Towards a Human Rights Based Approach to Bridging Africa’s Gender Digital Divide

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By Nadira Bayat, Programme Director, Global Economic Governance (GEG) Africa1


This blog is part of a special series marking the launch of the updated
2019 Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI)


SIGI-Digital-Human-RightsThe rapid rise of the Internet, together with emerging technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), advanced robotics and drones, Blockchain, the “Internet of things” (IoT) and 3D printing, are unleashing new opportunities and transforming the global economy. While these technological advances can address some of the most pressing 21st century challenges – from education, health care and public services to agriculture, economic inclusion and the environment – the benefits are not being shared equally. Despite Internet connectivity having finally reached 50% of the world’s population in 2018, the rate of Internet access growth has slowed down considerably.2 In Africa, specifically, only about 20% of the population has regular Internet access3 – a challenge with significant implications for harnessing the transformative power of the technology-driven Fourth Industrial Revolution for inclusive and sustainable development.

Women from developing countries comprise the majority of the unconnected. The gender divide has narrowed in most regions since 2013, but it has widened in Africa. The proportion of women using the Internet on the continent is 25% lower than the proportion of men.4 Notwithstanding the significant potential of mobile phone technology to spur women’s entrepreneurship through mobile banking and payment services as well as improved access to information and finance, sub-Saharan Africa follows South Asia with the second largest average gender gap in both mobile ownership and mobile Internet use.5 A widening gender digital divide concerning the availability, affordability, accessibility, and use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) negatively impacts women’s economic empowerment. It further undermines full gender equality that lies at the core of human rights and is integral to the African Union’s Agenda 2063, the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

As African countries reflect on various policy interventions to close the gender digital divide, further consideration should be given to a human rights-based approach to fostering gender inclusion in the digital economy. Such an approach applies human rights norms and standards to policies and programmes. It focuses on the rights of vulnerable and marginalised populations and includes the key principles of accountability, equality and non-discrimination, participation, transparency, empowerment and sustainability.6 Applying these principles will enhance the economic empowerment of African women. Their ability to succeed and advance economically is fundamental to their enjoyment of all other human rights. The practical value of a human rights-based approach to bridging the digital gender divide lies in the following:

First, a human rights-based approach facilitates an integrated policy response to meet development goals. The rapid growth of the Internet and other emerging digital technologies is transforming global commerce. It is sparking innovation and creating new business opportunities for women to participate in domestic and international trade through the expansion of online trade or e-commerce. A human rights-based approach that pays specific attention to gender considerations in designing and implementing policies and strategies that guide access to, affordability of and participation in ICTs for all women presents significant opportunities for economic empowerment. This is particularly the case for African women entrepreneurs in the informal economy as a disadvantaged and marginalised group. Development goals, however, are best achieved through policy coherence. Consequently, gender-sensitive ICT policies should be linked to existing gender and trade policies as part of the national development plans of African countries.

Second, a human rights-based approach supports measures to empower African women entrepreneurs and traders transition from informal to formal sectors. While informal employment on the continent is a greater source of economic activity for women than men, gender inequality is more prevalent in Africa’s informal economy, where most women-run businesses engage in low-value added activities with little growth potential. A human rights-based policy approach that prioritises positive measures to empower women entrepreneurs in the informal sector with the necessary digital skills and digital entrepreneurship development and training will increase their participation in e-commerce and the digital economy. Digital skills training, however, must be accompanied by sustained support through facilitating access to markets, credit, financial services and social protection.7 These measures will bring more working women into the formal sector and provide support for women-owned enterprises as important vehicles for economic empowerment. Moreover, enhancing the capacity of women entrepreneurs in the informal sector to thrive beyond that sector provides equality of opportunity for them and promotes access to decent quality jobs. Such initiatives reinforce basic human rights principles of equality and non-discrimination. Similarly, they constitute a firm step towards the realisation of the right to work as a fundamental right enshrined in several international and regional human rights instruments.

Third, a human rights-based approach supports mechanisms to strengthen participatory and accountability processes. African states can ensure that functional accountability mechanisms exist to hold duty bearers to account for discrimination arising from a widening digital gender divide. They also have the opportunity to encourage the active and meaningful participation of small-scale African women entrepreneurs, traders, women activists and civil society in transparent and inclusive policy formulation processes, aimed at leveraging technological advancements to promote the economic empowerment of women in the digital economy and bridge the gender digital divide. The collection of sex- and gender-disaggregated data on ICT access and use will further assist in developing evidence-based responses and policies, and inform the allocation of resources to address identified inequalities. The implications matter for stronger and sustainable human development outcomes. Another emerging area is that of human-rights compliant technologies. As the continent stands on the cusp of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, African policy makers can lead in crafting policies, rules and regulations to ensure that the vast array of new and emerging data-driven technologies are human rights compliant, do not exacerbate existing forms of discrimination against women and form part of the solution to today’s human rights concerns.

Ultimately, technology’s continuing advancement must translate into Africa’s continuing advancement. Policy interventions aimed at empowering African women small-scale entrepreneurs with digital skills and digital entrepreneurship training, as well as other forms of sustained support, will accelerate the achievement of gender equality and women’s economic empowerment on the continent. Fundamentally, a human rights-based approach builds upon human development. A systematic approach to entrenching human rights in efforts to bridge the gender digital divide enables women to contribute to inclusive and sustainable economic growth. In adopting this approach, African policy makers can serve Africa’s developmental objectives and place the full economic, political, social and cultural participation of African women at the heart of the African agenda.



1. GEG Africa is a UK Government funded policy research and stakeholder engagement programme that works in close partnership with the South African Government and other institutions in Africa to better identify and achieve pro-poor outcomes via global economic governance fora. The programme has funded research on bridging the digital divide and supporting increased digital trade, as part of its international trade theme.

2. World Economic Forum (WEF): “Our Shared Digital Future Building an Inclusive, Trustworthy and Sustainable Digital Society” (2018), available at: www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Our_Shared_Digital_Future_Report_2018.pdf, p. 12.

3. African Development Bank (AfDB): “The Africa Competitiveness Report” (2017), available at: www.afdb.org/fileadmin/uploads/afdb/Documents/Publications/Africa_Competitiveness_Report_2017.pdf, p. 18.

4. ITU: “ICT Facts and Figures 2017”, available at: www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Documents/facts/ICTFactsFigures2017.pdf.

5. GMSA: “Connected Women: The Mobile Gender Gap Report” (2018), available at: www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/GSMA_The_Mobile_Gender_Gap_Report_2018_32pp_WEBv7.pdf p. 14.

6. A/HRC/35/9: “Promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet: ways to bridge the gender digital divide from a human rights perspective” (2017), available at: https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G17/111/81/PDF/G1711181.pdf?OpenElement, p.5.

7. E/CN/6/2017/3: “Women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work” (2016), available at: http://undocs.org/E/CN.6/2017/3, p.7.