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In 2018, APC member Colnodo was awarded a grant that it will use to implement TV white space technology with a gender focus in community projects in Colombia. Photo: Colnodo

The transformative power of the internet has offered unprecedented access to information, possibilities for socioeconomic growth and the opportunity for increased exercise of a range of human rights, including cultural, social and economic rights and freedom of expression. Global growth in connectivity, however, has begun to slow and, for many, meaningful access to the internet remains elusive. Women are most affected by this digital divide worldwide. According to the International Telecommunication Union’s latest research, women are 12% less likely to have access to the internet and, in least developed countries (LDCs), that figure jumps to 33%. The gap also fluctuates depending on region. In South Asia, for example, women are “26% less likely to own a mobile and 70% less likely to use mobile internet.”

Best Practice Forum on Gender and Access

The Best Practice Forum (BPF) on Gender and Access was established in 2015 at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), as a mechanism to help understand and address the barriers to meaningful internet access that women and non-binary populations face. Bringing together civil society, researchers, academics and advocates from regions around the world, the forum conducts horizontal, community-driven and multistakeholder research on systemic obstacles to internet access and develops recommendations for more equitable implementation and use of the internet from a gender perspective.

In 2018, the BPF on Gender and Access analysed the possibilities that supplementary models of connectivity provide to bridge the gender digital divide. They reached the conclusion that these initiatives could be instrumental in helping to overcome the most significant barriers that women and non-binary people face when trying to access the internet. Currently, there is a notable lack of alternative connectivity initiatives that prioritise gender issues specifically, but many of the forum’s participants believe that these projects are particularly suited to foster equitable participation in internet development and governance.

Supplementary models of connectivity are defined as networks which fall outside the widespread commercial top-down model; typically, they are some combination of small-scale, decentralised, cooperatively owned and user-managed. According to the forum, its is these very characteristics that make them a particularly promising means to tackle the gender digital divide.

To that end, the BPF’s 2019 report, summarising the outcomes of its work throughout 2018, includes a number of recommendations and best practices to ensure gender-sensitivity and inclusion in the development and use of supplementary models of connectivity. It also reiterates the main obstacles to meaningful access, including availability, affordability, culture and norms, exclusion from decision-making processes, lack of digital skills and lack of relevant content. Finally, it examines particular models of supplementary connectivity with a gender lens, including community networks, public Wi-Fi and TV white space.

Barriers to meaningful internet access

The barriers that women and non-binary individuals face to obtain meaningful internet connectivity are diverse and interlinked. In 2016, the BPF on Gender and Access published an analytical report identifying the most significant obstacles.

Availability and affordability

Many women live in areas where there is no broadband access or where local public internet centres are located in spaces that women do not have access to or are discouraged from entering. This issue is tied to affordability, in that the cost of devices and data can often be prohibitively expensive in small low-income communities, and moreover, women may not have as much disposable income and lack the financial independence to spend money on accessing the internet.

Culture and norms

Culture and norms were additionally identified as a key barrier to women’s access to and use of the internet. These social limitations are often “hidden” and highly context-specific, which can make them challenging to both understand and address. Research has shown, for example, that women in many communities fear “they will bring dishonour upon themselves” by engaging in online spaces in cultures where it is culturally unacceptable. Boys, moreover, are often given priority when it comes to technology use in the home.

As Revi Sterling, deputy chief of NetHope, puts it, “The real reason we can’t get [the] last several hundreds of millions of women online – it comes down to fact there are people in their community who don’t want them online… The issue is not the phone, it is the power around what the phone allows you to do.”

Parsing out the nuances of these cultural beliefs and customs through research is a complicated and expensive process, which may act as a deterrent to donors and organisations working in the field. Nonetheless, it is crucial to fund and undertake such studies, especially with a gender focus, to understand the context and effectively implement inclusive connectivity projects.

Lack of relevant content

Even when women and non-binary communities are able to achieve basic access to the internet, the online content available to them may not be relevant to their specific needs, interests and capacities. Enabling the creation of local content that is adapted to the cultural context and resonates with those in these communities is another essential aspect of promoting meaningful internet access.

Women’s participation in decision making

Women are often barred from holding positions of authority and lack decision-making power when it comes to internet and technology development. If they are given important roles in organisations, their participation is often tokenistic or used as a proxy for male family members who wield authority through them. This suggests the need for inclusion of women in internet connectivity initiatives in a more meaningful and substantive way that allows them to exercise agency.

Need for relevant capacities and digital skills

Many women and non-binary individuals in underserved communities may also lack the digital skills and confidence to explore the internet and take advantage of its benefits on their own terms, due to factors such as low literacy, lack of skills and limited access to devices. There is a strong need for digital skills training and capacity building, particularly for women in these areas.

Why supplementary models of connectivity?

The standard characteristics of supplementary models of connectivity – small-scale, decentralised, cooperatively owned and user-managed – make them particularly appropriate to address the obstacles to meaningful access that women and non-binary communities across the globe face.

Community-owned models of connectivity help address the linked concerns of availability and affordability by being operated by local stakeholders and individuals. Often, local communities are able to implement and maintain the generally low-cost infrastructure independently. Additionally, these supplementary models can be used to help foster digital skills and literacy due to their flexibility, which allows them to integrate capacity-building strategies into their structure. Small-scale connectivity projects, moreover, often encourage the creation and promotion of local content, making the internet a more relevant and useful resource for these communities.

