Why more women should be connected to the Internet

The benefits of technology and innovation include more online jobs.

Photo credit: Photo I Pool

What you need to know:

  • Many women still use dumbphones, which lack the advanced functionality that allows internet connection.
  • They cite prohibitive costs of acquiring smartphones and bundles as a barrier.

Had she had a smartphone, she would not have missed out on the most recent Nairobi County job opportunities in her area, Mathare 4A.

Unfortunately, this was not the first time for Irene Awino, 34, to miss out on important updates because she had no access to the Internet. She had missed an application for her niece’s bursary last year.

By the time she got the information about the bursary, it was two hours to the deadline. Her phone, a kabambe (dumbphone),could not help her submit the details required digitally. It was10pm, no cyber was open, and yet again, the opportunity slipped through her hands.

Though at times she has had the privilege of having a smartphone, the reality of affording data bundles to surf the Internet and fully enjoy the opportunities that lie therein, remains a serious challenge. A vocal youth mobiliser in her area, Irene knows most of the chances she needs for her improvement and emancipation from poverty are in the clouds.

Irene Awino at her home in Mathare 4A. She, like many other women in Mathare, lack access to the Internet. The cost of buying a smartphone and data bundles hinders her from enjoying services and opportunities available online.

Photo credit: Steve Otieno I Nation Media Group

“The youth empowerment forums are online, links to jobs are online, [Nairobi governor Johnson] Sakaja’s mitaani initiatives are online, everything is online, I have a kabambe, so all these good things are not for me,” she says ruefully.

Currently, she is in trouble with the country’s tax collector, the ever-feared Kenya Revenue Authority ((KRA). For the last five years, she relied on cyber attendants to file her tax returns. She recently learnt that they never submitted her correct details.

“I once submitted my KRA Pin required for an enumeration job and was directed to check my KRA portal to clear some issues. I rushed to the regional branch and was shocked to find I had a very big fine. I do not even have half the money required to pay for the accrued penalties,” she told Nation.Africa.

David Ombuya, who owns a pharmacy, says such scenarios are common, particularly for Mathare 4A’s widows who often report to him their woes as they visit the chemist for their prescriptions.

“Many come to me complaining that they have big penalties, yet they pay cyber attendants to file nil returns on their behalf. In fact, we want the KRA people to come and sensitise us to these things,” he says.

David Ombuya at his shop in Mathare 4A, Nairobi. He says he helps many of his customers, particularly women, to access the Internet and apply for various services using his phone. 

Photo credit: Steve Otieno I Nation Media Group

It pains him to see vulnerable people miss out on opportunities such as the youth fund, government jobs, school bursaries, scholarships and online learning opportunities because they have no access to the Internet. He recounts how on one occasion, a resident named Beatrice sought his help in writing a letter she would use to tender for an Access to Government Procurement Opportunities (Agpo) contract.

Surprisingly, Beatrice informed him that she did not know what details to include. She only knew the contract was lucrative and would enable her to run a laundry chain in the entire Mathare 4A area, employing tens of women.

“I told her she could simply visit the Agpo portal and fill in the requisite details. She was shocked that there was such a thing.” he says.

Priscilla Wanjiru, 24, another resident of Mathare, has yet to come to terms with missing out on last year’s Kazi Mtaani initiative after the link for job applications was sent to WhatsApp groups, yet she had no smartphone.

This job, she says, would have helped her finish her certificate in entrepreneurship course as she lacked Sh7,500, which she would have earned had she got the job. Even when she once had a smartphone, data bundles proved expensive.

“I could afford Sh10 worth of bundles, which you cannot use to complete an application of any sort. Your application stops midway and you are forced to look for more bundles and start afresh,” she says.

Priscilla Wanjiru, a resident of Mathare 4A, shares how not having a smartphone has cost her several opportunities, including last year's Kazi Mtaani initiative that could have helped her complete her studies. 

Photo credit: Steve Otieno I Nation Media Group

Not known to many, the lack of smartphones by women has seen many wives battered by their husbands. This particularly happens when a wife without an income and resultantly lacks a smartphone has to rely on her husband’s phone to receive files or some document and while at it, stumbles upon “unwarranted” messages, as Ms Awinoexplains. This results in a confrontation, and, sadly, it is the woman who gets beaten up in the melee. As such, most women prefer staying in the dark rather than touch their partner’s smartphones.

