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Women’s access to ICTs

© Lakshman Nadaraja

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Interview with Dorothy Okello, senior lecturer with the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the College of Engineering, Design, Art and Technology, Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda. She is the founder the WOUGNET, the Women of Uganda Network. Established in 2000, the network’s mission is to promote and support the use of ICTs by women and women organisations in Uganda.

Why is improving women’s access to ICTs critical for agricultural development?

In many developing countries, such as Uganda, agriculture is the main source of livelihood for a large portion of the population – particularly for those in rural areas where the majority of women are based. Women also form the greater part of the agricultural labour force – even though they often do not own the land they till.

It is generally accepted that timely and accurate information, for example on weather conditions, good farming practices or market prices can go a long way to help farmers increase productivity. This can be done through farmer extension services, true, but in rural areas such services may be out of reach or be irregular, so it is extremely important to make use of ICTs. Given women’s role in agricultural development, it is thus important that women are given access to use ICTs to improve their productivity and overall livelihoods.

What would happen if we did not improve access?

According to FAO, the agricultural output in developing countries can be increased by 2.5% –4% by giving male and female farmers equal access to productive resources such as seeds, fertilisers and technology. More women than men lack access to appropriate and affordable ICTs, and as long as that is the case women will remain marginalised. Women are a potentially huge income base, but this potential will remain untapped as long as the gender gap continues to widen and a large number of women remain unable to undertake economic activities including active participation in all sections of agricultural value chains.

What measures need to be taken to ensure improved access?

A number of questions need to be addressed. While access to ICTs for women is a key issue, so is affordable access. For example, programmes can be aired via radio and made interactive by offering women farmers the opportunity to call in or SMS the show. This assumes, of course, that these farmers have access to a radio set or a mobile phone, and that they are in a region that is adequately covered by a telecommunication network, and also that they are able to purchase airtime to call in or SMS.

These programmes would have to be conducted in a language that is easily understood by women in the local community. It’s also important that the technical jargon is translated into locally relevant terms. The radio programme would also have to be conducted at a time when women farmers are most available to listen to the programme and participate in it. The measures that need to be taken therefore have to address at least the following questions: do women have access to radios and mobile phones? Is there a network nearby, and are programmes being conducted in local languages?

These measures need to be addressed in order to make ICT access a reality for women, whether rural or urban, whether educated or not, and whether mobility is constrained or not.

What are the challenges in terms of social expectations and roles?

Social expectations and roles often tend to confine women to their homes or private spaces, which deprives them of access to public ICT points – keeping in mind that they may lack ICT tools of their own. Moreover, women are largely based in the rural areas, which mean that they live in areas with limited access to ICT infrastructure (or the energy required to regularly power up their ICT equipment). Even in places where women could potentially go to public access points or indeed have their own phones, they have less disposal income to spend on ICT use.

Indeed, some studies have shown that women spend a greater percentage of their income on communication that would be considered ‘affordable’ communication. Women have necessarily taken on multiple roles in society, so having to find the time to go out and search for information is likely to end up becoming just another item on a long to-do list, especially if this information is out of the way or otherwise not readily accessible.

And what are the challenges in terms of women’s educational status, and limited time and resources, for example?

The education and literacy levels of women are generally below that of their male counterparts. As a result, when literacy is a requirement in order to make effective use of an ICT tool, which is generally the case, or when literacy in English or another ‘foreign’ language is necessary, women’s lower literacy and education levels place them at a distinct disadvantage. It also means that women may tend to opt for voice-based solutions, which may have an impact on the bandwidth and cost required for a given service, compared to an SMS-based service. Improving literacy among women and improving their education are essential to improving women’s position in society. 

Read More

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Interview with Eric White, managing associate and lead economist at Integra LLC, a Washington DC based international development firm specialising in ICT policy and applications. The firm implements USAID’s Global Broadband and Innovations programme.

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Interview with Dorothy Okello, senior lecturer with the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the College of Engineering, Design, Art and Technology, Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda. She is the founder the WOUGNET, the Women of Uganda Network. Established in 2000, the network’s mission is to promote and support the use of ICTs by women and women organisations in Uganda.

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