Today is International Girls in ICT Day. It is a day on which we should reflect on the realities of girls in South Africa, recognise their current challenges, and celebrate the empowering work that is being done to advance safe and empowering spaces online.
Girls in ICT – access to online spaces – digital literacy – online harms – safe spaces online – equality
GIRLS IN ICT DAY
Today, 22 April 2021, marks International Girls in ICT Day. In fact, today is the 10th anniversary of this notable day – a day that seeks to bring awareness about the gender digital divide, support technology education and skills training, and encourage more girls and young women to actively pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
There have been significant strides made by young women, girls, persons with disabilities, and gender and sexual minorities in the context of the online world. There have also been encouraging efforts by international organisations, governments, parents and caregivers, and civil society organisations who in many ways are trying to embrace diversity, inclusivity, and equality in meaningful ways.
However, and not to diminish the wonderful gains, there are concerns that the lived realities for many girls in South Africa are far from the laudable theme of this year’s Girls in ICT Day – Connected Girls, Creating Brighter Futures. Barriers to access, digital divides, insufficient digital skills, and online spaces that are exclusionary, harmful, and hurtful are hampering the ability of young women and girls to enjoy the many wonders that the digital world has to offer.
As we celebrate today and work towards online spaces that are accessible, safe and empowering, and that advance the development of girls in line with their rights and interests, we must pause to reflect on the current realities, challenges, and opportunities.
In the context of digital rights the current realities of many girls’ centres around access to online spaces – or a lack thereof. Access entails two key components, the first is about accessing the physical infrastructure that enables access to online content, and the second is about the ability to access and disseminate content online. In order for access to be meaningful, both components need to be realised. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) recently recognised that all children should have “equal and effective access to the digital environment in ways that are meaningful to them.” Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), along with Web Ranger participants unpacked the concept of access, and explained that access should be—
- Affordable if not free;
- Appropriate in terms of connection speeds;
- Inclusive of digital literacy skills;
- An environment for equality, free from discrimination;
- Mindful of children’s needs and abilities; and
- Reflective of their experiences and realities.
Affordability and connectivity are the first barriers many girls have to overcome if they want to meaningfully participate in the online world. In South Africa, “high costs remain a primary obstacle to access” and is a barrier for children who want to become digital citizens. South Africa’s digital divide is in many ways a manifestation of existing forms of inequality, which run across socio-economic, racial, gender, ability and geographic lines. This digital divide that separates who has access and who does not, is not only a manifestation of these inequalities but forms yet another way in which they are entrenched.
// “For many girls, these divides are part and parcel of their realities.”
While a lot of children in our country are confronted with these divides, girls – just by the virtue of being girls – sometimes have an additional barrier to overcome. The gender-digital divide, while not as stark in South Africa as other parts of the region, still exists with 60% internet access for men and 52% for women. For many girls, these divides are part and parcel of their realities. However, it would be remiss not to note that there are plans and efforts underway to advance and improve access and connectivity. Measures to decrease the cost of data and plans to advance 5G connectivity will likely contribute to the closing of the digital divide. It is hoped that these efforts will in turn adjust some of these realities faced by many girls in South Africa.
// “the opportunity to learn digital literacy skills is not yet a reality for all girls in South Africa.”
Once girls are able to get online there are a few more hurdles they have to overcome before the digital world becomes a “space where they can learn, develop and participate; where they can experience the world; and where they can dream, imagine and aspire.” Digital literacy skills are crucial for meaningful access, and meaningful participation online. UNICEF explains that digital literacy is not just about knowing how to use a particular device – which is indeed part of it – it is about having the requisite skills to navigate the online world cognizant of risks and harms. Digital literacy skills can empower girls to develop and create content and interact, share and collaborate with others. It allows girls to learn how to solve new problems, be creative, and grasp concepts relating to safe and responsible internet usage. Ultimately, having digital literacy skills means that girls know how to access the opportunities that the digital world has to offer. There are exciting initiatives such as the Web Rangers program that are working with children to advance these skills, however, the opportunity to learn digital literacy skills is not yet a reality for all girls in South Africa. As a result, concerns remain that “without essential critical digital literacy skills, the internet/social media can be a very dangerous place that has the potential to cause great harm.”
