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Connecting the next billion, is rightly so, an important issue in ensuring everyone has the choice to access the internet. Women, and in particular those with low levels of income and education, are more likely to be the unconnected. However, gaining access is one thing, but what are the challenges that limit men and women’s experience of the internet and present a barrier to access? In this penultimate article reflecting on the finding from Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and Rwanda, we look at the gendered barriers to internet access and use.

For instance a woman in the village even if she wanted to use a cyber she will not do that. Imagine being in the cyber at 7pm and you are expected to be at home cooking, taking care of cows etc. Even if you have a child abroad and you want to communicate with them, it becomes very difficult…’ (Female Internet user, peri-urban Kenya)

Gender specific issues

The concept of spending too much time on the internet does not seem to apply to women in contexts where their main responsibility is to take care of the family. As the quote above reflects, the fact that women have other family responsibilities means they cannot spend as much time as they want to online. Reproductive labor roles often fall on women, limiting their free time. Our future research on gender would need to further clarify the responsibilities of men and women to tease out the power paradigms at play.

The Internet, specifically social media, is seen to be a threat to relationships by both men and women. In rural areas, women reported their partners refusing to allow them to be on Facebook, while in peri-urban areas men and women recognised the tension from being online as being problematic to relations. A male respondent in peri-urban South Africa questioned: ‘No, my point is what is she going to do there, what do married people want on WhatsApp?’ However, this question was posed in a mixed focus group and female respondents pointed out that the concern went both ways.

In rural areas, power relations between men and women impacted on Internet use for women in particular. In Kenya, one respondent stated that women fear their husband’s response to them using the Internet. Respondents in rural South Africa and Kenya said that partners feel uncomfortable with them being on social media sites, due to jealousy or fears that they will be unfaithful:

‘I also do not go on social networks at night because that is creating problems to my relationship. I stopped him from being on WhatsApp at night, so I had to do the same.’- Female respondent, deep rural South Africa.

Sexual advances were perceived more as irritations by men. Male respondents in South Africa stated that they opted to block people, male or female who were trying to have a relationship with them. This was a different experience for female users. One female peri-urban respondent in South Africa actually resorted to changing numbers after having received sexual advances from a stranger.

Every man and woman’s struggle

Network is one great challenge, then the cost. You want to download a book, before it is complete you hear a message ‘tititit’ you are running short of bundles, the bundles are almost depleted. The cost is taking a toll on the users. And then the cost of the gadgets, many would want to but the phones are costly, so you go for the small one ‘katwin’ (twin SIM, a feature phone) you try to do anything it tells you insufficient memory. You have all sorts of imitations." (Female respondent, semi-urban, Kenya).

In column three, I looked at the cost of the internet- highlighting that affordability of data is high up on the barriers to internet access and use. The cost of accessing and using the internet is also related to the cost of an internet capable mobile phone, referred to as the ‘big phone’. One respondent only made use of the Internet café in Rwanda because they did not have an Internet enabled device. The lack of devices impacts on use, in particular where it is a requirement for certain activities.

As a female respondent in Nigeria stated, I have small Nokia phone, I don’t have money to buy a good phone, laptop, all these things.

Secondly, costs to internet access are associated with issues of quality of services. In rural areas for example, the networks that are likely to provide services are the dominant operators with better quality of service. In deep rural South Africa, one male respondent highlighted having to switch to the dominant operator in the market ‘because I always struggled with reception. Vodacom has a stronger signal than MTN.’ The same problem is experienced in deep rural Rwanda. While in the rural areas, costs of infrastructure impact on access and use. In the deep rural site of South Africa and in rural Kenya, respondents had to look for alternative charging points either at night or during the day limiting internet use.

Other challenges faced by internet users limiting their experience online may be understood from a digital rights perspective In the focus groups, digital rights were discussed by describing scenarios on security, safety and privacy online. We did not venture to asking if respondents knew about their digital rights. This awareness of digital rights will be assessed in the ‘Beyond Access’ surveys. Physical security that is smart phones being stolen, online financial fraud, hacking, harassment, slander, stalking and surveillance were privacy and security concerns mentioned by respondents. However, these issues were more predominant for urban and peri-urban users than rural users.

For some of the respondents, privacy was an issue, and they expressed concern about protecting passwords for websites and banking details and about hacking of private e-mails and social media accounts. In particular, they had concerns about malware that could be used to steal information.

Surveillance in the context of community or family members observing what one does online or what ended up online was cited by some users as a problem. Some users opted not to use social media, as people would ask why they posted what they did. Surveillance for political reasons, either from government or community, was raised in Kenya as well.

One urban respondent in South Africa cited that, ‘Some people fear ending up losing important things, such as respect and rights to be elected because of their stories and photos on the Internet’.

Challenges for non-users

While barriers of cost and digital rights touched on this blog were stated as challenges by users, for non users the skills required to navigate the internet are a priority. In rural areas in particular, and in some instances peri-urban and urban areas, respondents stated not having received any form of training on how to use the Internet. In Rwanda, specifically rural areas, some female respondents had dropped out of school at a young age, thus limiting their use of the Internet.

An urban respondent from Kenya said, ‘I have not used the Internet because I have not been taught how I can use it. But I would love to know how I can use it.’

Non-users expressed the desire to learn how to use the Internet. The desire to gain digital skills may definitely be tapped into by policies that focus on digital skills training, specific to Internet access and use. Interestingly in Kenya, some women stated that they relied on their children to teach them how to use the Internet as the children had more time than other adults.

In this series, the purpose has been to paint a qualitative understanding of internet use. This series has touched on why people use the internet the way they do and how they negotiate what is available to them to overcome costs. This second from last column brought out to the forefront, the differences in barriers for men and women stated by the respondents. This study has only provided a level of insight into gender issues. In the ‘Beyond Access’ surveys, the quantitative data will be used to build on experience of men and women online, bearing in mind intersectional contexts.

This series has touched on why people use the internet the way they do and how they negotiate what is available to them to overcome costs.

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*Images of icons under CC license - Attribution. dollars by Visual Glow from the Noun Project; Radio by Valeriy from the Noun Project; Smartphone Menu by Symbolon from the Noun Project; gossip by Gan Khoon Lay from the Noun Project

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