to partake in the online realm.
The Constitution of Zimbabwe has “recognition of the equality of all human beings” as a founding principle in Section 3(1). The law in Section 17(1) implores the state to promote gender balance and the full participation of women in all spheres of Zimbabwean society. However, there is notable male dominance in leadership due to sociocultural and traditional beliefs regarding the role of women in the society, patriarchal attitudes and religious practices.
Women have begun to reclaim some power in sectors like civil society and business using social media to claim space and assert their leadership. Despite this progress, social media platforms in Zimbabwe are dominated by business, religious and entertainment personalities and an increase of social media violence towards women online.
Although there is increased uptake of social media by Zimbabweans in other sectors presenting opportunities for women to strengthen their leadership roles. Social media has brought liberation for women to equally share their opinions and gain access. But the major question still remains on to what extent is social media accessible and free for all women to partake in the digital web?
Marginalized women still remain on the periphery of full participation in the digital world. The internet has greatly proliferated the mass consumer market during the last decade. Social media therefore being a new phenomenon brought about new perspectives that scholars are still studying and against this backdrop it brings me to a perspective of interrogation and questioning on the effectiveness of social media as a tool of liberation or restriction? in terms of digital access on fostering empowerment and participation of women to lessen the digital gender gap in developing countries in Africa mainly in Zimbabwe.
Just as refugees fleeing to escape Zimbabwe, so are Zimbabweans battling to find ways to traverse the abyss of a digital divide affecting the country. In 2008-09, Zimbabwe was rated third worst in the world for its national information communications technology (ICT) capability by the World Economic Forum, being ranked at 132/134 nations on the global ICT. What does this mean for women?
In the Zimbabwean societies and organizations, females have less access to the Internet than males. It was found that fewer males (38%) had limited access to the Internet than females (41%). This indicates that gender does create a divide between the information haves and the have-nots (Signh, 2004). In the local situation we still have tribal beliefs that are patriarchal and that support male dominance to the extent of making it a policy that girls should never proceed beyond grade seven, with statistics reaching as high as 4500 for 2017 alone, according to (the Herald, 10 April 2017).
In terms of global power relations involving ICT capability, Zimbabwe has little influence in any world ranking of nations. A history of oppression, economic collapse, mismanagement, poverty, disease, corruption, discrimination, and public sector breakdown and population loss has rendered the country almost powerless in ICT which heightens this digital divide in the country and creates a digital gender gap.
This is exceptionally a bleak technological situation, given the current difficult socio-economic and political situation that has resulted in a digital abyss in Zimbabwe. Civic society has managed to engage and foster participation through digital advocacy workshops that train women and girls in the use of ICT but due to poor programming this remains futile in progress as it is not translating to offline action of an increase in more women and girls who are active empowered participants in the digital world.
They’re more challenges that are affecting and threatening the growth of women in the digital space, heightens inequalities and hinder achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment in the digital space.
There is a need for people centred programming that integrate the technology into peoples’ lives, and make it meaningful for them to use it. It is integral in ensuring the rights of women and girls across all the sustainable development goals to achieve justice and inclusion, economies that work for all, and sustain a shared environment now and for future generations.
Fulfilling this right is the best chance we have in meeting some of the most pressing challenges of our time from economic crisis and lack of health care, to climate change, violence against women and escalating conflicts. Factors to consider are digital empowerment, participation and engagement at grassroots level.
Even if the technology is accessible and affordable, and women have been trained to use them, not everybody would make full use of the opportunities that such technology provides. It has to be relevant to them for them to use it. Therefore, gender digital divide bridging programs need to find ways to integrate the technology into peoples’ lives, and make it meaningful for them to use it. This is powerful to enhance women’s rights and empower women and reduce inequalities in the digital space.