This point takes us to the last major barrier that must be overcome. It is by now well-established that the online world, initially envisaged as a safe and accessible place with significant potential for empowerment, has in many instances become yet another space in which gender-based violence, harassment, abuse, misogyny, sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia are amplified.
// “we need to ensure meaningful access, comprehensive digital literacy training, and find better ways of making the online world safe.”
Regrettably, girls in South Africa are at risk both on and offline, and the pervasive harms, gender-based violence, bullying, and discrimination diminish the ability of girls to be meaningfully connected. This last week, we observed the tragic passing of a teenage girl from Limpopo. Fifteen-year-old Lufuno Mavhunga committed suicide shortly after videos of her being bullied went viral on social media. Phakamile Khumalo, when reflecting on this tragedy posed three poignant questions:
- Do schools and teachers have adequate resources and skills to deal with bullying and the complex layer that social media has added to this form of violence?
- What was going through the mind of the learner who was taking the video of Lufuno being assaulted?
- Do we and the public understand the impact of resharing this video on social media, especially for Lufuno, her family and the child perpetrator?
These questions capture a reality that is not unique to Lufuno. Khumalo’s questions and her call for better policies in schools, better responses from the state, parents and children should not be ignored. If we truly want connected girls who are creating brighter futures we need to ensure meaningful access, comprehensive digital literacy training and find better ways of making the online world safe.
TOWARDS ACCESSIBLE, SAFE, INCLUSIVE, AND EMPOWERING SPACES FOR GIRLS
The above realities highlight that in South Africa, we are not yet in a space where we can confidently say we have connected girls who are creating brighter futures. But that is not to say that we are far off, or that we cannot create a new reality. Fortunately, over the past few years, there have been exciting and innovative developments that can assist us as we work towards accessible, safe, inclusive, and empowering spaces for girls online. These include:
- Feminist Principles of the Internet (FPI): These principles provide a framework for meaningful equality and inclusion on various issues related to technology, and envisage an online world in which girls, women, and sexual and gender minorities enjoy universal, acceptable, affordable, unconditional, open, meaningful and equal access to the internet. The FPI also recognises children’s right to healthy emotional and sexual development, which includes the right to privacy and access to positive information about sex, gender and sexuality at critical times in their lives.
- African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms: This Pan-African initiative promotes human rights standards in internet policy formulation and implementation, and calls for inclusive and meaningful access. The Declaration states that access to the internet should be available and affordable to all persons in Africa without discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. It further recognises existing forms of inequality and declares that all person should have equal access to learn about, define, access, use and shape the internet.
- Children’s rights in relation to the digital environment: In March 2021, the CRC published the final version of General Comment 25 on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment. The General Comment calls on states to take specific measures to close the gender-related digital divide for girls and to ensure that particular attention is given to access, digital literacy, privacy and online safety. The General Comment further encourages states to support the creation and dissemination of diverse digital educational resources of good quality in the languages that children understand and ensure that existing inequalities are not exacerbated, such as those experienced by girls
- Digital Rights Charter: In late 2020, MMA in collaboration with children and ALT Advisory developed the Children’s Digital Rights Charter, which seeks to give effect to an internet that is accessible, safe and empowering, and that advances the development of children in line with their rights and interests. The Charter records that children must be afforded meaningful access on an equal and equitable basis, and such access must promote equality and inclusion. The Charter further recognises that children must be afforded the opportunity, through their schooling, to participate in digital literacy and skills development programmes that equip them with necessary technical, social and critical skills to enable them to safely navigate online spaces.
- Take back the Tech!: Take Back The Tech! is a call to everyone, especially women and girls, to take control of technology to end violence against women. It is a global, collaborative campaign project that seeks to address the intersection between human rights and the internet and works towards solutions to tackle tech-related violence against women and girls. It offers safety roadmaps and information and provides an avenue for taking action. This campaign further sets to create safe digital spaces that protect everyone’s right to participate freely, without harassment or threat to safety. It seeks to realise women’s and girl’s rights to shape, define and participate in the development of online spaces.
Today, we should take a moment to pause: to reflect on current realities, recognise current challenges, and celebrate the empowering work that is being done. Tomorrow, we persist and continue to pave the way towards accessible, safe, inclusive, and empowering spaces for girls online, where connected girls with brighter futures are the reality.