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Gender equality in Africa: Priorities, policies, and initiatives

Advancing gender equality and addressing gender digital divides are among the policy priorities of many African countries. Some are making remarkable progress, although Africa remains one of the regions with the widest digital gender gaps. Several continental and regional initiatives – such as the AU Strategy for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment – also underscore the need to facilitate women’s access to digital technologies and to ensure the protection of women and girls in the digital space.

Gender equality and gender digital divides 

In 2022, Namibia and Rwanda were ranked among world’s top 10 gender equal societies. Namibia has made significant progress in bridging the gender gap as it moved up from the 12th place in the Global Gender Gap Index 20201World Economic Forum [WEF]. (2020). Global Gender Gap Report 2020. to 8th place in the latest report.2World Economic Forum [WEF]. (2022). Global Gender Gap Report 2022. Similarly, Rwanda has advanced from the 9th to 6th place. According to the 2022 report, Namibia has closed 80.7% of the gender gap, while Rwanda has closed 81.1%.

Across Africa in particular, digital gender equality has been driven among other things by increased access to mobile money. The prevalence of fintech across the region should help reduce the barriers faced by women who are frequently excluded from the formal financial sector. The use of mobile money is found to be associated with a higher likelihood of self-employment and entrepreneurship among women.3Kedir, A. & Kouame, E. (2022). FinTech and women’s entrepreneurship in Africa: The case of Burkina Faso and Cameroon. Journal of Cultural Economy, DOI: 10.1080/17530350.2022.2041463

Still, there is a wide digital gender gap. Not only is internet penetration the lowest in Africa, but the difference between men and women using the internet is among the highest in the African region (Figure 50).

Figure 50. Internet usage rate worldwide in 2020, by gender and region.4Based on International Telecommunication Union [ITU]. (2021). The gender digital divide.

The gender internet divide seems to be narrowing at a very slow pace. Figure 51 shows that the gender parity score (the proportion of women who use the internet divided by the proportion of men) in Africa has only grown from 0.58 to 0.67 between 2018 and 2020.

Figure 51. The internet user gender parity score, 2018 and 2020.5Based on International Telecommunication Union [ITU]. (2021). The gender digital divide.

Women are also less likely than men to own mobile devices. But the gender gap in mobile ownership tends to be smaller than the gender gap in mobile internet use. This is illustrated in GSMA’s Mobile Gender Gap Report covering Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal (Figure 52).

Figure 52. Mobile ownership and mobile internet use by men and women.6GSM Association [GSMA]. (2022). The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2022.

The two main barriers to mobile ownership and mobile internet use are affordability (in particular handset costs) and functional literacy and digital skills. According to GMSA, difficulties with reading and writing, as well as not knowing how to access the internet on a mobile device tend to be greater barriers for women than men. Safety and security issues are also reported as significant barriers when it comes to internet use.7GSM Association [GSMA]. (2022). The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2022. 

There are numerous international and regional initiatives aimed at addressing the gender digital divide and one of the most impactful is the African Girls Can Code initiative implemented by UN Women, in partnership with the AUC and ITU, which trains African girls in coding and tech skills. During the first phase of the initiative, 600 girls were trained; a guide on mainstreaming ICT, gender, and coding in national curricula across the continent was developed; an eLearning platform was launched; and a  series of  webinars were held during the pandemic.8UN Women. (2021). Addressing the digital gender divide in Africa through the African Girls Can Code Initiative. The second phase was launched in May 2022.9African Union [AU] et al. (2022). African girls can code initiative (AGCCI), Second phase launch and TOT.

Continental and regional initiatives

The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (2003), also known as the Maputo Protocol, provides a legal framework for promoting and upholding civil and political, economic, social, cultural as well as environmental rights for all African women. Among other things, it urges member states to ‘promote research and investment in new and renewable energy sources and appropriate technologies, including information technologies and facilitate women’s access to, and participation in their control’.10African Union [AU]. (2003) Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa

The Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa from 2004, recognising the growing digital divide between genders and the role of digital technologies in the advancement of gender equality, called on member states to sign and ratify the Protocol and take specific actions to ensure the protection of human rights and capacity development of African girls and women.11African Union [AU]. (2004). Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa. 

The protocol entered into force in November 2005, after having been ratified by the required 15 African Union (AU) members. As of June 2022, 43 of the 55 AU members had ratified the protocol, and 9 had signed but not ratified it.12Solidarity for African Women’s Rights. (n.d.). Protocol watch. However, its full implementation and domestication still face challenges, in particular because several countries have placed reservations on some of its provisions.13Equality Now. (2021). The Maputo Protocol turns 18 today. But what does this mean for women and girls in Africa.

In 2009, the AU developed a gender policy to guide its commitments towards gender mainstreaming and women empowerment across the continent. The policy aims to mainstream gender equality and women’s empowerment into all the institutional arrangements at policy and programming levels to address a series of issues affecting women, including that of enabling ‘equal access to ICT infrastructure and applications, global alliance for IT development and building a sustainable e-future’.14African Union [AU]. (2009). African Union Gender Policy.

Ten years later, the AU Strategy for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment 2018–2028 was launched with the overall aim to mitigate, if not eliminate, the major setbacks to gender equality so that women and girls can fully participate in economic, social, and political endeavours. The strategy is composed of four pillars, one of them dedicated to digital empowerment:

  • Pillar 1: Maximising (economic) outcomes, opportunities and tech e-dividends, which calls for an equal access to quality education for girls and women and control over productive resources. 
  • Pillar 2: Dignity, human security, and resilience, which are critical for the achievement of gender equality.
  • Pillar 3: Effective laws, policies and institutions, which address, among others, a gap between the written provisions for gender equality, and the daily reality.
  • Pillar 4: Policies and institutions leadership, voice, and visibility, which address the need for women to be equally represented in decision making.15African Union [AU]. (2019). AU Strategy for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment.

In the area of digital empowerment, the strategy stipulates that the AU will endorse digital solutions and platforms that advance gender equality and women’s empowerment. It will advocate for tech firms and financial institutions to provide funds for start-ups and innovation hubs that promote gendered solutions and women’s equal participation in technology development.

The AU’s Women, Gender, Development and Youth Directorate (WGDY) is responsible for coordinating the AU’s efforts on gender equality and promoting women’s and youth’s empowerment.16African Union [AU]. (n.d.). Women, Gender, and Youth Directorate (WGDY). The mission of the Directorate is to ensure the implementation of the AU Strategy on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment. The Directorate is tasked with designing programmes and projects based on the policies and frameworks adopted by AU members. It also oversees the development and harmonisation of gender and youth policies, defines strategies for gender and youth mainstreaming across the continent, and supports capacity building by providing training on gender and youth policies and instruments.