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Limited internet access, high rates stifling female literacy

The internet can be a prodigious enabler for girls but if the digital gender gap is not addressed, digital technologies may intensify gender disparities rather than help to reduce them, writes DERRICK KIYONGA.

On January 30, about 70 students of International University of East Africa (IUEA) entered what is known to them as hall 302 at this studying complex found in Kansanga. The students weren’t only drawn from different courses but from the Great Lakes region and they were here to discuss a subject that is dear to their lives – the internet.

The students were divided into groups to brainstorm underlying factors having a bearing on women’s consumption of the internet. Not surprisingly, most of them pointed at the cost.

“There is no doubt that the introduction of the Over the Top Tax (OTT) has negatively impacted on us students,” Aragsan Haboon, a female Somali student, said referring to the OTT that was introduced in 2018. “We don’t work; so, we have to rely on our parents to pay the tax. And sometime our parents don’t have the money.”

South Sudanese-born Daniel Mabek’s complaint was that besides that OTT, the skyrocketing internet prices in Uganda have made it increasingly difficult for students to carry out their research. 

“We are in an internet era but for us students, the cost of data is high,” Mabek said. “The little money we get from our parents has a lot of competing interests. We have to eat and do other things.  But the data we buy gets exhausted quickly. How can we do academic research?”   


This engagement was one of the several that Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET), a not-for-profit organization, has been organizing in collaboration with Strategic Advocacy Fund with a view of capturing views that would feed into its signature project christened ‘Bridging the Digital Gender Gap in Uganda.’

The major objective of the project according to its designers, is to assess how Uganda is faring in as far as women’s internet rights are concerned when compared against the principles of the African Declaration of Internet Rights and Freedoms (AFDEC) – which was drafted by African civil society organizations to guide the creation of a positive, rights-based and democratically governed Internet policy environment on the continent.

Of the 13 key principles laid out by AFDEC the young people focused on one:  Internet access and affordability. “Once you are out of Kampala, internet becomes a problem.  So on top of being expensive, the internet isn’t reliable. It’s too slow which scales down the work you are doing,” Muhammad Kigongo, a student doing social sciences, mourned.    

Cost of data is a major limitation of Internet use in Uganda. In the 2017/2018 National Information Technology survey, 76 per cent of the Ugandan Internet users cited price of data bundles as a key limitation while 49.2 per cent cited slow Internet. 

The students’ cries come after several researches done by different entities has showed how Uganda has only competition from Tanzania when it comes to expensive data. 

In 2019, Cable.co.uk, a broadband, TV and mobile phone Price comparison site, released a report indicating that Ugandans pay on average $4.69 (Shs 17, 231) for 1GB [gigabyte] of data, the second highest in East Africa behind Tanzania, where 1GB costs $5.93 or Shs 21,787.

Whereas students understandably focused on data prices, policy makers who were convened by WOUGNET at Protea hotel, in Kampala, on February, 19, 2020, felt that patriarchal society, that Uganda is, is to blame for the continued gender disparities in use of internet. 

The participants who were drawn from Members of Parliament, Director of Public Prosecutions, Ministry of Information Communication Technology (ICT) and Uganda Communication Commission (UCC), academia, inter-alia imputed that men dominate society in every sense of the word makes it hard for women to access not just the internet but also conventional phones.

“Men decide when a woman should communicate. It’s men who give women data.  And they also want to find out who their wives communicated to,” Gorretti Zavuga Amuriat WOUGNET’s program manager of the Gender and ICT Policy Advocacy Program, said.

According to a 2015 Uganda Communications Commission survey on Access and Usage of ICTs, only 35 percent of women owned and could use a phone at any time compared to 62 percent of the men. Additionally, only 15 percent of women had used a computer or the internet in the last three months prior to the survey compared to 21 percent of the men that were interviewed. 

“This is because while internet access has become more affordable, particularly on mobile phones, costs are still expensive for many Ugandans, especially the women who have no significant sources of income,”

Figures from the 2014 Uganda National Population and Housing Survey indicate that 32 percent of women were not involved in any economic activities, compared to only 26 percent of the men which is linked to why women don’t have access to the ICTs. 

Nonetheless, beyond having access to and affording the costs of the internet, utilization of these digital technologies requires the right skills and tools. Unfortunately, WOUGNET’s policy paper points out that majority of women in Uganda still also lack the skills and confidence to engage with digital technologies meritoriously at every level, starting from basic usage.

“In Uganda, there are high illiteracy levels among women, which impedes their access to and use of digital technologies. The 2014 report shows that literacy levels among females was lower at 68 percent compared to that of males, which stood at 77 percent,” the policy paper says.


Policy makers also zeroed on gender equality, another principle of AFDEC.   Under this standard, the declaration envisages routes and apparatus that enable the full, active and equal participation of women and girls in decision making about how internet is shaped and governed should be developed and strengthened. 

“Conscious that the online environment reflects the inequality that women and girls face in wider society, the core principles underpinning the internet - decentralization, creativity, community and empowerment of users- should be used to achieve gender equality online.  Wideranging efforts, including comprehensive legislation on rights to equality before the law and to non-discrimination, education, social dialogue and awareness raising, should be the primary means to address the underlying problems of gender inequality and discrimination.”    

In Uganda, the participants recognized that females have taken up positions in the ICT sector which is in line with the gender equity principle.  The appointments of Judith Nabakooba as ICT minister; taking over from Frank Tumwebaze, Irene Kaggwa Ssewakambo who took over from Godfrey Mutabazi as Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) executive director albeit in an acting role were applauded as steps in the right direction. 

These join female actors such as Dr Dorothy Okello who heads UCC’s board and Judy Obitre-Gama the executive director of National Identification and Registration Authority (NIRA) have been in their respective positions for quite some time.

Though women have taken up key positions in the ICT sector, Paul Kimumwe, a senior programmers officer at  Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), warned there is need to look out if indeed these women have the actual power to institute the changes needed.

“There are situations when actually these people are just figureheads.  You might find that middle-level officers take most of the decisions than these at-the-top people,” Kimumwe said. 


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