The Role of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in Poverty Reduction is widely recognized. In particular, ICTs represent an important tool for women empowerment as they give women more opportunities to start businesses, look for jobs, learn about their rights, report violence, educate themselves and acquire knowledge to improve their families’ daily lives. Women’s access to the ICTs is therefore an essential part of the development process. However, there is a major gender gap in the use of these technologies worldwide, as revealed in a well-known report by the UN Broadband Commission in 2013. There are 200 million fewer women online than men in the world. The mechanisms behind this gap have been debated in several occasions, including in Nancy Hafkin’s paper “Gender Issues in ICT policy in Developing Countries” (2002).
In terms of ICT gender gap, Uganda is no exception. Ugandan women access and use ICTs less than Ugandan men, curtailing their opportunities of empowerment through these technologies. However, accessing ICTs is only the first step: once connected, Ugandan women also face all kinds of difficulties and threats. The web often appears to be a quite women-unfriendly environment enabling all types of Gender Based Violence (GBV). Cyber security for women is a major challenge in Uganda today, as abuses may be factors inhibiting women’s use of ICTs. As the online and offline environments are fundamentally intertwined, gender-based power structures have real-world implications regardless of platform. Threats online also translate into threats and violence offline, both in public and private spaces – having a devastating impact on the ability / possibilities of women, girls and other marginalized groups to access, create and share content without being targeted by gender-based violence online.
This article first describes and explains the ICTs gender gap in Uganda (1/), then identifies the challenges that Ugandan women face once online, including online gender based violence (2/).
1/ Ugandan women access and use ICTs less than men, curtailing their opportunities of empowerment through these technologies.
A 2007/8 survey by ICTworks revealed that only 13% Ugandan women owned a cell phone as against 29% Ugandan men. Moreover, men generally spent more money on using their cell phones than women. The survey also revealed a gender gap in access to other ICTs like TV and radio. 78% Ugandan women listened to the radio, but only 55% women owned a personal radio that they could use at any time, while 96% men listened to the radio and 79% men owned their own radio. 21% women and 34% men watched TV. The same gender gap could be observed in Internet access: 1.1% women used the Internet (as against 3.7% men) and 0.8% women had an email address (as against 3.4% men). Only 3.5% Ugandan women knew what the Internet was, as against 9.4% Ugandan men. These figures from 2007/8 should off course be viewed cautiously as the use of ICTs has been spreading rapidly in Uganda over the past few years.
More recently, a study conducted by WOUGNET as a contribution to the Web Foundation’s “Women’s Rights Online” report (2015) confirmed the existence of a wide ICT gender gap in urban poor residential areas in Kampala. Among the 1,013 Ugandan women and 332 Ugandan men interviewed, only 21% of the female respondents had accessed the Internet in six months prior to the survey, compared to 61% men. 44% of men had accessed a computer, compared to only 18% women.
Limited access to communication infrastructure and electricity in rural areas, where women are the majority of the population, is the first obstacle to women’s access to the Internet in Uganda. According to the Uganda Communications Commission’s (UCC), only 20 % of the Internet users live in rural areas which means than 60% of the population is left offline, mostly women.
When the ICTs infrastructures exist, women often experience difficulties in accessing them for various reasons, including because they have to attend to domestic responsibilities during the Internet café’s opening hours, or because the journey toward the Internet café is not safe for women.
The pay gap between men and women (30% in 2009 according to the Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development) also explains that women have less money than men to invest in cell phones or Internet connection.
Moreover, women are less likely to have the language, reading and computer skills needed to surf the web since only 62% of Ugandan women are literate according to World Bank (as against 70% of the total population in 2012).
Finally, certain cultural factors also contribute to the idea that ITCs are not for women. For example, in her previously mentioned report, Nancy Hafkin identified “collateral cultural factors”, when a WorldLinks Program revealed that in an Ugandan school, “girls did not get access to the limited number of computers at school because of the norm that ‘girls do not run’. As a result, boys ran and got the computers first and refused to give them up to girls”.
2/ Once using ICTs, Ugandan women face all kind of threats and gender based violence (GBV).
Accessing ICTs and the Internet is only the first step. Once online, the web often appears to be a quite women-unfriendly environment. In the previously mentioned report on Women’s Rights Online (2015), 45% Ugandan female respondents declared having experienced threats or direct personal bullying (including harassment or stalking) on the Internet in the past two years, as against 8% Ugandan male respondents. The prevalence of such practices against women is extremely high in Uganda compared to other countries in the report, including African countries. Online gender based violence can take diverse forms and the perpetrators can be anyone from intimate partners to complete strangers.
In Uganda, the previously mentioned report on Women’s Rights Online revealed a “high prevalence of intimate partner abuse that extends to online spaces”, for example when women are tracked by abusive partners using geolocation, or when their online activities are monitored against their will. In December 2008, there were two reports of Ugandan men who murdered their wives after accusing them of receiving love SMSs.
