Women’s Rights Online: understanding the issues and pushing towards a solution

Human rights exist in all aspects of life. These include the right to free speech, the right to education and the right to personal liberty just to mention a few. However, one of the most overlooked rights has been digital rights and for that matter, Women’s Rights Online, in particular.

Online rights include the right to free expression, association, and movement in the virtual, digital space. It also includes the right to freedom and protection from violence, harassment, defamation and so on.

Recent trends on social media show that women are violated more than ever in the online digital space. According to the Cyber Bullying Research Centre, 41% of women are bullied online as compared to 28% of men in the same space. This brings into perspective the issue of Women’s Rights Online (WRO) in an era of gender equality and women empowerment.

About a month ago, I had the opportunity to be part of a one-day workshop organised by the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) to discuss effective ways of promoting Women’s Rights Online in Ghana.

Personally, I was surprised Women Rights Online was an issue at all. My first question was: “Why do women need rights online?” I mean “Who is preventing women to be online?” But by the end of the workshop, I had a better understanding of the issue and was exposed to realities on the ground, some of which I will share in this article.

Women’s Rights Online encompasses issues of internet access, affordability, digital skills and education as well as online safety. It is a virtual representation of what happens in real life where women’s rights are violated through sexual harassment, gender inequality, stalking, domestic/ verbal violence amongst others.

The disparity in treatment of women in the digital space therefore becomes an issue of concern that must be explored to ensure that, the rights women enjoy in life are also respected on the internet.

Research has shown that women use the internet for various reasons and purposes.  A study conducted by the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), showed that 45% of women in Ghana use the internet to stay connected whereas 41% and 31% said they used the internet for entertainment and educational purposes respectively.

Also, 23% of respondents said they use the internet for income generating activities, while 19% go online for debate issues. A further 18% use their digital space for religious purposes.

The rest use the internet for purposes of friendship (17%), a means to pass time (14%) and as a platform for parenting (7%).

These findings reveal that, women have an equally diverse use of the internet as much as men and a greater percentage of these are in the area of communication, education and entertainment; which are productive uses with beneficial results.

One statistic that struck me was the percentage of women without internet access. The study showed that less than 20% of women in Ghana have access to the internet. Furthermore, it was noted that one of the reasons for this phenomenon was as a result of some single mothers having to choose between using their money for data and preparing meals for the upkeep of their family; a situation that highlights the issue of poverty.

To make matters worse, this percentage of women still face all forms of harassment on the internet.

Digging deeper to explore the scale of discrimination against women online, the World Wide Web Foundation’s network of Women’s Rights Online, conducted a study in ten countries including Ghana. They found that, there are extreme gender and poverty inequalities in digital empowerment across urban poor areas. Women are 50% less likely than men to be online for various reasons.

The study concluded that a formidable gender gap in internet access, digital skills, and online rights remains to be closed.  The sad reality for Africa is, only 18.6% of the female population on the continent have online access.

One therefore wonders what efforts are being made to tackle this rather serious issue which is being largely overlooked.

In Ghana, Article 21(a) of the constitution guarantees all citizens the right to free expression including access information. The problem, however, has been in implementation of the law in the light of women’s rights.

Regardless of this difficulty, women advocates have and continue to work for the economic, social, cultural, civil and political empowerment of women. Government has also come up with many policies including compulsory ICT training in schools, even though monitoring and implementation of such projects has been poor.

Again, government and some civil society organisations have contributed in infrastructure by building some ICT centers in communities like Asesewa.

With all the progress being made, a lot more effort needs to be done to sustain and increase women’s access to the internet and ensure that their rights online are not being violated.

One way this can be achieved is by promoting formal education. Without education, the ability to read and write is absent, resulting in high female illiteracy rates and limited interest in online activities.

If governments want to ensure WRO therefore, then its first target would have to be to provide adequate access to formal education for females.

It is interesting to note that some communities in Ghana do not value female education because of cultural practices and beliefs including, child marriages as is done in the ‘Trokosi’ system. Although government and some civil society organisations have championed causes such as ‘Send Your Girl Child to School’, the numbers (uneducated females) are still high considering the dispensation we live in where ICT have become a major influence in our daily lives.

It goes without saying that encouraging and promoting formal education amongst females has a multiplier effect. Women constitute more than half of Ghana’s population. If all women are educated and empowered, there will be more jobs created, more skills acquired and more entrepreneurial avenues explored. Women will now have more access to income which will greatly improve access to the internet and create a cycle towards poverty eradication.

Secondly, formal education will make women aware of their rights online and generally the population will begin to recognize and respect these rights by becoming sensitive to them. In this way, education becomes a powerful tool for women’s empowerment and most importantly, promoting Women’s Rights Online.

The roadmap for increasing women’s access to the internet and promoting rights online is a tough one with many hurdles but with commitment to formal education and continuous efforts to discuss issues and share knowledge around the topic, we are sure to reach our objective sooner than later.

It is my wish that civil society organisations like the MFWA continue to pursue this agenda and extend such workshops to rural communities where a greater impact will be felt to spark a consciousness on the issues of women’s rights online.