The United Nations recently made gender-equitable access to information and communications technologies (ICTs) central to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which set the global development agenda until 2030.
In adopting the SDGs, all countries have pledged to prioritise universal Internet access, and to use ICTs to empower women.
However, much hard work lies ahead if we are to translate this vision into reality, especially, in Ghana and other African countries where formidable gender gap in Internet access, digital skills and online rights exists.
A wide range of factors hinder including; challenges with access, affordability, high levels of illiteracy and lack of knowhow, and online safety challenges of cyber bullying, harassment, cyberstalking, body shaming, rape threats and revenge pornography hinder women getting online.
The situation is more compounded against the fact that gender inequality in Ghana is a pervasive issue that has drawn considerable attention among certain sections of the county’s leadership, human rights activists, feminists, academics, media and other well-meaning Ghanaians who have the interests of under-represented groups, mostly women, at heart.
Meanwhile, efforts to close gender gaps in Ghana have traditionally rested on public education intended to highlight the need to give women equal or similar opportunities as men.
Although efforts are being made, there are still challenges due to the existence of some cultural and social beliefs and practices, high levels of illiteracy among the populace and a general ignorance about gender inequality issues.
In spite of the fact that the internet has the potential to bridge the gap, it is still a hugely unexplored terrain for many Ghanaian women.
According to a study conducted in poor, urban communities in nine cities across the global South, by the World Wide Web Foundation in 2016, “women are 50 per cent less likely than men to be online and 30-50 per cent less likely to use the internet for economic and political empowerment”
Moreover, the few women who actually have access are at risk of harassment as their rights online are not guaranteed especially in instances where they experience the same patriarchal and misogynistic attacks they encounter offline.
The result is that many women are denied the opportunity to fully access and use the internet for economic gains and self-development.
In a baseline report on Women’s Rights Online Issues in Ghana produced by the Media Foundation for West Africa ( MFWA), findings have indicated that women are more limited and restricted in the use of the internet, which is largely due to the fact that the traditional challenges women face offline are reflected in the cyberspace as well.
The MFWA undertook the baseline study to assess issues surrounding women’s rights online in Ghana and sampled and interviewed women, rights groups and government Ministries and Agencies on issues concerning women’s access to and use of the internet, as well as policy interventions intended to protect the rights of women online.
The study stated the main reasons why women use the internet as, to enable them stay connected with family, friends and acquaintances and for entertainment and education purposes.
It showed that women face many barriers including; a scarcity of relevant and empowering content, as well as social and legal obstacles to speaking freely and privately online.
The MFWA in January 2018, therefore, organised a training workshop for journalists and women’s rights advocates on issues pertaining to women’s use of the internet in Ghana, where the women’s online report was discussed.
That workshop, highlighted the prevailing issues hindering women’s participation online and how the media and women’s rights groups in Ghana could collaborate for increased advocacy to provide solutions.
The report, indicated that 12 per cent of women in Ghana have access to mobile financial services while less than 20 per cent of women in the country have access to the Internet.
It revealed that one GB of data costs over seven per cent of average monthly income, while women access to and use of the internet is highly dependent on the type of mobile device used and on the level of education.
It also noted that although government has established some public Community Information Centres, many were not fully operational, with breakdown of equipment and lack of connectivity cited as concerns.
Even though government had put in place some ICT-related policies aimed at improving internet accessibility and use, and creating a safer internet space for the public, including women, many of them do not have clear targets or specific action plans or budget allocations for their effective implementation.
The study, therefore recommended among others that, existing data prices should be reviewed downwards, through actions like removing the 20 per cent import tax imposed on mobile phones in Ghana, as promised by the government.
It also recommended that more research should be done to provide scientific evidence to inform policies, interventions and advocacy to help improve the women’s rights online situation in the country.
It called for the review of the National ICT for Accelerated Development Policy to include; targets for improving women and girls’ access to the Web and bridging the ICT gender gap while data on women’s Internet access and use should be collected annually.
There is the need to also ensure a safe online environment by revising existing policies to address online violence against women (VAW), while awareness campaigns should be mounted to publicise the legal processes available for seeking redress.
The Ghana Police Service must be trained and equipped with all resources, namely, technical, human, and financial to fight all forms of digitally enabled violence against women.
There is also the need to sensitise women, especially the young girls at the Junior High and Senior High School levels, and even at the primary school level, on what information one should exchange online to avoid a situation of sending very personal and private information that could be used against the women later.
By the study, the MFWA has taken the lead, and in consultation with other national stakeholders, have identified concrete steps that government could take in the next year to address the challenges and gaps affecting women’s online identified.
Mrs. Dora B. Mawutor, the Programme Manager for Freedom of Expression at MFWA, in emphasising the importance of unhindered Internet access and usage in promoting women’s personal growth and development, said, “Given the important role the internet plays, it is about time we begin empowering women and girls on how to explore the benefits it presents for their personal growth and development”.
By Lydia Kukua Asamoah