When we envisage what access to a free affordable internet in Africa should look like, the understanding should be an internet that is rights-based (free) and advances human rights protection. Further, it should be an internet that is simple to join and allows for multi-stakeholder engagement in policy formulation.
In addition, a free internet is one that allows for space for discourse on various issues as well as on key Internet governance topics involving all stakeholders where exchange of ideas happens and there is tolerance of a diversity of views and opinions. In addition, it is an internet that is open for increasing support for inclusive approaches in ICT policy making at country, regional and global levels. As a result, knowledge is created, enhanced, and there is a wide range of understanding of key priority issues in the internet ecosystem.
Moreover, internet freedoms are essential to the growth of the Internet in both access and in developing new innovations, and innovation is key in growth in Africa.
In the access to free affordable internet discussions, conscious effort must be made to involve women. The reason is that when considering gender approaches, the focus is on women as they have tended to be left behind in Africa in matters technological. Many ordinary women lack skills and for example require training on basic keyboarding skills in order for them to break that fear that a computer is complex, as well as how to access the Internet. Others also require an explanation as to why they should invest their time learning technology in particular if they think it takes a lot of their time and makes no economic sense. Ordinary women must be made to understand the digital dividends they can appropriate from the internet.
Further, it is important that those working on access to free and affordable internet, link women’s development with ICTs, the importance of access to the internet, information and infrastructure. Infrastructure and internet are currently concentrated in urban areas and this calls for traditional women organizations to be equipped with skills in advocacy and engagement so as to increase women’s self-assurance across the ICT ecosystem for them to be able to advocate for more affordable internet access. And most important, establish support systems that will foster an enabling environment.
We need policies that will benefit African women, and it is important for policy interventions for example to include budgetary allocations for such components as education. Linking discussions on affordable access for women with countries’ development blue prints, as well as global frameworks that can be lobbies for example the Africa Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms.
In addition, there is need for a movement to push for a future where we will have more women partaking of the knowledge society. The movement should then push for solutions to policy failure. The movement must react; have targets and a timeframe within which some result should be expected. And this requires strategically investing time and resources in spaces where decisions are made.
African governments have established universal service funds or are in the process of doing so. Unfortunately for those already in place, we have not heard great success stories. We must therefore think and propose practical ways of unlocking these funds so that the needy sectors of society including women can start benefitting.
In addition, there is need to mentor young women by not just encouraging them to get into tech spaces but by linking them with role models who can provide the mentorship.
Opportunities for engagement
Currently, the issue of access to affordable internet is topical in Africa. Accordingly, it is important to capitalize on the heat of the moment and act. This is the time to go beyond challenges and look for opportunities and in the case of women, focus on what technology has to offer for example where cultural barriers are concerned and which perpetuate the stereotypes that technology issues are male domains, change the narrative!
The evidence that has so far been built should be useful now in informing policy formulations. Many governments are trying to understand the Internet and responding with policy proposals in different areas, and this is the time for organizations advocating for access to input.
Forging partnerships with those working on access or facilitate access such as ICT Ministries and Regulators is key. Further, the need to work together on key agendas that require a critical mass of advocates as opposed to working in silos will help further the agenda of accessing a free affordable internet. In fact, a movement would suffice where each partner brings in their expertise and resources as opposed to competing.
In summary, transformation will happen if our work as a sector takes cognizance of culture, diverse backgrounds, our diversity and the need to put our efforts together. This will ensure we are able to achieve our goals. And unlike in projects where organizations can predict outcomes say on three year cycle, advocacy is a long term process that may take long to bear fruits. However, advocates pushing for access to a free affordable Internet must remain on course and focus on the big picture.
Grace Githaiga is the Field Coordinator for Women and the Web as well as an advocate of equitable ICT policy and regulation. You can follow her at @ggithaiga on Twitter.