Scrap off the OTT tax; a tweet chat for engaging grassroot women in the post COVID digital era

On 19th June 2020, a Twitter Chat was held by Digital Woman Uganda with the topic “Engaging Grassroot Women In The Post COVID Digital Era.” It officially lasted an hour (between 3-4PM EAT) but also went on for several days after the chat through the hashtags #DigitalWomen and #DigitalWoman. The session was moderated by Digital Woman Uganda’s Ivan Pinno. 

The panelists were: 

  1. Eng. Irene Kaggwa Sewankambo the Ag. Executive Director for Uganda Communications Commission and substantively, Director of Engineering and Communications Infrastructure at Uganda Communications Commission.
  2. Prof. Maggie Kigozi  a mentor, an investment promotion expert, an entrepreneur, a farmer and a feminist among many other things.
  3. Dr. Martha Kibuukamusoke (PhD), a Research Fellow with over 15 years’ experience in research and fighting for the rights of children and women. She is also part of the Digital Woman Uganda’s team.
  4. Ms. Prudence Nyamishana a blogger and founding partner of Kweeta Uganda.

Also in attendance were Digital Woman Uganda’s Gorreti Amuriat (Executive Director  & Co-founder), Kizza Ronald who is the Developer & Systems Admin as well as the author of this blog, Charity Delmus.

The session was conducted through 10 questions which were posed by the moderator, attracting over 20 participants who actively contributed towards the hot topics. However, some of the concerns did cut across and were consistent across the 10 questions. Consequently, most of the discussions were covered in the first few questions and less engagement in the later ones. The rest of this article are extracts from the discussions which were paraphrased, directly quoted or generalized where there was need.

Question 1

East Africa has become a hub of digital innovation over the last couple of years, however, development in basic digital skills is showing very little growth. How can / is the government of Uganda handling this especially in the rural and peri-urban areas?

Many participants indicated that the government was not doing enough and made a call for deliberate action to train more girls and women as a priority. They also suggested the distribution of resources such as free internet, removal of the OTT tax (over-the-top tax commonly known as the social media tax in Uganda), better internet connectivity / high internet speeds. Prudence specifically suggested that the government should create digital training spaces for women and also tap into existing ones where women gather.

Eng. Irene Kaggwa Sewankambo pointed out the partnerships that the Uganda Communications Commission, the government regulatory body of the communications sector in Uganda has had. Some of the partnerships mentioned were WOUGNET (Women of Uganda Network) and NUWODU (National Union of Women with Disabilities of Uganda) both with programs geared towards equipping women with digital literacy skills.  When asked if there were any challenges faced when delivering these programs, Eng. Irene highlighted that many women and girls required permission to attend the training/programs organized. The women and girls risk getting in trouble for being away “wasting time” by attending these programs and to top it all, they need to balance these with responsibilities such as chores. The interest to learn is also not always a constant among these women, making efforts by government and partner organizations sometimes more futile.

Question 2:

COVID-19 has / is moving things around us much faster than ever before; literally igniting an entire region seeing services being offered online, but the costs involved with one getting online are high. How can this be addressed?

Taxes were the topic of discussion here with many arguing that the OTT must go and internet prices need to be subsidized so that it is more affordable for the average citizen (issues mainly raised by participants, Ronnie White and Peter Ongom).

Question 3

Everyone has a right to access and use the Internet plus other digital tools. How is this true for women in rural and urban areas in micro and small enterprises?

Participants particularly emphasized the unpopular OTT tax as being a huge constraint for accessing the internet especially for women. High taxes on imported tech gadgets were also pointed out, prompting Eng. Irene to hint about local phone manufacturing companies. “We now have companies like SIMI producing phones within the country,” she said. She continued to state that “the tax structure of these devices has also been revised to foster local production of these.” Other than taxes and high internet costs,  participants discussed the lack of mobile phones. CanparaCollin shared a personal experience where he visited a few villages in Lira and most women lacked mobile phones. Peter Ongom also spoke about the same region (Northern Uganda) where very few women have access to the internet

Eng. Irene thought of a humanitarian solution that started off with her hinting on the fact that people now have more than one mobile or access device unlike before. She posed a question to us; “what do you do with your phone when you get a new one and both are in a good state?” She proposed a campaign whereby whoever can, gifts a phone to someone who has access to none. That way, more people get to own a phone, women included, through crowdsourcing. 

Prudence called upon the government to keep in touch with the realities of the Ugandan women at different income levels, so that each is ably planned for. That way, women in other regions are thought of too as the Urban central region seems to be doing better than the rest.

Question 4

Currently due to COVID 19, many women are experiencing violence in homes and some women online.  How can we make the internet a safe space for women?

Eng. Irene started off this discussion by acknowledging the internet as a powerful tool for not just communication but also as an overflowing source of information and great economic development. In order to support women to stay safe online, she called upon innovators to do more, innovations like Barefoot Law are helping women in such circumstances and if there were more like this, the world would be a better place.

Prudence argued that we need women-specific legislation that protects women and minorities online. She added that unfortunately, the current legislation is being used to clamp down dissent instead. Eng. Irene on the other hand called for increased awareness about the existing legal provisions such as those in the computer misuse act and the penal code too. Awareness of how to report offenses and which communication channels are best is much needed. All efforts towards cyber security and digital awareness campaigns are welcome, she added. A suggestion from Peter Ongom to this effect was that the Government needs to support organizations that are using digital security training for example, in the cause for a safer internet.