“There is a lot of mistrust among couples. Many women here know they would rather use their friends’ mobile phones that touch their husbands’ as they must almost always end up in fights and end up injured,” Mr Ombuya says.  

According to a 2022 UN Women report, Gendered Nature of Digital Inequality,Evidence for Policy Considerations, Internet uptake and intensity of use correlates with the level of education and income.

“The concentration of women amongst those marginalised from digital services, applications and platforms is primarily explained by their lack of education and income. The lack of access to education and income may be determined by social, cultural, religious and biological factors,” the report read.

Policy and regulatory interventions that ensure availability of broadband networks and reduce the price of devices and data are likely to increase Internet accessibility for poorer and rural women, and men, and other people currently most marginalised from services, the study showed.

For Mumbi Ndung’u, the chief of growth and operations at Power Learn Project-that provides tech training for the youth across Kenya, South Africa, Zambia, Tanzania and Nigeria, sociocultural and gender roles play a big part in the glaring digital gender divide in Africa.

“Prevailing cultural norms prioritise men’s education, employment opportunities and access to resources, leaving women with limited access to technology and digital literacy programs,” she says.

This unequal access to education and digital literacy programmes resultantly impedes women’s ability to utilise the Internet fully and bars them from acquiring necessary skills to navigate online platforms effectively.

Prohibitive costs

Also, the cost of Internet services and devices remains a significant barrier for most women who have limited financial resources, the Power Learn Project boss explains. “Access to affordable and reliable Internet connectivity and ownership of devices such as smartphones or computers is crucial to bridging the gender gap in Internet access.”

A 2022 research by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), Facts and Figures, showed that 260 million fewer women than men worldwide have access to the Internet. The study also established that Africa lags behind in Internet penetration, with a paltry 34 per cent of women using the Internet compared to 45 per cent for men.

These figures are below the global averages of 63 per cent for women and 69 per cent for men, with most African countries lacking proper infrastructure for connectivity.

Only the Americas have attained gender parity in Internet access, with both genders settling at 83 per cent in usage. At least 90 per cent of men have access to the Internet compared to 89 per cent of women in Europe, while 65 per cent of women use the Internet in the Arab states compared to 75 per cent of men.

Another challenge barring women’s use is online harassment that exposes women to greater risks of cyberbullying, threats and other forms of digital abuse. Such was the case for Wangeci Tabitha, who was so traumatised that she exited social media for seven years after facing a myriad of abusive content in 2016 when she posted material on her Instagram page. 

“I have never forgotten some of the words that were posted on my comment section when I advocated better treatment for the girl child. I quit social media immediately. I came back just last month (July) and I now have 32 followers,” she said.

Digital Centre

EU Ambassador Henriette Geiger, while launching the Digital Centre in Nairobi in June, insisted on strict measures of regulating online content and cautioned that failure to regulate the digital space could result in several risks, including cyberbullying and data breaches. 

One of the key tenets of the Sh4 billion Digital Centre is promoting gender-inclusive innovations in the digital sector to effectively boost the economy by offering more opportunities for women. Through the initiative, Ms Geiger said the gender imbalance affecting women in access to the Internet will be rectified to ensure more women have a better chance of accessing jobs and giving their input on the digital ecosystem.

“With the right policies, the adoption of the digital economy can go a long way in dealing with inequalities by including more women in the digital space and encouraging their participation in creating innovations that empower society, as well as protecting people’s data,” she said.

In October last year, President William Ruto said the government would lay an additional 100,000km of the national fibre optic in his first five-year term. A month later, he said the country would have the capacity to manufacture mobile phones locally for as low as Sh5,000. This has yet to be achieved and for women at the grassroots like Ms Awino, the promise would be one of their surest ways of advancing themselves in the digital space.

“President Ruto promised us better connectivity, free Wi-Fi in public spaces and cheap phones, I hope he still remembers. If he accomplishes this promise, believe you me, all of us in Mathare will always be online, natutaomoka (and we will prosper),” Ms Awino concludes.