With the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) redefining the economy into a digitally led economy that is the information economy, the social, political and economic power lies on information and access to information. Digital technology has the potential to expand social opportunities and drive economic growth. Thus, equitable access to information is declared by the United Nations a fundamental human right with the Internet playing a critical role in ensuring information is available to everyone at all times. However, about half of the world’s population is offline, the majority being women and girls from developing countries. The ‘digital divide’ today extends beyond the information haves and have-nots but mirrors and intensifies the offline inequalities, with gendered inequalities being at the centre. To be offline implies missing out on learning, earning, access to health and safety measures, democratic spaces and valuable services. While the Internet remains an excellent enabler for girls and women socially and economically, the lack of opportunities, skills and the fear of being discriminated prevent many from using digital tools and creating online content. Consequently, girls and women have limited access to information and so gendering information poverty.
Globally, the Internet penetration rate is higher for men than women; with men having a 21% more likelihood of being online than women. According to the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) 2019 statistics indicate in Africa, the Internet penetration rate for women is only 22.6% compared to 33.8% for men. Especially in developing economies, women and girls appear on the online scene much later and more slowly than their counterpart men and boys. The gendered information poverty remains largest amongst the least developed countries. In Africa, it is more pronounced in the Sub-Saharan Africa region. Exploring regional Internet use gap statistics from the Web Foundation organisation, Sub-Saharan Africa has the second-highest countries average of 43% after South Asia (137%). In comparison, North Africa has only a 9% use gap average.
In South Africa, while the inherited apartheid economy instills a systematic racial exclusion of black Africans in economy activities including labour market opportunities and direct ownership of land and businesses, its effect is more so pronounced on black women. South Africa, despite having a commendable telecommunication infrastructure to support information access in Africa, girls and women active presence online and thus access to information is still limited. Therefore, deliberate efforts need to be made to close in on the gendered information gap.
What Escalates Gendered Information Poverty in South Africa?
In the world that is increasingly relying on Information and Communication Technology (ICT), information poverty has become a prominent indicator in explaining the true nature of being a have or a have-not in society. Information poverty is a state of helplessness or impoverishment constituting not only the lack of access to information but also the deficiency of useful information to enable individual or societal problem solving. Accordingly, Elfreda Chatman’s theory of information poverty distinguishes success to information access is constrained by one’s conditions and vulnerabilities in life. Thus, girls and women’s access to information is defined and restricted by several factors, including cultural and stereotypical concerns, economic means as well as the knowledge and skills requirements.
Literacy and skills for accessing and using information have remained the biggest obstacle to girls and women’s access and use of information. In South Africa, access to education for a girl is less than that of a boy and for the small margin that does attend school the dropout rate is higher. Statistics South Africa’s 2018 data revealed family commitments contributed to10.8% of girls compared to only 0.1% of boys being out of school, while the lack of funds kept 21.7% of girls compared to 17.4% of boys out of school. However, only 9.4% of the girls were of negative perception on the usefulness of education in their lives compared to 15.9% of boys who hold the same perception. Also, while post-school education enrolment declined between 2009 and 2018, the decline observed was more among female (11.4%) compared to the male counterparts (9.4%). Apart from access to education gender inequality also infiltrates the classroom environment through several ways including curricula, teachers or peers attitudes towards gender and violence against gender and sex, consequently impacting on learners accomplishments and career aspirations. Therefore, males have consistently demonstrated higher literacy rate compared to their female counterparts and even higher than the average rate for 2009 – 2018.
Affordability of the means to access information such as mobile phones or computers, and also the cost of information itself as a commodity has persistently posed as an inhibiting factor against equal access to information for young girls and women. Affordability directly links to the disposable income that women have for accessing information. The 2019 Affordability Drivers Index (ADI) for South Africa stood at 59.72 while the affordability of monthly 1GB mobile broadband was averaged at 2.30% of the monthly income. Despite a reasonable affordability score, women spend 2.2 times more of the income on household maintenance compared to their male counterparts. Likewise, while women constitute 51% of the total population in South Africa, only 44.3% makes the employed workforce mostly in lower levels of the organisation constituting low income. Majority of the women participate in household food production and distribution.
Gender stereotypical concerns also have significantly contributed to the gendered information poverty in South Africa. The gendered division of labour within communities has made the majority of women and girls spend much of their time in non-income rewarded tasks. Statistic South Africa reveals women and girls spend a substantial proportion of the time on activities like caregiving for children and the elderly (32 minutes compared to 4 minutes for men), fetching water and doing household maintenance (171 minutes for women compared to 74 minutes for men), and that they spend less time working in establishments compared to their male counterparts. Moreover, the misconception surrounding young girls and women’s presences online, such as prostituting, limits women’ participation in the online scene. Culturally, men primary decision-makers are expected to be at the forefront of all activities with women taking the backseat. For those women who dare to venture on the forefront are perceived to be arrogant and general misfits within their household or community.
