COVID-19: How more access to the internet can reduce existing barriers for women’s rights in Africa

Authors: Nelly Warega* and Tomiwa Ilori**
*Legal Advisor, Women’s Link Worldwide
**Doctoral researcher, Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria

On 17 April 2020, a Twitter user tweeted about a hospital in Lagos that demanded personal protective equipment (PPE) from a woman seeking to give birth at the facility. The incident, according to the user happened at the General Hospital, Ikorodu, under the Lagos State Government Health Service Commission. The PPEs have become important for health workers given the surge in transmission COVID-19 across the world. However, despite the rising demand and scarcity of PPEs, a conversation on the propriety of placing the burden of procurement of PPEs on expectant mothers is vital.

In Uganda, there are few officials who can authorise movements during the lockdown in all of its 134 districts and there are no central numbers to call in case of emergencies. As a result of this, at least thirteen women and two babies have died.

Currently, Sierra Leone has the highest maternal mortality ratio in the world and there have been suggestions that measures deployed during the Ebola outbreak are used to ensure more access to healthcare services for women. However, despite these measures, the health care system in Sierra Leone does not seem ready for the pressure maternal health may cause due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on 11 March 2020. Many African countries have subsequently deployed emergency measures such as curfews, partial and total lockdowns, limitations on freedom of movement and public gatherings just to mention but a few. Most of these directives have been issued through executive orders and decrees while some states have gone as far as passing new laws or amending existing ones in a bid to combat the spread of coronavirus and minimise its impact on citizens.

Noting the importance of human rights protection during this pandemic, the Director-General of WHO urged states to take urgent actions to curb the spread of the virus by “minimising social and economic disruption and respecting human rights.”

While these emergency measures are necessary given the present realities, their effects, especially on women have been adverse. This article focuses on existing challenges to women’s rights in Africa and how these challenges can be reduced through more access to the internet during the coronavirus pandemic.

Assessing the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on women’s rights online in Africa

Globally, women and girls, especially those in Africa have been hit harder because of existing structural and institutional inequalities. Recognising these impacts on women and girls, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), in a statement, stated that “girls globally have less access to Internet and cell-phones than boys.” The High Commissioner concluded that these inequalities combined with the current realities have “set back the cause of women’s equality.”

According to the World Wide Web Foundation, despite the rapid increase of mobile phone usage in the last decade, there are still more men online than there are women. A survey which was conducted on poor urban men and women in nine developing countries revealed that only 37% of women with mobile phones are internet users in comparison to 59% of in the case of men.

In Kenya, internet affordability, online security and access to smartphones have been cited as some of the reasons why there are less women online. The same reasons were recorded for women in Mozambique. In addition to the reasons mentioned above, women in Nigeria, expressed a lack of digital literacy and understanding of digital rights as the biggest challenges.

Women’s lack of access to the internet limits their right to access to information, education, online economic opportunities and development among others. The survey identified Kenya, Uganda and Mozambique as having higher digital gender gaps. These limitations are exacerbated during emergency situations such as the current COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, with the internet being one of the biggest sources of information on the pandemic, both from state and non-state actors, many women are disadvantaged and are not able to gain factual information on the pandemic given the existing digital gender divide.

Similarly, due to disruption of service delivery or changes in operating hours in both the public and private sectors, many service providers including health care facilities, have resorted to communicating through their digital platforms.

As a result, women who are not online do not have information regarding crucial services such as those related to their sexual health and rights. This includes information on family planning and maternity care.

Many women have reported a general lack of care from health care workers to patients other than those suspected of having COVID-19. Many are unaware of where and when to go to seek services including those that are offered for free by non-governmental organisations. The result of this is cases such as the one witnessed in Kenya where a woman after being turned away by two midwives, lost her newborn and bled to death as she had to wait till morning to access a hospital due to the imposed curfew.

Lack of access to the internet during this time also means that women who are more exposed to intimate partner violence have limited avenues for seeking help. The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres issued a statement urging states to prioritise women’s needs even as they respond to COVID-19. This statement came after global reports showed that many countries had recorded an increase of domestic violence cases since the implementation of lockdown directives.

In Kenya, a statement issued by the National Council on the Administration of Justice, stated that cases of sexual violence in the country have spiked amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. In South-Africa, over 100 people have been arrested in the past month for gender based violence related crimes since the lockdown was enforced.

An alarming rise in cases of domestic violence have also been recorded in Tunisia since a curfew was imposed in March. These are just a few examples as many more cases have been recorded within the continent.

To address these rising cases, one of the recommendations made by the UN include increasing online services to allow women various avenues of reporting to save them from harm.

Lastly, lack of access to the internet also means that women are locked out from participating in discussions relating to issues affecting them, most of which are currently being conducted online due to lockdowns and social distancing. Women are unable to engage in conversations in which they can express their opinion on the challenges they experience due to COVID-19 response measures. Ensuring more internet access for women therefore makes it possible for more women to not only get more access to information but also actively allow more women get more involved in policy issues.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) have been ratified by most African countries. The relevant provisions of these treaties provide for the rights to freedom of expression and access to information online and states have the obligations to ensure the protection of these rights at all times, a pandemic notwithstanding.

While we have seen states facilitate information sharing regarding preventive and protection measures and provision of health services, most of this information has mainly been communicated through mainstream media and digital platforms such as Facebook and Twitter – media which even though may have good coverage, are still not inclusive for all.

Ways to reduce the adverse impacts of coronavirus on women’s rights online in Africa

More than 70% of health workers are women. This already suggests that women are more exposed both at the frontlines of combating the pandemic and in their daily lives especially when considered alongside these existing inequalities.

One of the ways in which states can reduce the above gendered impacts of COVID-19 on women is by increasing access to the internet for women all over the continent. This can be done in several ways.

To address the rising cases of violence against women, state and non-state actors should encourage anonymous reporting to state agencies or civil society organisations offering support to victims. Without access to the internet, free hotlines and technological solutions, women are more vulnerable to violence during lockdown periods or curfews with perpetrators using these limitations as an opportunity to cause harm.

Key stakeholders like the private sector together with states and the civil society should also adopt measures that facilitate access to information such as lowering of internet access costs to encourage more women to be online. This also includes doing away with internet taxes like the case in Uganda which has further driven a wedge on internet access.

In order to ease the adverse socio-economic impacts of the COVID-19 on women, governments should partner with stakeholders to focus on women-owned small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Through once-off grants or interest-free loans and projects focused on digital literacy, women can be empowered with smart phones and digital skills for their businesses.

Also, governments and other key stakeholders must mainstream gender equality in its National ICT and Broadband Plans including more affirmative action that creates opportunities for women and girls to learn digital skills. Key stakeholders must also jointly work towards combating violence against women online and focusing more on women’s civic participation.

About the Authors

Nelly Warega is a Legal Advisor at Women’s Link Worldwide. She is committed to the promotion of women and girls’ rights with a focus on Sexual and Gender-Based Violence victims.

Tomiwa Ilori is a Researcher and Policy Analyst. His focus is on human rights and new technologies in Africa. He is currently a doctoral researcher at the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria, South Africa.

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