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Executive summary

In a globalised world where the internet transformed our earth into a small village, the global South is left lagging. Internet accessibility remains a major hurdle facing a large proportion of people in the global South. The situation in Sudan is no exception. In the light of the economic instability, political turmoil and the United States-led economic sanctions imposed on Sudan, internet accessibility and making beneficial use of the internet are a real challenge, especially for women. This research explores the barriers to women’s access to and use of the internet in Sudan. It examines how intersectional discrimination against women resulted in their digital exclusion in the four regions of Khartoum, Port Sudan, North Darfur and South Kordofan. The interplay of economic deterioration, political instability, economic sanctions, gender dynamics and power dynamics has widened the gender digital divide in the country. Digital inequality is further amplified by limited access to digital technologies, lack of skills, and affordability. The research also draws attention to the online gender-based violence (OGBV) experienced by the women as a significant barrier to internet access as also unrecognised and unaccounted for violence and hate speech against them.


Key findings

  1. Among the various barriers to women's access and use of the internet, our research findings reveal that the following are noxious and prominent – social construct of gender norms, power dynamics, personal status law, government regulations, lack of gender-sensitive regulations, OGBV, and US sanctions against Sudan. 
  2. Connected to the above, particularly in the private sphere, access to the internet mostly involves domestic violence which can sometimes entail murder. Young girls are forced to be supervised by family members, who in most cases are males. Married women are also being watched by their husbands online, which often results in divorce, beatings, and/or other types of abuse. 
  3. All the four regions mentioned above reported the prevailing culture of men’s control over women over owning technological devices and accessing the internet. A majority of the research participants pointed out that women of different ages, social classes, ethnicities, marital status, and locations (urban and rural) are challenged by men’s control over their lives to access and use the internet. In some rural areas in Khartoum, South Kordofan and North Darfur, it was reported that women are prevented from having a smartphone or accessing the internet because men believe it changes the behaviour and attitudes of women and girls in a way that does not conform to the community culture. 
  4. A majority of women do not feel safe in online spaces, according to the focus group discussions (FGDs). The data collected through the FGDs shows that many women are not allowed to freely express their opinions on social media or share their photos. To circumvent this, they create accounts with nicknames or pseudonyms to avoid recognition by their family members online. Furthermore, the research participants reflected that women experience different types of OGBV, including bullying, sexual harassment, blackmail and threats. These acts have limited the activities of some women in online spaces, and driving others to discontinue their online presence. Moreover, women’s struggles with OGBV in Sudan usually extend offline also. 
  5. In South Kordofan (Kadugli, capital city), the problem women face is internet shutdown due to the ongoing intercommunal conflicts. FGD participants said they were neophytes when it came to the internet and its usage and that they struggled to create content due to government surveillance and restrictions on freedom of expression across the country; and there were women who have been imprisoned for expressing their opinion online. 
  6. The research also shows that certain groups of women are more targeted on social media. Intersecting factors including age, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, occupation, physical appearance, physical/mental ability, and nature of activities on social media were recorded as playing a role in how they are more vulnerable to OGBV and less likely to obtain justice. For instance, younger women political activists who come from marginalised ethnic groups are more vulnerable to OGBV. Furthermore, a majority of the victims refrain from filing a formal complaint for various reasons, including, primarily, social stigma as well as lack of awareness about their rights and lack of trust in the juridical system. Exacerbated by the sanctions, the variety of settings and tools to address online abuse are not always easy to access. 
  7. The US trade embargo on Sudan has affected mobile network operators' access to crucial technologies to maintain telecom infrastructure. This leads telecom operators to buy equipment and software through third-party companies, which directly increases cost of operation because these entities in turn inflate their prices by two times, impacting the internet bundle cost in a country that sees a high rate of poverty among women. 
  8. Although the Berman Amendment (which stipulates that transactions involving information and informational materials are generally exempt from the purview of the US presidential regulation) offered individuals the right to access information and informational materials, still some educational websites block sanctioned countries from accessing their educational materials. Most edutech services do not accept payment through Visa or Mastercard issued in Sudan. This has exacerbated the restrictions and control women endure to access education online, as well as decreasing livelihood opportunities through finding jobs online. 
  9. Sanctions are directly affecting Sudanese women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and marginalising them professionally. Getting access to certifications is not easy and is very costly as Sudanese must travel abroad to sit for exams, and this is not always affordable and/or permissible to many pursuing STEM-related professions. Additionally, sometimes training centres and examiners may refuse to allow them to sit for the exams as Sudan is under sanctions.
This work forms part of the APC Feminist Internet Research Network project, supported by the International Development Research Centre.
Read the full report here