The possible link between the use of ICTs and domestic violence in Uganda was highlighted in 2010 in the thesis “Gender relations and ICT adoption in contemporary Uganda: a case of computers and mobile telephones” by Aramanzan Madanda from Makerere University’s Department of Gender and Women Studies. Her research was conducted in the districts of Iganga and Mayuge between 2007 and 2010. It revealed that 46% respondents had problems with spouses in relation to use of mobile phones and 16% reported having conflicts over use of computers. The majority of victims of violence were women. Aramanzan Madanda explains that “Traditionally, in Busoga (one of the study sites), a woman must seek her spouse’s consent to go anywhere, whether to visit a relative or go to the market”. “But now women can be directly in touch with relatives and other people without their husband’s consent and since men have lost that power to control the women some turn to violence.” Moreover, “because of low literacy levels among women, they only know how to call. Most don’t know about safety features on phone or have any idea that their partners can view called numbers or read sent messages. They don’t use security codes”.
Another common form of cyber violence in close relations is the non-consensual distribution of sex photos or videos, often by partners or ex-partners.This trend has been particularly visible in Uganda over the past years, with the online publication of a series of leaked sex tapes/naked pictures depicting several women celebrities. Non famous women have also been victims of such acts, even though reliable statistics are missing as victims rarely report the offences. These intrusive photos/videos were largely relayed on social media and made headlines on newspapers and tabloids. According to Ms Tamale, professor of Law at Makerere University (Kampala), “women are reduced to sexual body parts and antics for the viewing pleasure of men. It is a deliberate strategy to push women’s brains and talents into the background and to trivialize them by focusing only on their sexuality. (…) Secondly, what has become an obsessive public interest in women’s sexuality serves a clear political agenda. When we emphasize the female body as erotic and degenerate, and as an instrument threatening to pollute social morality as is done in these sex tapes, we create fertile ground for social control. (…) Releasing the sex tapes of female celebrities is also one way of bringing them down or “putting them in their place” as second class citizens.”
In Uganda as elsewhere, women are sometimes victims of offensive or threatening voice calls, SMS or emails, often issued by complete strangers who enjoy the anonymity provided by ICTs. Hateful or insulting comments on social media are also widespread. The perpetrators often select their targets randomly on Internet forums or social media. There is no data available for just Uganda. In 2006, an interesting experiment was carried out in the USA by researchers from the University of Maryland. They created fake online accounts and sent them into diverse chat rooms. The result was striking: accounts with feminine usernames received an average of 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages a day. Masculine usernames received 3.7 on average. This shows that on the Internet, the only fact of being a woman can sometimes arouse violent reactions from other users.
ICTs can also be used by criminals to get in touch with potential victims, for example through a fake identity on chat rooms or while broadcasting fake job offers. In 2011, the BCC uncovered how shameless Ugandan companies recruit Ugandan women with attractive job advert on Ugandan radio, in order to trick them into domestic slavery or sex slavery abroad.
The issue of online women-hating has been debated in several countries lately, for instance when British feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez spook out about the massive threats and hate messages she had received after her campaign for a woman to appear on a bank note resulted in Jane Austen being selected for the £10 note. This is a well-known worldwide phenomenon: though all public figures, both men and women, often receive hate messages from anonymous people, the threats targeting women almost systematically deal with their sexuality, including common rape threats. As British columnist Suzanne Moore puts it: “Technology has made it much easier to abuse people such as me. You can do it in your mum’s bedroom”.
This phenomenon also exists in Uganda, even though little research has been carried out about it yet. According to online Communications consultant Maureen Agena (Kampala) “A woman with a strong opinion online is bullied and seen as someone who can be asked to shut up or forced to leave the spaces. Not usually the case for men online. De-humanizing language against women helps legitimize violence against them. In Uganda, we have seen female celebrities abused and later on blamed. We have created an abusive society and gone ahead to normalize, regularize, and routinize online abuse; yet law enforcement in cyberspaces is still new to our country. We cannot continue having law enforcers utter things like Online abuse is not real, that is virtual and cannot cause you any harm”. This phenomenon curtails women’s freedom of expression. “For as long as girls and women are forced off the cyberspaces as a result of fear, we shall continue to miss out on important voices in society”.
The way women are portrayed in the Ugandan media (TV, radio and printed press) and how it tends to reinforce gender stereotypes has been described by William Bwewusa in 2008. As for the way women are portrayed online, the Forum for women in Democracy Uganda argues that the massive presence of online sexy contents, pornography, or contents objectifying women and the “consumption of such material facilitates further acts of violence against women”. This is a serious issue in a country where 56% of women have experienced physical violence at some point since the age of 15 years and 28% of women aged 15-49 have experienced sexual violence (Uganda Demographic Health Survey of 2011).
Including women in the information society is crucial, both for their own empowerment and for the development of the Ugandan economy and society as a whole. The government and the ICT industry must work harder and more effectively together to ensure that women are cyber-safe.
The 3 ‘S’s (Sensitization, Safeguards and Sanctions) identified in the UN Broadband Commission’s latest report  should be used as a framework in Uganda’s effort to fight online GVB:
Compiled by Marion Dauvergne, WOUGNET Gender and ICT Policy Advocacy Programme – Volunteer
 “Combatting Online Violence Against Women & Girls: A Worldwide Wake-Up Call’ released inSeptember 2015 http://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2015/9/cyber-violence-report-press-release This report shows that almost three quarters of women online worldwide have been exposed to some form of cyber violence.