While discussing with participants of the Digital Livelihood for rural women and girls conducted by the Centre for Information Technology and Development (CITAD) and supported by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) in Itas, Itas-Gadau Local Government of Bauchi State. I was taken aback by the repeated celebration of digital systems as capable of providing jobs at home for women. The aspect was that the potential for women to work from home is culturally non-disruptive and should be welcome. Most of the girls were happy with this. The training of film and video editing as well as digital photography in particular seemed to excite the girls more than anything. Some of them opined that with the cultural practice of having men celebrating weddings for example outside the house and women inside the country, women or girls who are skilled on film and video editing as well as photography could find ready-made market,
I can understand this as the girls live in the context in which the horizon of most girls is clouded by the ABU syndrome and all that all aspire to quickly get married and raise children. Independent means of livelihood comes a distant priority. The first time I came across the ABU was angry, why should all the girls want to go to ABU and not Bayero University, Kano. the university I was lecturing. My ignorance was revealed when one of them explained that ABU did not stand for Ahmadu Bello University but Aure Bautar Ubangiji (Hausa, loosely meaning “Marriage is a Worship of Allah”). For many of these girls, the first instinctive gut was that digital skills will enhance their marriage. Which is good in itself.
However, as the training continued to unfold, they began to imagine a different way of using their skills. Some see it as a means to improve their education, update and move to higher institution of learning. Some saw a window of venturing out into professions that they ordinarily consider outside their reach. For example, 22-year old Bilkisu Gambo Idris of Itas Local Government Area of Bauchi State explained that having learn a number different aspects of digital skills including website design, Coreldraw and Online Marketing, plans starts that her dream is to start an online business but due to the lack of capital is yet to start but the training encouraged and inspired her to further her education to the advanced level. Hauwa Baffa Sulaiman of Itas community, aged 20 years described the training as an eye opener and the essence of her life because now she has started advertising her make-up business on the Internet especially Facebook and Instagram pages. Fauziyya Yakubu age 23, from Jamaare is now using social media platforms to advertise her digital skills to train other women at home. She has found an add up way of addressing the gender digital divide by driving digital skill lessons into the homes that were initially a block against further learning.
In the end, they came to accept digital skills not just as something that will make them better wives but also make them better human beings and living a meaningful and productive life. However, it will seem that in this logic, the emancipatory aspect of digital skill is undermined and subverted and re-directed by a patriarchal conditioning, making the question pertinent: is digital skills enough to address the economic and political marginality of women?
Clearly, women are politically excluded in the country. But more than even patriarchal control, the main factor for this is the economic marginalization of the women. Women are relatively poorer than men and constitute the largest number of those living under the poverty line. It is for this reason that some researchers have referred to poverty as having a feminine face in Nigeria.
If the economic status of women can be improved, they will be able to engage as equal actors in the political realm and thus be in a position to address some of policies and practices that continue to hold them down. The poor economic condition of women has meant that they have a low affordability index for digital access. Addressing the economic marginality is important to addressing the gender digital divide in the country. However, while it is a necessary condition, it is not a sufficient one. The digital divide is not just about access and empowering women economically while important will not in itself solve the digital marginalization of women. And while skill is an important enabler, it too is not enough.
To deal with the gender digital divide in a subversive manner, we need to deconstruct cultural norms that inhibit the effective use of the digital technology by women. Surprisingly, the experience from the digital livelihood program shows a less controversial path in which two things worked out well. First, men did not feel threatened by their daughters and spouses learning digital skills that will make them better partners to their husbands. In other words, seeing the seeming digital skills compatibility with cultural norms of the society makes it easy to break resistance and barriers to learning. Second, once the learners get emersed, they get their horizon broadened. In this sense, there seem to be a double subversive appropriation of digital technology: first, patriarchy subverted the libertarian impulse of technology to drive it to domesticity. Having accepted this, the girls then re-subverted this to go beyond domesticity and begin to make effective use of digital technology in ways that go to seed and enhance personal livelihoods for them, thus opening the way for independent means of livelihood and being active economic agents of their own.
Drawing from the above is the inescapable conclusion that bridging the gender digital divide is beyond addressing the four conventional pillars of awareness, availability, accessibility, and affordability. No doubt, we all need to be aware about what digital technology can do in transforming our lives and society before we can make the efforts to embrace it. Embracing it of course requires its availability, which is beyond individual choices or effort we make. Government in particular has greater role in making digital technology available to the citizens, and particularly, to girls and women. What policies and programmes a government deploys to address availability will invariably play role in addressing affordability, though affordability is also beyond just technology policies because it is signposted by the economic status of the people. Finally, accessibility would include making digital education not just in the privilege colonial language of higher education but also in local languages that citizens speak and engage with so that they can see technology not as something external but as part of daily lived social being and a necessity. That means teaching digital skill in our first languages.
But more than anything, addressing gender digital divide will require an honest handshake across genders. This is because gender digital divide is part of the wider gender development divide and cannot be addressed in isolation of this wider issue. The exclusion of women in the policy spaces and other digital space spaces is not accidental. It is the construction and imagining of these spaces as masculine by patriarchy. Addressing these requires understanding masculine fear of the internet. Masculine fear about the internet is rooted in the reaction of men about the communication space that digital systems, particularly the internet have given to women. But it also seen in the fact while men think the internet will expose women to bad influence, they do not think that they too could be exposed to the same bad influence. Within the realms of power discourse, women who engage with the internet are demonized as wayward, of easy virtue and generally as “prostitute”, etc.
The handshake has to bring both men and women into a mutual dialogue on technology. Men and women should work to deconstruct the myths around the internet. Men and women should work together to discuss how the internet is a tool that can help rather than subvert family structures. Ultimately, men and women have to work together to overcome the constraints that patriarchy has placed before women in the use of technology. The handshake is not an easy conversation. On the part of males, it signals acceptance to give up on some privileges while for women, it requires rethinking of normalized ideas.
The digital livelihood is one example of a handshake, a conversation involving parents, spouses, daughters, and other community gatekeepers. It allowed the fears to be on the table and in an open conversation, not on combating any social norm but on opening spaces for learning for girls to seek self-actualization. We need more of these conversations and handshaking to make substantive progress in closing the gender digital divide and ending gender digital marginalization in the country.