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Photo by Ruslik0 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Access to the internet, mobile telephony and other means of communication facilitated by technology have long been identified by researchers and policy makers alike as central to promoting the empowerment of women and marginalised communities. From creating opportunities to operate businesses through mobile phones, to providing access to critical information on sexual and reproductive health, there is no shortage of documented cases that demonstrate how information and communications technology (ICT) can contribute to women’s empowerment and the realisation of women’s rights.

“Ugandan women have the potential to be internet users who can champion different societal causes,” said Moses Owiny from the Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) in Kampala. WOUGNET joined with the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) and the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) to draft a submission to Uganda’s second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the Human Rights Council (HRC). “The UPR is an important opportunity for Uganda to engage in a dialogue with civil society and the international community regarding women’s rights and the internet, and how it can live up to its international obligations,” said Emilar Vushe, APC’s Africa policy coordinator.

In Uganda’s first review under the UPR, the government of Uganda did not receive any recommendations specifically addressing women’s rights and the internet, but it did accept a number of recommendations relating to the fundamental rights of women. In particular, these related to discrimination against women, violence against women, and participation.

However, there is little evidence in the second cycle of the UPR review to indicate that major gains were registered with regard to practices that discriminate against women, implementation of the National Action Plan on Women, or obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Domestic Violence Act, among many other recommendations. “While women have made major gains in local and national representation in Uganda’s political landscape, their control over economic resources has remained low,” says Lillian Nalwoga, policy coordinator at CIPESA. Nalwoga goes on, “In turn, most women are not connected to the internet because they cannot afford to be.”

Limiting women’s access to the internet denies them the tools, resources and opportunities available through the internet, which in turn slows economic growth and social development opportunities. This continuing inequity is worsened by factors such as Uganda’s poor record in tackling corruption. This has a disproportionate impact upon women, especially at a grassroots level, and tackling corruption needs to be addressed if women are to feel the benefits of reforms aimed at improving their position.

While various pieces of domestic legislation, including Uganda’s constitution, aim to advance women’s rights, the relevant laws need to be critically enforced and implemented. Further, there are no laws that focus on fighting violence against women online, and those that purport to do so have actually caused greater harm to victims of violence. And proposed legislation concerning the right to privacy would give the executive arm of government outright powers to control communications in any way the sector minister deems fit.

There are three main areas of concern expressed in the joint submission by CIPESA, WOUGNET and APC:

Digital exclusion of women

Only 64% of women in Uganda are literate, and only 23% of women have secondary education. In a survey carried out in Kampala, only 18% of women had had access to the internet in the last six months, compared to 44% of men. Rural areas are primarily served by telecentres, with a limited number of computers, and often prohibitive direct and indirect costs. This is made worse by women’s economic inequality, as entry-level broadband costs 26% of the average income earned by women. Further, there is still little representation of women in ICT policy and decision-making bodies, necessary for addressing crucial development opportunities and infrastructural gaps.

Technology-related violence against women (VAW)

Female-targeted violence online include cyber stalking, sexual harassment, surveillance, and unauthorised use and manipulation of personal information, including images and videos. Technology-related violence acts as a significant barrier to women’s meaningful engagement with the internet, and is becoming increasingly documented in Uganda. Further, victims of violence, such as unauthorised distribution of intimate images, have been harassed by the authorities, and broad censorship has been threatened. States, intergovernmental institutions and other actors must recognise and include technology-related forms of violence against women as part of the spectrum of VAW and include it in their response and prevention efforts.

Network disruption

During the 2016 general elections, the government blocked access to social media platforms, not the first time that such a network disruption has occurred. Citizens need access to platforms that can enhance their democratic rights, such as the right to vote. Today the internet provides such a platform, and when access to it is blocked, citizens may not be able to access the information that they need to inform their decision to exercise their right to vote.

This submission therefore makes 12 recommendations for the government of Uganda:

  1. Ensure that women are able to fully exercise their human rights online and offline.

  2. Bridge the gender and rural-urban divides by making the internet accessible to all.

  3. Foster greater involvement of women in ICT policy-making processes.

  4. Facilitate women’s acquisition of skills and abilities, including with regard to ICTs, such as creating scholarships for girls, promoting continuing training opportunities for women, and taking steps to encourage their entry into the fields of scientific research, technology and engineering.

  5. Implement the National Action Plan on Women and gender-sensitive poverty reduction and development programmes.

  6. Immediately enact the Privacy and Data Protection Bill 2014.

  7. Revise existing legislation so that it is consistent with international human rights commitments, in particular the right to privacy.

  8. Ensure that measures limiting freedom of expression, assembly and association online are based on clearly defined criteria that are based on recognised international human rights standards.

  9. Promote women’s and girls’ participation in the knowledge society.

  10. Reinforce the national ICT policy framework’s goal of “lifelong education for all”, promoting traditional literacy with ICT components in schools and other educational and learning centres.

  11. Take measures to reduce the cost of data bundles by internet service providers, so that women and girls are encouraged to participate online.

  12. Investigate how technology-related VAW is affecting women’s participation online and develop holistic approaches to address the issue.