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African women gathering during the 2022 Africa Internet Governance Forum (AfIGF) happening in Lilongwe, Malawi on 19-21 July. Photo: Josephine Miliza

Community networks cultivate bottom-up, sustainable approaches to communications technology and meaningful connectivity that strengthen personal and collective autonomy and self-determination. In a male-dominant field, however, community-led initiatives are not free of gender inequalities and cultural biases by design. While African women have been making essential contributions to community-led initiatives in the region, it is important to acknowledge their role.

For years, some of the women engaged with community networks have been gathering together to discuss their experiences, challenges and achievements in building gender-inclusive and bottom-up approaches to digital inclusion. The gatherings turned into online meetings, such as the session Women in the Africa Community Networks Movement, following the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. This year, however, many of these women will be together face to face again, during the 2022 Africa Internet Governance Forum (AfIGF) happening in Lilongwe, Malawi on 19-21 July. This will be an opportunity to discuss how to build an enabling ecosystem for community networks, leaving no one behind (see AfIGF sessions with this focus here and here).

Risper Akinyi, from the Tunapanda Institute in Kenya, is one of people who will be weaving connections among women from different countries in the region during this year's AfIGF. For many years, she has been involved in amplifying women voices through capacity building of women leaders in the Kibera slums of Nairobi on the use and governance of information and communications technologies (ICTs). As someone who is passionate about community development, her main focus is on community capacity development, community research, stakeholder engagement and public participation in policy making.

We interviewed Risper to find out more about the achievements, challenges and hopes for the future when it comes to women's engagement in community networks in Africa.

What are the achievements we can celebrate in 2022?

In terms of achievements, we celebrate the existence of safer spaces and solidarity circles for women in community networks that allow us to exchange best practices and challenges in different areas as well as networking and finding mentorships. There are dialogues happening virtually and in person (within a country) that are challenging the status quo of the ICT field in relation to male-dominated spaces and highlighting strategies to bring more women into the community networks space.

Fellowships such as SPACE [Socio-Political Advocacy for Community Networks Engagement mentorship programme] are designed to increase voices that are heard in policy and regulatory spaces through a gender lens and build more inclusive, diverse and community-oriented access policies. Women parliamentarians are championing community networks in national assembly proceedings, in Tanzania for example.

In the training and mentorship for upcoming and existing community networks in different countries, women's participation is a critical aspect to take into consideration when selecting mentees. This is an effort to make sure that every gender is represented. So, we celebrate community networks carving out gender-sensitive programmes that engage women in discussion around access, affordability and meaningful use of the internet, such as the Feminist Internet School that happens annually in Nigeria and TunapandaNet engaging women grassroots human rights defenders in conversations around digital rights and digital advocacy.


And what are the current challenges women in community networks face?

Some of the barriers that lead to women's low engagement and participation in community networks are undocumented and there is a need for more research on the unpaid and time-consuming role of women in the community they exist. There is a need to challenge the stereotype of the role of women in the tech space. Women can do it and they are already in the movement across the continent.


What are the changes you would like to see in the future for women in community networks in Africa?

I want to see the participation of women in not only internet usage, but also for the development and research of digital technologies that are responsive to the needs of women. Also more research and documentation of the role of women in community networks in Africa.

Community women are involved in forums, such as the multistakeholder forums where decisions and interventions that affect the community are made. This should continue.
Finally, we need to build a movement of women in community networks that provides safer spaces for women to exchange and learn from each other, taking local contexts and barriers into account and seeking to address them whenever needed.

"Community networks have existed for many years and provide a sustainable solution to address the connectivity gaps that exist in urban, remote and rural areas around the world. However, the participation and engagement of women are still low, as the space is often considered very technical and male dominated."

How women can support each other in the region? Do you see opportunities for collaboration?

Absolutely, yes. Community networks at their core are about community members supporting each other to create a network infrastructure that solves their problems. Therefore, in the same fashion, community networks in the region need to support each other to grow the movement. There are already efforts globally of collaboration and forums being created for exchange, such as SPACE, the women solidarity circles and other regional initiatives such as the Virtual Summit on Community Networks in Africa. However, there is a need for more platforms for support and exchange that are region-specific. There are a lot of intersections in the work that community networks are doing regionally, and the beauty is that the the work is as similar as it is different, since each community networks is tackling a unique need of the community. At the end of the day, as long as the goal is to connect the unconnected, there is an opportunity for learning exchange and collaboration among community networks and other organisations that have successfully increased women's participation in the community and mainstreamed gender in capacity building for the design, deployment and sustaining of community networks and local content creation.

The stereotypes and patriarchal mindset in the ICT field are entrenched in the beliefs and attitudes of some women, especially women from rural and informal settlements, and sometimes actions serve as empowerment better than words. Therefore, there is a need for women mentors who young ladies and other women can look up to as a way to boost confidence in the space and champion community networks.

Suggested readings and resources to find out more:

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Image: African women gathering during the 2022 Africa Internet Governance Forum (AfIGF) happening in Lilongwe, Malawi on 19-21 July. Photo: Josephine Miliza