Maputo — During her first week of computer literacy training, Atija Joss, 24, would ask a colleague to turn on the laptop. “I was afraid of damaging it,” she recalls.
Though her husband works at an internet café in Maputo, Mozambique’s capital, he never introduced her to the digital world.
In high school, Joss handwrote her assignments and asked a colleague or paid a photocopying shop to type them. “That was a nuisance,” she admits. “I was never curious about computers. I didn’t think it was for women.”
Joss’s story illustrates her country’s yawning digital gender divide. Whereas 51% of young men in Maputo and 36% in Beira, Mozambique’s second-largest city, frequently use a computer, only 27% of young women in Maputo and 15% of young women in Beira do so. About one-third of young women aged 15 to 25 do not own any kind of mobile phone.
Across Africa, the buzz is about coding camps and hackathons for girls, mobile wallets and getting crop prices and medical insurance with cellphones. Africa is leapfrogging over old technology. Media stories feature trendy urban youth texting on smart phones at snazzy start-up incubators. Africa’s digital revolution is steaming ahead from Kigali to Lagos, from Nairobi to Johannesburg.
But this is just one side of the story. Women, especially the poor, are being left behind. In low-income neighbourhoods of Maputo, just one-third of women are connected to the internet, compared with almost two-thirds of men.
Although the gender gap between internet users has narrowed globally since 2013, it has widened in Africa, where the proportion of women using the internet is 25% lower than the proportion of men doing so. This is according to a 2017 report by the International Telecommunications Union.
The digital gender gap deepens inequalities among men and women by excluding women from the benefits of technological change — jobs, income, information, voice, participation in public life, and quick access to credit, education and health care.
Tangible barriers to digital literacy and connectivity include poverty, no or unreliable electricity, expensive airtime and data, crumbling infrastructure, and rote learning at school. But women also face intangible barriers — social norms and gender stereotypes — that block their access to the tech world.
Closing the digital gender gap requires an approach “that captures the interconnectedness of the barriers,” says Nanjira Sambuli, digital equality advocacy manager at the United States-based World Wide Web Foundation, which conducts digital gender gap audits worldwide.
“Boys have the right to do everything they want. We girls, we hear: ‘Find a boyfriend! Find a husband! Find money for your sanitary pads and your clothes!’ Girls lose a sense of their value,” says Marta Virgilio Massicame, 19, one of Joss’s classmates. “When I applied for free computer training, I was told that tech is not for women; being a good wife and mother is. Our families perpetuate a ‘you will fail’ mind-set.”
Alfredo Cuanda says: “Our patriarchal African societies and families maintain rigid patterns across generations.” Cuanda manages Ideario, the innovation hub where the first group of 60 young women, among them Joss and Massicame, learned digital skills in 2017.
Located on the busy main street of Chamanculo, a poor neighbourhood in Maputo, Ideario partners with Muva, a United Kingdom aid-funded programme to increase the employability of poor young women. To break this chain of self-reinforcing negative self-perception, Muva and Ideario engage the tech trainees in a three-month process of reflection around gender roles, power relations and self-worth.
University is not free of gender bias either. Miwanda Lainissi, 22, is in her fourth year of computer engineering at the national university. Of the four women in her class of 70 students, two quit and one chose management. Only Lainissi persists.
“I had to be strong,” she says. “Classmates, teachers and relatives did not believe I could code.” To provide peer support for young women in tech, Lainissi set up a group, Muthiana Code, meaning Women Code in eMakhuwa.
“We need to work around our fears and stop being outsiders to the tech world,” she says.
The digital gap starts early and it starts at home. Little girls don’t play games on their parents’ cellphones but boys do. Girls have domestic chores and little leisure time to play and learn hands-on, using phones and tablets.
Thus, an initiative focused on digital skills “must factor, in that adverse social and gender norms may have to be overcome to even get women into your training space,” says Sambuli.
Although research and experience confirm that social norms perpetuate the digital gender gap, the space and funding to work on dismantling stereotypes and changing power relations is limited. The process to raise awareness is slow, labour-intensive and hard to quantify, but it is the entry point for women to acquire basic digital and data literacy.
“I come from a very poor family,” says Joss. “I studied by a kerosene [paraffin] lamp. I dropped out of high school twice to have my babies — and now I work with the internet. In my wildest dreams I never thought this would be possible.”