As part of our Women’s Rights Online research, this series of guest blogs features on-the-ground perspectives from each of our research partners around the world. In this post, Julie Owono, Head of Africa Desk at Internet Sans Frontières, shares her experience of how improving women’s access to the Internet is empowering women in Cameroon.
Being an expatriate Cameroonian woman, I know from personal experience how Web-enabled information and communication technologies (ICTs) can expand possibilities for women. I have had opportunities that I could never have anticipated if I had remained in the offline world. Indeed, I probably wouldn’t have found my job, which now allows me to be involved in initiatives and projects that help build a safe and accessible Internet for all, and help tackle some social and economic issues that plague my country. I am thinking for instance of the project Feowl, an open data project on electricity cuts, that I created and implemented between 2012 and 2013.
I want the change that I have witnessed to spread to the many Cameroonian women for whom survival and dignity are still a daily struggle. ICTs are a tool – one that, when paired with the right skills, can be transformational and empowering.
This is the focus of my work at Paris-based NGO Internet Sans Frontières: ensuring that the Internet remains a space for borderless creation, cooperation, and interaction, as well as a tool for economic, social and political advancement.
Promoting Internet access among disadvantaged communities is central in our work – from youth in Urban poor areas in Brazil, to helping LGBT communities in Cameroon secure their digital communications, and helping decrease the price of Internet access in the country through our work with the Alliance for Affordable Internet -we are committed to ensuring that the Web remains a space that anyone, regardless of social, economic, political background can access and use.
One disadvantaged group still experiencing barriers to access and use of the Internet is women in developing countries. A 2012 study by Intel and Dalberg on Women and the Web concluded that “across the developing world, nearly 25 percent fewer women than men have access to the Internet, the gender gap soars to nearly 45 percent in Sub Saharan Africa”.
The figure is striking, but probably not surprising when compared it to other gender metrics. Women are still the most subject to inequalities. In Cameroon, women hold only 16.1 percent of the seats at the parliament. 63.3 percent of the women aged 15 and above participate in the labor workforce, while the figure goes up to 76.7 percent for men in the same age groups according to the UN’s Gender Inequality Index. According to a 2007 survey by the Cameroonian National Statistics Institute, Women spent an average 17 hours per week on housework against 9 hours for men. We believe that access to and effective use of the Internet can facilitate women’s participation in political and economic life, closing the gender gap.
The good news for Cameroon is that the Cameroonian Government has taken the issue of the gender gap in ICTs seriously. Importantly, the government has acknowledged that the major barriers to gender equality are “socio-cultural hindrances, that are the corollary of a patriarchal social organisation”. Admitting this challenge publicly gives women space to discuss the problem and possible solutions directly.
The government also claims to have trained more 100,000 women between 2012 and 2002 in digital literacy and the use of ICT. Our study suggests that while these efforts are commendable, we need to expand on them to make visible progress on empowering women through ICT.
The number of Cameroonian Internet users is also increasing, particularly through mobile phones. More and more women use a well-known Facebook group called Kamer sisters (read more about the group here – link in French), gathering more than 7,000 Cameroonian women based in or outside Cameroon, to advertise their products and businesses and look for jobs. It is not rare to see women looking to hire nannies, or young women looking for such positions.
Whatsapp is also gaining popularity as a platform for women to generate income and run communications for their small businesses. For example, one young female entrepreneur advertises her talents as hairdresser and makeup artist, giving her contact details on whatsapp. For entrepreneurs like her, Whatsapp acts as a cheaper and more direct alternative to a traditional website.
This is precisely what we hoped to achieve when Internet Sans Frontières decided to get involved in the Women’s Rights Online project: see these new trends in the use of Web-enabled ICTs spread among women from poor urban backgrounds and benefit them socially and economically. We look forward to sharing the full research results and using them to understand the next steps for civil society and government in narrowing Cameroon’s gender gap.
If you enjoyed this blog, take a look at submissions from our other country partners from around the world and sign up to our newsletter or follow #WomensRightsOnline @webfoundation on Twitter for updates on the research.