8 March 2023, Banjul, the Republic of The Gambia
The Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Women in Africa, Honourable Commissioner Janet Ramatoulie Sallah-Njie, on behalf of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the Commission), and on her own behalf, extends her heartfelt good wishes to the women of the world, and especially the women of Africa on this International Women’s Day, March 8, 2023.
The theme set for this year is “DigitAll: Innovation and technology for gender equality” with the campaign theme being #EmbraceEquity. The campaign theme drives worldwide understanding why Equal Opportunities aren’t enough and also reminds us of the immense potential that digital technologies have in improving the lives of women and achieving equality for all. It also calls to mind the chasm in digital access that women face, and the missed opportunities in not using digital platforms to improve the status of women as well as contribute to the socio-economic status of African States.
International Women’s Day is marked as a way of honouring the sacrifices that women gone past, and women today constantly make to fight for the recognition of their sex as equal and important in society. It is a day to reflect on what it means for women to be valuable contributors to society and remind ourselves of the need to remove any impediments in the exercise of this contribution.
The UN Women’s Gender Snapshot 2022 report, indicates that the exclusion of women from the digital space has resulted in shaving off $1trillion from the gross domestic product of low- and middle-income countries in the last decade.[ https://www.unwomen.org/sites/default/files/2022-09/Progress-on-the-sus…] In Africa, it was reported that 73% of women own a mobile phone compared to 84% of men.[ Afrobarometer ‘Gains and gaps: Perceptions and experiences of gender in Africa’ (2019) https://www.afrobarometer.org/wpcontent/uploads/migrated/files/publicat…] 46% of women have access to the internet compared to 50% of men.[ As above] These trends are worrisome given that it is important for women to access digital technologies in order to equally participate in educational endeavours, freedom of expression, social interaction, economic and political activities as effectively as their male counterparts. Women can use the internet to access job opportunities, start businesses, access health, social and financial services all of which will help in achieving gender equality. In particular, the use of mobile money, which is increasingly becoming popular in Africa, has been linked with increased chances of self-employment and entrepreneurship amongst women.[ https://www.diplomacy.edu/resource/report-stronger-digital-voices-from-…]
Barriers to access to the internet by women have been identified to include costs involved (compounded by the existing economic disparities), lack of appropriate infrastructure to enable women’s access, as well as inadequate safety measures for women to freely participate online without being subjected to violence. The African Union recognises this need to close the digital gender divide and achieve gender equality through innovation and technologies. In 2022 at the pre-CSW67 consultations, African States adopted a Common Africa Position for CSW67 and made recommendations that include ensuring access to digital tools, the internet and relevant content for women and girls, data availability to support gender-responsive innovation, human and institutional capacity in support of technology and innovation for women and girls and digital safety for women and children among others.[ https://au.int/en/pressreleases/20221205/csw67-african-countries-agree-…;
The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol) urges Member States to promote research and investment in new and renewable energy sources and appropriate technologies, including information technologies and facilitate women’s access to, and participation in their control.[ Article 18(2)(b) Maputo Protocol] In addition, the Commission is also greatly concerned with the need to ensure safe and innovative access to the internet by women and girls on the continent. In 2022, the Commission adopted Resolution ACHPR/Res.522(LXXII) 2022 on the Protection of Women Against Digital Violence in Africa. It sets out the Commission’s position on ensuring that Member States achieve gender equality through removing barriers that affect the effective participation of women online, as well as eliminate the socio-economic and psychological harm that women suffer through digital violence.
Recognising that legislation and regulation are often way behind digital innovations, in reacting and responding to the challenges that result from lack of access, the Commission in its 2019 Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa emphasises the importance of promoting gender equality in access to and the use of digital technologies. The Declaration addresses specific barriers that women and girls face in these areas. Principle 3 specifically calls for the overall elimination of all forms of discrimination against women and girls in meaningfully accessing and using digital technologies.[ Principle 3 Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa] Various principles in the Declaration also provide for gender sensitivity and gender-responsive access in efforts of ensuring equity and inclusion of women, as well as to overcome bias and stereotypes that are often imbedded in technology. For this to be successful, innovation is critical, to ensure that new opportunities are created for women to participate in the digital economy.
The Principles in the Declaration also call for the promotion of women’s participation in the digital sector, including in leadership position, meaningful decision-making roles and in the development of digital technologies. Further to this, the Declaration, calls for measures to be taken in addressing online violence against women and girls, including cyberstalking, harassment, and other forms of gender-based violence. It calls for the development of legal and policy frameworks that ensure that digital technologies are inclusive and equitable, meeting the needs of the users, including women. It is important that these legal and policy frameworks anticipate and ensure prevention and response to online violence against women and girls, applying a multi-faceted approach that will guarantee multi-stakeholder support for the frameworks.
In the fast-changing digital space, I urge the continent of Africa not to be left behind, and most importantly, not to leave the women behind. A world where women and men are equal is a world that thrives and is sustainable. Development of the continent cannot move exponentially if more than half of the population i.e. women are disallowed to participate in its development. I therefore urge countries in the great continent of Africa to seek as much information as possible through information sharing and engagement with development partners on how best to increase access to the internet for women in their respective countries. I urge Governments to intentionally put in place policies that level the technological playing field for women and men, to include capacity building and access to financial resources. Most importantly, I urge African Governments to put in place actionable measures to eliminate violence against women online. Together we can move towards the “Africa we want” as envisioned by Agenda 2063!
Honourable Commissioner Janet Ramatoulie Sallah-Njie
Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Women in Africa of the ACHPR