Other factors that contribute to limiting women and girls’ effective participation in various cyberspaces include the potential of being cyber stalked and bullied. In South Africa, with 70% of females as victims of cyber harassment compared to 53.2% of male participants, it indicates that women and girls are more vulnerable than men and boys. Resultantly, women and girls tend to avoid being online or spend limited time as possible to minimise their chances of being victimised. Moreover, women and girls are psychological more sensitive to security and privacy issues; such that any perceived insecurity or infringement of privacy may result into cause women to withdraw from online participation compared to their male counterparts. Generally, women feel less confidently secured in online spaces than men.
What does it mean for Women to Access Information in South Africa?
With the Internet as a critical enabler for 4IR, providing new opportunities for transitioning into the information economy, being online and accessing information is critical for women’s success in whatever sphere of life. GSM Africa estimates that increasing women’s online presence will raise the gross domestic product of most African countries. Whether for learning, job seeking, trading products or services or research, being online and accessing information is economically essential for women.
In South Africa, with girls and women playing a vital role in food production and distribution, improving their access to price, product, market and supply chain information could potentially lead to sustainable rural poverty reduction. Statistics by No Ceilings indicated that women in low and middle-income countries get online to advance their economic participation by accessing information that facilitates either their job search (45%) or earnings of additional income (30%). Thus, with women’s inclination to spend a large proportion of their income on household maintenance, addressing the gendered information poverty will have a significant impact on eradicating household poverty among South Africans. Likewise, access to the Internet and essentially to information, more so in a population battling HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 pandemics amongst others has a substantial impact on public health and safety. Considering the caregiving role to elders and siblings within households in South Africa, girls and women’s access to information potentially has a significant effect on the population’s quality of life. Women’s access to health-related information such as reproductive health and health-related directives, for instance, the washing of hands and social distancing as in the case of COVID_19 significantly leads to the promotion of healthy practices within communities. Consequently, the gendered information poverty is a gap worth closing.
What needs to be done to improve Women’s Information Access in South Africa?
To achieve gendered equality in information access, girls and women essential need equal access to technology, digital training, security and safety online. Despite extensive inclusion of broad aspects of gender equality within the legal and regulatory framework, such as the Constitution of South Africa (1996), the Employment Equity Act (1998) and the Commission for Gender Equality Act of (1996 and its 2013 amendments), there is a need for specific actions by stakeholders both in public and private sector, to address the persisting gendered information poverty in South Africa.
Literacy and skills development remains a critical success factor towards eradication of the gendered information poverty in South Africa. Promotion of equal access to education while it is enshrined in the Education Act, awareness on the importance of girls and women’s access to information needs to be emphasised. Education stakeholders need to embark on awareness campaigns to sensitise young girls and women on the importance of being online and accessing relevant information for decision-making. These campaigns should also focus on eradication the cultural and gender-stereotypical misconceptions surrounding women’s online presence as well as their role in decision-making. Stereotypical misconceptions such as ‘technology is for boys’ or ‘girls online are prostituting’ need to be addressed among South African communities. Improving girls and women’s online presence is only the first step; it is then essential to empower them with sufficient technical knowledge to take full advantage of the accessed information.
Ensuring that online presence is affordable to both women and girls either through increasing their participation in income-earning occupations or through subsidising online costs will significantly contribute towards gendered information equality. Employers in South Africa while promoting an environment of equal employment opportunity, they need to take into consideration other systemic gender inequalities, such as the gendered access to education and the gendered discriminated learning process. Access to equitable employment opportunities will improve women’s disposable income, thus, raising their affordability index for online presence. Although the Employment Act explicitly states equal employment opportunity, practice is somehow different with the majority of women still being confined in low wage employment opportunities or none income compensated household activities. Moreover, stakeholders should explore various alternatives to lower cost of accessing information such as subsidising the costs for Internet bundle, providing free Wi-Fi in public places to supplement the monthly cost and ‘zero-rating’ that is not charging any cost for women and girls’ empowering online services.
Furthermore, the government and its stakeholders are urged to create safe online spaces in order to boost girls and women’s confidence in online spaces. Stringent laws responding specifically on cybercrimes such cyberbullying, cyberstalking and ‘sexting’ (creating and sharing text or images of a sexual nature with a minor) must be enacted. South Africa does not have specific laws on digital harassment but only some variations addressed within the Protection from Harassment Act of 2011. The lack of specific legal tools for digital spaces obscures the definition and context crime, which can make the process of obtaining justice difficult.
With mobile phones playing a critical infrastructural connectivity role, especially in rural South Africa, stakeholders need to ensure a broad and equitable mobile access. However, mobile phone ownership is also gendered in South Africa with higher numbers of men than women owning mobile phones. Strategies like discounting mobile phones or unique payment plans for women will facilitate closing in on the mobile gender gap.
Lastly, creating online content that is relevant and useful to girls and women will entice access and use, thus closing the gendered information gap. Stakeholders need to ensure that the content provided is accurate, reliable, useful and without risk of exploitation. Moreover, women and girls should be involved in the development of content needs to ensure it is relevant, engaging and user-friendly.
Maria Lauda Goyayi is a researcher at the School of Management, IT and Public Governance, UKZN. She writes in her personal capacity.