Some of the other key obstacles to internet access, such as cultural norms and exclusion from decision-making processes, are more complex to address, but the adaptability and community-driven aspect of these models also theoretically make them easier to customise to specific community needs and challenges.

What do these models look like?

Community networks

Community networks, defined variously as “crowdsourced networks”, “distributed architectures” and “private initiative[s] by the local residents... using a so-called bottom-up approach”, have become an important approach to alternative connectivity for those in rural or underserved areas.

Generally, community networks share the following characteristics: collective ownership, social management, open design and open participation, as well as promotion of peering and transit, promotion of creation and dissemination of relevant, local-language content, and consideration of security and privacy concerns.

Community networks hold great potential to help bridge the digital divide for myriad reasons, including their accessible, affordable and socially managed nature. The ongoing unequal gender dynamics seen in some existing community networks, however, show that this potential is not always used.

Nic Bidwell, the gender and social impact advisor for APC's community networks project, explains it this way: “A community network is a part of your everyday life... so the answer to the gender perspective can’t be top-down, it has to come within the living system of a community network, which is very complicated to achieve.” She also stressed the need to question what kind of agency women actually possess even when they hold positions of authority within a community network. Women are often used as proxies for male family members trying to exercise power. Moreover, community network management is often modelled on the patriarchal and hierarchical local governance structures, meaning existing unequal dynamics between men and women are frequently replicated in these projects.

Public Wi-Fi

Public Wi-Fi networks are publicly accessible wireless networks that allow communities to connect to other networks and/or the broader internet. In theory, public Wi-Fi can be used to offer accessible and affordable connectivity to communities that may not be served by the top-down commercial operators and models. In India, for example, the government provides public Wi-Fi as an alternative to broadband as a means to connect the remaining unconnected and hard-to-reach areas of the country.

The challenge with this type of supplementary model is that public spaces are often highly politicised and policed when it comes to gender. Many women are not able to benefit from Wi-Fi connectivity in these public environments due to limitations on mobility, fear of harassment, and cultural restrictions and expectations.

TV white space

White spaces are unused frequencies in the wireless spectrum, which have been left empty to act as buffers between television channels and prevent interference; these “gaps” can be used to provide broadband internet.

While TV white space could also be instrumental in helping rural, underserved and marginal communities gain internet access, there is currently a shortage of initiatives in this area that specifically attempt to address the gender divide and provide inclusive connectivity. The BPF, nonetheless, acknowledges that it relies upon channels of information and knowledge that may not represent or include all projects.

Why the gender focus and how to approach it?

The ways in which technology is created, deployed and managed often reflect and replicate the existing power structures in a society. When it comes to connectivity, gender is one key factor that can directly impact an individual’s ability to make use of technology and take advantage of its benefits. Currently, however, connectivity projects rarely acknowledge or plan around the disparity in needs and barriers facing women and men in terms of internet access. Developing local access projects with a strong focus on these issues is crucial if we hope to begin closing the gap in access between genders.

Moving forward, promoting and establishing supplementary models of connectivity with an eye to gender issues is only one part of a larger equation. Increasing internet access for women and non-binary people in a meaningful way requires a recalibration of our idea of the internet and its users, as well as the development of concrete policy initiatives and effective research which reflect the diverse needs within underserved communities.

In light of this, the BPF’s report recommends moving beyond the assumption that the internet is an “inherently neutral and democratic” space and acknowledging the way that it incorporates existing “spatial, political and cultural” power dynamics in its design and manifestation. The forum also urges that we take deliberate measures to prevent the re-creation of patriarchal, white and cis structures within supplementary models of connectivity, and to ensure that women are offered substantive roles and decision-making power rather than tokenistic involvement in these projects. This shift in perspective necessitates tying greater value to “women’s (often invisible) labour, collectivist practices and contributions” within community-based and small-scale connectivity projects.

When it comes to establishing internet infrastructure, the BPF encourages a “bottom-up approach” to implementation which positions the community as a key stakeholder. They also suggest that gender analysis be a part of the planning stages of all access projects and that service providers be mandated to take an inclusive and gender-sensitive approach to internet deployment.

Robust and forward-thinking research approaches will be crucial to catalysing this shift; the BPF insists on the importance of broadening gender classifications and recognising the value of gender non-binary experiences in research practices, as well as developing more effective methodologies which explore “the intersections between gender and other relevant socioeconomic and political factors.” In the same vein, it is important to understand how gender interacts with other elements of identity such as sex, race, class, religion and ability, and to embed an intersectional approach into all connectivity initiatives.

Despite the untapped potential of supplementary models of connectivity to provide gender-inclusive internet access, many of the forum’s participants see these initiatives as a key part of the strategy to address the gender digital divide. Indeed, giving women and non-binary individuals a central role in these access projects could not only have a massive impact on their ability to exercise their social, cultural and economic rights, but also give them the chance to help their broader communities develop and flourish.

As a survey respondent from Honduras described it, developing connectivity with a strong gender focus has the power to create positive ripple effects: “As [women] get more access to information and learn how to improve their own economic dynamics within the community, they will expand their opportunities for growth. [These initiatives] could be customized to have a gender focus by teaching women specifically how to use the Internet as a tool for education on women's rights and how to address local problems affecting women and children.”