Gender Assessment of ICT Access and Usage in Africa

Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) are widely seen as having the potential to contribute positively to economic growth and development and to improve the livelihoods and quality of life of individuals and households. Several studies have sought to demonstrate the correlations between economic growth and the penetration of telephones and now Internet. Although this is acknowledged to be something that starts in the high end of the market, the speed with which new, rapidly deployable wireless technologies have diffused across even developing countries, has been their most distinguishing characteristic.


What is clear from the Research ICT Africa (RIA) Household and Individual Access and Usage Survey is that the diffusion of ICT is highly uneven concentrating in urban areas and leaving some rural areas almost untouched. Access to these technologies is constrained by income as is usage, and as they become more complex, they are increasingly constrained by literacy and education. This analysis explores the inequities of access and usage further, by viewing them through a gender lens.
Of the limited demand-side data on Africa that exists, very little is disaggregated on gender lines. This study provides a descriptive statistical overview of access to ICTs by women and men and their usage of them. This is supported by focus groups that were undertaken in five of the 17 countries surveyed in East, Central, South and West Africa.
The survey reveals some surprising instances where more women than men own mobile phones, such as in South Africa and Mozambique, or where women have greater knowledge of the Internet such as in Cameroon. More generally however, the study confirms the differences in access by men and women to ICTs especially where they depend on public access.
With regard to mobile access, if factors other than gender are held constant no significant gender effect for mobile phone ownership can be found. This means that women with similar income, education and employment status are as likely as men to own a mobile phone. But, as women generally have less access to employment, education and other factors that increase the likelihood of ownership; access to mobile phones is clearly not equal between men and women. The survey also found that although men spend more on mobile phones in absolute terms, women spend a greater share of their monthly income on mobile usage.
The radio is the most commonly used electronic communication device, but even access to it is influenced by financial considerations due to absence of power in rural areas and the high cost of batteries. For some, however, particularly because of the absence of power and the income play a significant role. There are significant differences across countries around radio access by men and women and differences in their favourite programmes. Although women may be at home more they tend to listen to the radio less than men, even though they might have a similar education and income. This is often due to the nature of their work or to not having access to a radio or not being able to select which programmes to listen to if male members of the household are present.
Both the quantitative data and the focus groups highlight some issues pertinent to gender differences in ICT access and usage that are similar to findings in early studies and literature. It is clear from the evidence that although there is gender inequity, poorer men and women may have more in common when it comes to ICT access and usage than women and men across income, and urban and rural divides. This study highlights once more the necessity of communication irrespective of ones income level, gender or location. People devised multiple strategies to communicate – from using neighbours’ and friends’ phones, to owning SIMS only where they cannot afford a phone, to the use of public access centres or ‘please call me’ or ‘beeping’ to alert the other party. Interestingly, a large number of social norms and behaviour towards gender have spilled over into the ICT world.
The cost of communications remains a major challenge to Africa and in all the focus groups conducted men and women across the board have highlighted call costs as a constraint on communication. Women who have fewer opportunities for personal contact as a result of being housewives, doing unpaid work or generally earning less than their male counterparts, seem particularly disadvantaged by the high cost of communication. This has an impact on their capacity to access and use ICTs. To get around the issue of financial constraints, many women have relied on others to get their mobile phones or SIMs, or to cover their mobile expenses, and economise on calls by making missed calls.
The situation is worse for low-income rural woman than it is for urban women, who tend to be employed more, even if only informally. Due to differences in mobility and access to income, rural women are more likely to be deprived of access to any ICTs than rural men.
From this evidence we conclude that, to a large extent, gender inequities in access to and usage of ICTs cannot be addressed through ICT policies per se. They require policy interventions in other areas that would allow women and girls to enjoy the benefits of ICTs equally. This would include policies and programmes that incentivise the education of girls – and particularly their participation in mathematics, science and engineering if they are to work in this sector in the same numbers as men. Increased educational opportunities are likely to address some of the issues relating to their relatively low levels of employment. This in turn will increase the income that women have to spend on ICT services allowing them to participate more effectively in society and the economy. Many of the barriers for women, however, relate to cultural norms and practices that are difficult to legislate away.
As large number of women are among those most marginalised from ICTs they are likely to benefit from any more general sectoral interventions that extend services to lower income groups through low-cost business models or targeted universal service fund allocations or effective price regulation. For Internet services to catch up with other developing regions African governments will need to undertake specific demand stimulation efforts and this is another area where they could actively pursue inclusion of women and girls through targeted stimulation programmes.
This is the introduction to Gender Assessment of ICT Access and Usage in Africa