Cyber bullying was another issue that came up during this discussion, with Prof. Maggie Kigozi calling out the bullies who are using the internet to stop women who have contrary opinions. She said that the internet is not a safe place for women and they are being attacked for their political affiliations, personal preferences among others. Consequently, their reputations are destroyed, like in the case where private photos of women are circulated. Participants called for tough measures to be in place in order to curb cyber bullying and like Prudence argued, these policies indeed need to be gender sensitive, so that “women are protected while working online” Digital Woman Uganda’s Goretti Amuriat cried out. WOGNET Indigo Project added that these policies also need to be incorporated into all Government agencies, NGOs and private corporations. 

Question 5

What measures can be taken by the government to improve women’s rights in access and use of the Internet both in urban and rural areas? 

Dr. Martha started off this one with the call to make internet services more affordable but also completely scraping off the social media tax. She also suggested the creation of more free internet hotspots. When asked about the internet/WiFi hotspots by NITA Uganda, Eng. Irene pointed out the under utilization of these resources by women according to the findings of their research (in collaboration with the World Wide Web Foundation). There are other private sector players, even civil society organizations around the country trying to provide free internet but women seem to have lower participation. She added that this research was a gender study on access to ICTs (ownership of devices, digital literacy, resources) and it will soon be shared with the stakeholders. It was made in order to understand what is on the ground, why certain things are happening instead of speculating. Through this, women and minorities can better be helped. Participants commended UCC for embracing data driven decision making and policy, urging other government entities to follow suit.

During this discussion, Dr. Martha shared a very insightful article she co-authored with colleagues, titled Using ICTs to enhance duty bearer accountability and transparency to citizens in Eastern and Northern Uganda. It can be found here. The article points out that the use of ICTs does indeed improve leader responsiveness to citizen concerns. It highlights that ICTs are a great tool for citizens to demand for accountability and transparency. Women and digital activists could borrow a leaf from these findings in the struggle to improve women’s rights in access and use of the internet. Prudence stressed the need for awareness, digital literacy training, laws protecting women online and partnerships to make the internet more accessible and safe for women online. In addition, the government also needs to extend the ICT Infrastructure to rural areas and possibly work with development partners to make connectivity possible, where the government is not able to – Gorreti Amuriat.

Question 6

Access to broadband and the internet has been identified as a critical challenge in delivering e-programmes to the community in Uganda. Is this a stumbling block to offer the services in Uganda or has there been improvement?

Eng. Irene: “About 96% of the population has voice network coverage and 74% have internet coverage. There’s a need to improve the usage of these services.” However, many participants to the best of their knowledge were of the opinion that there’s no improvement. They urged the government to come up with clear policies on the development of ICT in the country.

                                                 

   [Credit: Shared by Eng. Irene on Twitter]

The Urban & Infrastructure Dev. Conference (UIDC) had a number of suggestions with regards to the ICT infrastructure but Eng. Irene noted that some of these have shortcomings. Thus the reason why Uganda Communications Commission is technology neutral in their approach to communications for all. One of the suggestions by UIDC was the use of ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line),  a technology that enables faster data transmission over copper telephone lines than a conventional voice-band modem can provide. Eng. Irene agreed that broadband or ICTs should indeed be treated like other utilities and become integral in planning and provisioning during construction of buildings. She concluded by urging us to watch out for the national 4IR (Fourth Industrial Revolution) strategy which has proposed measures to make the changes we want to see.

Question 7

The gender gap in the digital economy is linked, in part, to discriminatory gender norms and social expectations about abilities and career paths, and stereotypical beliefs about women and STEM professions. The situation is even worse in rural areas. How are we handling this gap?

Dr. Martha started off the discussion by saying that in order to fight the gender gap in the digital economy, men and women should both be included in activities that enhance equal opportunities.  Eng. Irene on the other hand believes we need to first work on the mindset of women. She noted that they tend to have a fear to step forward, fail and be embarrassed, thus eventually giving up. She mentioned that even though many opportunities today make special provision for women (for example, “women are encouraged to apply”), women applicants still do not step forward.

Question 8

How best can we involve the community in collecting data to improve on the rights of the women, youth and young mothers?

Dr. Martha Kibukamusoke: “for the community to be involved in collecting data, you could let them identify the issue that they feel is the most pressing and causing rights violation in their area. Then train them to be part of the data collection exercise, and the use of the respective instruments.” She added that they could also be involved in the dissemination of that data to relevant stakeholders. Some of the proposed instruments to aid the data collection are bulk SMS,  pre-recorded messages through a public address system to capture the attention of community members in order to air their ideas. Prudence added that radio polls (especially at peak listening hours) and surveys can prove to be efficient, stressing that the target community needs to be at the heart of the data collection. 

Question 9

Do you know the level at which the community is trained on digital skills? If yes, how can you help in finding out the extent at which information from those trained is shared with other community members?

Eng. Irene: “we have been doing community training around the country in which a school has been provided with an ICT lab. UCC has partnered with UICT to train community trainers so that we have more frequent and community-centric digital literacy programs.” She added that women’s schedules and shyness necessitate separate/focused classes from the men in order to gain full value of the digital literacy campaigns.

On the other hand, Dr. Martha pointed out a UCC blog which highlighted that in low developed countries, only 19.5% of individuals use the internet and 65% either do not know what internet is or don’t know how to use it. The deduction from this was that there’s a high chance this translates to knowledge and training on digital skills being low.

She added that through ICE (Information, Education and Communication) materials like posters, flyers, or messages on t-shirts, information on whether more people are learning can be attained. For those with smartphones, a wide range of options such as social media platforms can be used.

Question 10

How best can you find out the rate at which the community can use and adopt digital hubs through access to the Internet?

There were no responses for this particular question.

This twitter chat featured on https://paper.li/AidaOpokuMensah/1571127561#/

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