By Avit Ndayiziga
The world faced a dark internet side in 2021, with over 182 reported Internet shutdowns in 34 countries. At the same time, males still use the internet four times more than females creating a significant gender digital divide. However, universal, affordable, and effective connectivity remains achievable through strong collaboration between multiple stakeholders and by closing the gender digital gap to spur sustainable development, says Ms. Onica N. Makwakwa, Coordinator of the Global Digital Inclusion Partnership in Africa.
It is a different Monday morning, November 28, 2022. Over 193 flags are flapping in the wind over the skies. You may wrongly guess it is the United Nations headquarters in New York City, USA. But it is not the case, it is instead the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa (‘Addis Ababa’ is an Amharic word that loosely translates as ‘New Flower’ in English).
As their facial expressions portray it, over 2500 participants are thrilled to attend the United Nations’ 17th annual meeting of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF22). It is the third Internet Governance Forum (IGF22) hosted on the African continent, following the two others held in Kenya in 2011 and Tunisia in 2005.
In-person and virtual participants of various backgrounds such as civil society activists, government representatives, media personalities, private sector, technical communities, UN Staff, host country staff, volunteers, and international organizations, from all over the globe are ecstatic to attend this unparalleled internet forum.
Since the forum venue is in a United Nations space, security precautions are in place. Stepping into the forum’s venue requires a badge. Before getting it, you pass through a scanner. You put off and aside your belt and other digital devices, such as laptops, cameras, and phones. You wait for the scanner to give you the go-ahead.
One or two steps forward, gorgeous ladies and handsome boys with endless smiles on their faces await to hand you your badge.
As you move toward the conference rooms, you stop by the information desk to check the schedule and select the room and session that work best for you because numerous sessions are going on at once.
Jewel Forde, a television presenter for the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation, moderates the High-Level Leaders session I.
Panelists include Dr. Nii Narku Quaynor, Chairman of Ghana Dot Com, a man credited with being the Father of the internet on the African continent, Li Junhua, UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, Antonio Pedro, Acting Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa. Onica N. Makwakwa, Africa Coordinator for the Global Digital Inclusion Partnership, and Mr. Timothy Masiu, Minister of Communication and Information Technology for Papua New Guinea.
As for now, a staggering number of 2.7 billion people do not have access to the Internet. The panelists focused their talks on the importance of multi-stakeholder collaboration in delivering connectivity, specifically the role of governments and the private sector.
Panelists further identified common barriers to universal and meaningful connectivity as; the internet shutdowns which have reached a large number 182 times in 34 countries within 2021, with a typical example of Tigray, the northernmost regional state in Ethiopia that had been undergoing internet shutdown for several months, expensive devices, and internet affordability.
The lack of digital literacy amplifies the matter, particularly for vulnerable populations, including women, children, migrants, refugees, and people with disabilities who often pay a high price for digital inequalities.
Despite all identified barriers, panelists stressed the importance of education and sustainable infrastructure in advancing digital inclusion to reach sustainable development.
The gender divide begins early, with boys using the Internet four times more than girls. Makwakwa emphasized the importance of bridging the gender digital divide through projects that build women’s and girls’ digital capacities, and gender-based digital inclusion leading to achieving universal, cheap, and meaningful connections. She believes that since women are commonly the targets of online abuse, it is imperative to develop cybersecurity standards that consider women’s rights.
The most recent data on gender digital inequality is mind-boggling. Globally, 62% of men versus 57% of women use the Internet. Worse, only 21% of African women have Internet access.
During the IGF 22 Women Summit, women explored many strategies to combat digital inequality. One project that strongly emphasizes female entrepreneurs is the Tech African Women Initiative, a partnership between Better People and the UN Economic Commission for Africa.
To avoid global internet fragmentation, one of the main Internet Governance Forum (IGF22) themes; panelists concluded that internet leaders must adopt standard measures that promote online human rights. Free flow of information and meaningful connectivity across different parts of the world.
These are the main keys to ensuring an open, free, and interoperable Internet, where users have unrestricted access to a range of technological products and systems that enable them to reach sustainable developments.
The above measures should also include taking tangible steps toward increasing public awareness campaigns around online security, privacy, and safety while protecting freedom of expression online so that everyone has access to the same digital opportunities regardless of their location or financial status.
With these initiatives in place, universal internet access would enable sustainable development for all.
By Avit Ndayiziga
This article was supported by United Nations Internet Governance Forum (IGF22)