An intersectional feminist approach to gender disparity within Internet use in Rwanda

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Internet use is still relatively low in the sub-Saharan Africa region. In some of the less developed countries like Rwanda, Tanzania and Mozambique, internet use was still below 15% for both sexes. Rwanda’s gender gap is much higher than other least developed economies: about 12% of men use the internet, as opposed to only 4.8% of women.

Previous studies have shown that income and education are the main determinants of internet access and use. In general, the share of individuals who have completed a specific level of education in Rwanda is quite low for both men and women. However, women are often less educated and earn less than men. This puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to using the internet. It supports the hypothesis that women often find themselves in a situation of multiple marginalities, and this is translated in the digital realm.

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About this research

This study set out to explore what factors affect internet access for women and men, and what issues need to be addressed to ensure equitable digital access and use. These questions were examined in the context of the very high gender internet access and use gap found in the 2017/18 After Access survey, despite a policy and telecom industry environment that seems to have the relevant components to foster gender digital equality. A combination of quantitative and qualitative methods was used to examine the research questions. Analysis of the After Access survey data was complemented with urban and rural, male and female focus group discussions, providing a more nuanced understanding of the lived experiences of both those connected and those currently marginalised from internet services. In particular, the combined analyses provide insights into gender-related power dynamics which the quantitative data alone could not illuminate.

Key Conclusions

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1. Structural (paid and unpaid labour), institutional (family and organisations), and cultural (gendered norms and values) combine to place women in a position of digital disadvantage relative to men. Both the qualitative and quantitative analyses have shown that women on average earn less than men resulting in their dependency on male partners in general. This creates a major barrier to internet use for women and makes them susceptible to gender norms and perceptions that further inhibit internet use.

2. The experiences of women (and men) are not homogeneous. Thus, an accurate reflection of the state of gender equality benefits from an intersectional lens. The study confirmed a wide range of similar constraints for men and women. However, people in different conditions, such as rural based, married, or unemployed, experienced these constraints in different ways or to greater degrees. In addition, some divergent views were expressed about gender-based constraints to internet access and use (and gender equality in general), highlighting the importance of considering multiple variables simultaneously (whether quantitatively or qualitatively) when assessing digital inequality and its causes.

3. The results also suggest that alongside policy measures and infrastructure developments, subtle cultural and individual transformations might be taking place that could, in the long term, lead to broader social transformations of gender roles and expectations, moving the society towards greater equity. Several participants noted that gender norms around domestic roles were malleable in different family circumstances. However, waiting for such transformations to happen organically or take root more widely could mean waiting centuries in some cases, considering that the 2020 Global Gender Gap report estimates that at current rates, it would take over 250 years to achieve gender parity in economic participation and opportunity.

4. Relative to other African countries, Rwanda may have strong foundations in place to make digital access affordable for all. However, gendered division of labour and power relations in the household seem to be contributing to a lingering gender imbalance in internet access and use—resulting from the intertwining impacts of paid employment, access to personal income, access to internet facilities at work and perceptions of the need for internet access at home. The issues we have identified as impinging on gender digital equality – employment, income, education, demands of unpaid domestic labour, perception of internet relevance, perception of skills, gender norms and stereotypes, as well as misconceptions about the internet, are heavily intertwined with social and cultural structures and challenging to address in isolation. Effectively redressing digital inequality will require transforming the (analogue) structural inequalities that perpetuate economic and social exclusion and that are simply mirrored, and sometimes amplified in the digital world.

Key Recommendations

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Revisit implementation of gender and digital technology policies

Policymakers should examine the current policies to assess why they have not generated the expected outcomes. This includes identifying whether there are implementation or other gaps that have weakened the influence of the policy in practice, and whether definitions of digital equality need to be upgraded to reflect not just physical access but meaningful access (the ability to translate access into benefits).

Deepen public education on the meaning of gender equality

Develop public education campaigns to improve understanding of gender equality (in theory and practice), break gender stereotypes and provide more economic and social opportunity to people of all backgrounds.

Institute measures to increase higher education and employment in general and female labour force participation

Increasing education and employment opportunities for women will in theory expand their access to income, which the study shows are key enablers of internet use. However, expectations should be tempered with an understanding that economic measures alone will not transform the patriarchal structures that sustain gender discrimination.

Institute measures to value unpaid domestic and care work

To mitigate the apparent link between gender digital inequality and perceptions that unpaid domestic work is economically unproductive, avenues should be sought to demonstrate the economic and social value of the labour of housewives and other unpaid domestic and care workers and their critical role in the reproduction of labour. Broad social change is also needed to correct the imbalance in the amount of time that women (compared to men) spend on unpaid housework versus paid work.

Policy experimentation

Although Rwanda has amongst the lowest data prices on the continent and one of the lowest GNI per capita, affordability remains a challenge for many. Rwanda should embark on low-risk licensing and regulatory experimentation that will enable the entry of multiple smaller, lower- cost technologies and offerings, including community network operators, micro cell users and dynamic spectrum operators in unused rural bands.

Stimulate demand

Government needs to balance supply-side infrastructure and service measures with strong demand-side measures such as stimulating local content in local languages, supporting local apps development, digital literacy as well as fundamental education and specialised tertiary education. Interventions should account for intersectional identities to avoid assuming one-size-fits-all solutions.

Conduct further research into the relationship between gender power relations and technology access and use in Africa

There is a surprisingly limited amount and variety of published research examining the intersection of gender, power, and technology in African countries. As new technologies continually transform the digital landscape, it is important to generate more empirical local knowledge and evidence to feed into policymaking processes that, as our research has shown, might not be fully grasping the nature of the challenges standing in the way of true gender digital equality. This includes examining intersectional inequalities, studying gender digital inequality amongst children and drawing on both feminist and masculinities research. In countries where it is possible, researchers (including national statistics departments) should develop tools to collect and disaggregate their data beyond the binary level, taking into consideration the political sensitivities around nonbinary gender identities and the risk to partners and research respondents. The mobility restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic illustrate that new methods and approaches to fieldwork are needed to enable research to advance with rigor irrespective of the physical presence of the core research team.