By Zoe Willis
Switching on a computer is empowerment. Learning how to use the internet creates confidence. Training in computer coding could be life-changing. But for many women and girls across the world, these opportunities are out of reach because of the digital-gender divide. The divide is the product of social, cultural and economic factors affecting women and men’s access to information and technology.
Access to the digital world is increasingly vital and ZOO Memorial Foundation, a small non-profit in Kenya, is working to address this divide. Narrowing the gap will bring social and economic benefits not only to women and girls but also to the local and wider communities they live in. During the COVID-19 global pandemic, there is a danger that the divide will become even more pronounced. Women and girls could suffer as business and social contact are fully relegated to the digital sphere, and without access, many will find themselves isolated and unable to work.
Why does the divide exist?
In some communities, it is harder for women and girls to become computer literate than for men and boys. There are many reasons for this including:
Reduced access to education,
A lack of confidence to interact with technologies,
Stereotypes of this being a “masculine” activity.
In societies with a strong patriarchal structure, this view discourages women and girls from engaging.
This causes a lack of confidence as girls and women do not gain the necessary skills to engage with technology and in turn cannot pass on knowledge and encouragement to the younger generation. The impact of the digital-gender divide means that women can’t contribute fully to or innovate in economies which rely increasingly on technology and the internet to develop and grow.
Combatting the digital-gender divide
The ZOO Memorial Foundation, in partnership with Women in Sustainable Enterprise (WISE), is equipping women in disadvantaged communities with skills and technology to combat the increasing digital-gender divide due to COVID-19. The not-for-profit organisation empowers communities and schools by bringing the power of digital technology through open access to equipment, skills, and opportunities. Women make up 70% of adult users. ZOO Memorial Foundation encourages women by providing them with inclusive environments in which to learn and develop digital skills.
ZOO and WISE combatting the digital-gender divide
Women participating in a ZOO Memorial Foundation online training for local women at the WiseHub in Dunga Village, Kisumu. The training is conducted via Zoom and GoogleMeet.
WISE organisation near Lake Victoria received digital equipment and training from the ZOO Memorial Foundation, benefitting from a women-only environment which allowed their confidence to grow. The training highlighted opportunities presented through digital literacy by teaching coding and web design skills. ZOO’s courses involve each stage of learning how to use digital technology, from switching on a monitor to using the internet. This knowledge that many take for granted is the foundation on which women can innovate and support themselves and their families.
This knowledge that many take for granted is the foundation on which women can innovate and support themselves and their families.
During the coronavirus crisis, this work has been more significant than ever. Carol Odera, the founder of WISE, has worked in partnership with ZOO to reconcile the digital-gender divide and spoke about her experience. WISE works with women within the fishing communities of Lake Victoria to engage them in sustainable enterprise, including agribusiness, green energy and ecotourism. Information Communication Technology (ICT) is significant in this, as Odera commented, ‘for any enterprise to succeed ICT and digital platforms must be at the centre of it all’. She also emphasised the importance of leadership skills and confidence that WISE encourages in conjunction with IT training and sustainable business development. When asked her view on the connection between learning digital skills and building confidence, Odera affirmed, ‘learning ICT skills shows people how leadership has been redefined. You can be a leader in ICT or you can be a leader in business, having mastered a few skills in the ICT space.’
WISE and ZOO are working to provide ICT training and women’s development in the local community through their Hub training sessions. It is the only place in the community which provides such training and with trainers who speak the local language. Odera emphasises the significance of this as ‘most of the technical language around computers is taught in English, but women who don’t speak English still need to learn how to use a computer.’ The women only training sessions have also allowed women to see ‘how leadership is redefined’, according to Odera. She commented, ‘you can be a leader in ICT or you can be a leader in business, having mastered a few skills in the ICT space.’
Working with ZOO has meant WISE can focus on women and girls’ development as well as encouraging computer literacy. Odera recalls how fundamental ICT skills were developed in the training sessions, explaining how women were taught basic skills necessary for business communication and to market their products and services, including social media skills. For Odera, it is also important to ‘break the fear of facing a computer for the first time.’ This element highlights the impact the partnership between ZOO and WISE made on women and how they interact with technology. Currently, WISE and ZOO run training sessions on how to use Zoom to communicate for women who may never have used the platform before. When asked how WISE has dealt with the impact of COVID-19, which has sparked such training sessions, Odera sees a positive outcomes for her organisation, commenting, ‘once we explain [to the women] that this is what the future is going to look like and this is how they are going to start talking to customers, then they understand and then they get involved.’ Running training via Zoom has also reduced the cost of transporting trainers in to teach, and the only essential being the cost of fast internet.
When asked about the future of WISE, Carol Odera plans to expand: ‘we only have one Hub in one fishing village, so my plan would be to have more Hubs around the lake region for women and girls. But I also want to help women to be more confident to take up the training because COVID has shaped the way things are being done right now. And no one is talking about it on the women’s level and in their language. So, we need to be able to preach this narrative to sensitize women to the future of work and why they need to start using technology and ICT.’
The digital-gender divide is growing as we enter an increasingly technological age. As the coronavirus crisis emphasises the importance of digital communication and working online, initiatives like those supported by the ZOO Memorial Foundation are essential to narrow the gap.
Many of us enjoy the privilege of constant easy access to technology. We must use this privilege to continue the conversation and raise awareness of this issue. The ZOO Memorial Foundation is a small grassroots organisation working to make a tangible difference in challenging environments where the gender-digital divide is prominent. It builds digital community projects and has been operating for over ten years. ZOO’s goal to connect communities to the digital age is ongoing and will have a long-term positive effect. This is significant because of all the projects and training launched by the organisation, 76% of those who benefit are children.
So how can you help? Support ZOO and local organisations through donations; this funding will support local communities and empower women and girls. Without our support the digital gender divide will grow wider following the coronavirus pandemic, causing further societal inequality which affects us all as global citizens.