Earlier this month, we had the pleasure of hosting Ugandan engineer, academic, and activist, Dr. Dorothy Okello at our Canadian headquarters in Ottawa.
Dr. Okello has made it her life’s work to increase the inclusion and participation of women in using information and communication technologies (ICTs) to address development challenges in Uganda. Her expertise in technology and passion for gender inclusion led her to found the Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) in 2000 while she was a PhD student at McGill University in Montreal. WOUGNET works to create a society in which women are empowered through the use of ICTs for sustainable development. She is also the director of innovation at the ResilientAfrica Network (RAN), a partnership of 18 African universities in 13 countries that strengthens the resilience of communities by nurturing and scaling innovations in science and technology. Adding to that, she is also a senior lecturer at the College of Engineering, Design, Art and Technology at Makere University in Kampala and the president of the Uganda Institution of Professional Engineers.
Her visit gave us the opportunity to learn about some of the current challenges and opportunities in engaging African women as technology-enabled leaders in their communities.
One of the major challenges, of course, is access. Around the world, there is a significant and pervasive gender gap when it comes to accessing ICTs. While this gap varies from region to region, it is particularly wide in sub-Saharan Africa, where 45 per cent fewer women than men are online. Even with a more accessible tool like radio, women tend to have less access than men. Literacy, gender roles, and personal income all play a role in contributing to the divide. In many African countries, women receive less education than men, which can limit their ability to use certain technologies. In some communities, women are wary to use tools like cell phones because it could lead their husbands to become suspicious. And women also spend a greater share of their income on communication technologies than do men, as they tend to have less income and/or less control of it.
With more and more formal employment opportunities requiring ICT skills and the possibilities that open up when women are connected to useful information — and each other — it is vital that we overcome gaps in access and use.
ICTs such as radio and mobile phones is one of these empowerment tools, and is most effective when tailored to the needs of the communities wherein they are implemented. Dr. Okello’s WOUGNET uses community radio programs as a primary method of empowering women in rural areas. In this work, WOUGNET often encounters and utilizes content written and distributed by Farm Radio.
Fortunately these barriers, if confronted, also offer opportunities for the empowerment of women and the social cohesion of men and women in communities where ICTs are implemented, by allowing them to collaborate and share information.
Empowering women to use communication technologies can give them specific and important roles in their communities. As Dr. Okello shared, the gender gap can be mitigated in the implementation of ICTs that are modified to address the challenges of not only the needs of each community, but the needs of women in each community.
In some communities ICTs are being used as a method of facilitating communication between those communities and their local government. In countries such as Uganda, government services are often seen as favours rather than as rights as tax-paying citizens. With mobile phones, women are able to take and send pictures of infrastructure that needs to be improved, such as a road that needs to be repaved or a sign that needs to be replaced.
Dr. Okello’s visit to Ontario included thought provoking presentations delivered in Toronto and Ottawa during which she spoke to attendees about the importance of taking a gender-sensitive approach when it comes to using ICTs for development: why it matters, how we get there, and the challenges that both women and men face along the way.