Telecentres in Uganda do not appeal to rural women
In rural Uganda, telecentres that have been established to promote rural access to information and foster development are not getting the results they had hoped for. Using the APC WNSP's Gender Evaluation Methodology (GEM) to understand why this is so, UgaBYTES, a Uganda-based NGO that works to promote access to ICTs in rural East Africa, has found that beyond the common obstacles to access like technical infrastructure, connection costs and computer literacy, women face numerous additional barriers if they want to use ICTs to improve their lives.
Telecentres in Uganda do not appeal to rural women
In rural Uganda, telecentres that have been established to promote rural access to information and foster development are not getting the results they had hoped for. An evaluation of telecentres by the Acacia programme in South Africa revealed that women consistently make up less than one-third of telecentre users, even when female staff and materials that target women are made available.
Seeking to understand why this is so, UgaBYTES, a Uganda-based NGO that works to promote access to ICTs in rural East Africa, conducted a study over seven months in two rural telecentres - the Buwama Community Multimedia Centre and the Kawolo telecentre - using and adapting the Gender Evaluation Methodology (GEM), a tool that was created by the Association for Progressive Communication’s Women’s Networking Support Programme (APC WNSP). The goal of the evaluation was to gain a better understanding if the telecentre services were at all meeting the different needs of women and men.
UgaBYTES found that because technologies are socially constructed, they have different impacts on women and men. Beyond the common obstacles to access like technical infrastructure, connection costs and computer literacy, women face numerous additional barriers to accessing ICTs.
Sarah Mpagi facilitating to women telecentre users: Sarah Mpagi, Research project coordinator with UgaBYTES with female telecentre users during the GEM evaluation process.
Men and women seek information that is unavailable
The evaluation revealed that often, the different types of information needed by men and women were not available in the telecentres, and that the telecentres lacked disaggregated content, meaning there was no gender-specific content. Disaggregated content is essential in promoting internet access and telecentre use for both men and women, because the two groups were found to have different needs.
How was the information women were after different? Using GEM, UgaBYTES found that women were looking for information on:
Health, including HIV and Aids
counselling and guidance
small business scheme for additional income
bursaries for those who cannot afford tuition fees
vocational training for school dropouts and careers guidance
organisations that provide skills and experiences on how to manage people with disabilities in the community, and
Men on the other hand, searched for information on politics, economics and business, but because the information was often not available, women returned to their chores whereas men stayed and played computer games, using the telecentres for entertainment. Women often did not return if the information they were looking was not available the first time.
UgaBYTES also found that the content visitors was looking for was often too complicated to use, unavailable or outdated. Materials that had been borrowed from the Buwama library had never been returned and the only computer connected to the internet was very slow and largely used by telecentre staff, radio staff and volunteers for work. “The books on specific areas in agriculture for example, better methods of agricultural farming which includes cassava, maize and rearing animals are no more because those who borrowed the books never returned them to the library,” said local farmer Nassozi Goretti.
Women also did not visit the telecentres because they were simply not aware of the information that was there. The women felt that information should have been posted on the notice board of their parish, rather than the telecentre which is too far away, since parishes in Uganda are a place of social and religious gathering for communities as well as for diffusing information
Women face language and literacy barriers
Women are ashamed of their lower education and literacy levels
Results from the GEM evaluation showed that rural women were embarrassed by their lack of education, to the extent that educational opportunities extended to them by their local councils went unused. Considering that the women might be reluctant to speak out in front of men, UgaBYTES opted for separate focus group discussions in Luganda, the language that is best understood by all the communities. Frequent focus groups also gave the women time to warm up to the evaluators and express their concerns.
While the men freely shared much of the information they needed in informal conversations and interactions, women were often too ashamed to ask their questions, especially about where to find information, and they also found it difficult to articulate their questions, deterring them from using the telecentres.
“The language used for the content barred a number of women, who also confirmed during the interviews that, they lacked education, and were not even confident to talk about it in public. It denied women a chance to attend educational programmes extended to them through their local councils. Men commonly shared information during their informal meetings, unlike women, who generally remained in their homes to do their house cores and farming.” Sarah Nalwoga Mpagi, Programme Officer at UgaBYTES
English illiteracy hinders access for women
Many women confessed that illiteracy in English was also one of the main reasons they could not fully utilise telecentres (most of the content in the telecentres both on- and off-line is in English), unlike many of their male counterparts, who were mostly literate in English. As a result, public ICT facilities were generally male-dominated.
Based on these findings, GEM evaluators recommended that both men and women help generate content in order to overcome the literacy barriers. As many of the women interviewed had low education levels and were not comfortable with English, which is taught from pre-school onwards in Uganda, the evaluation also recommended repackaging and increasing the amount of visuals and information available in an accessible language. Because local content is better understood, it encourages telecentre use by all members of the communities.
Access costs women time and money
But there is more than a language and literacy barrier keeping women from using ICTs: time. The issue of time manifests itself on two levels – the amount of time it takes for the women to get to the telecentre and the amount of time needed to use the telecentre facilities. Women’s responsibilities, both within their families and on their farms make it extremely difficult for them to go to telecentres, especially since most of the women interviewed reside 5km or more from the telecentre and either walk or use public transportation. Many rural women cannot afford the time or money to make (potentially unfruitful) trips to the telecentres.
“All the women who visit the telecentre find it hard to wait to access the computers, because of their multiple roles at home,” said Semwogerere Robert, telecentre manager.
Robert Semwogerere, Buwama telecentre manager
This is compounded by the fact that telecentres have unreliable hours, so women would visit the telecentre using time-consuming and costly public transportation, only to arrive and find the telecentre closed due to limited opening hours or more commonly, lengthy power outages and load power shedding.
These same limitations also affected women's attendance and participation at telecentre administration meetings. The meetings were held in order to get feedback from the users to the telecentre managers. It is during these meetings that hours of operation, security, location, lighting (or the lack of it) and lack of available transportation were discussed. However since it was hard for women to attend these meetings, they were unable to take advantage of this opportunity to share their concerns :“The two women who belong to this committee have never participated. Occasionally when we meet in the trading centre they ask me about the telecentre. […] They cannot actively participate because their transport is far too expensive to bring them to the telecentre and back, whenever they are called upon to discuss and plan for the telecentre.” explained Sevume David a committee member of telecentre management.
GEM helps set the steps towards equitable access
Thanks to the information revealed by GEM, attitudes of the telecentres' administrative teams have changed. The Buwama CMC manager explained that GEM changed his and his staff's attitude towards their work, and it helped them understand how to provide services better suited to the overall community, by focussing on women's needs. Awareness-raising campaigns, better communication within management, plans to restructure the services offered and incorporating the information needs of women are some of the steps these telecentres decided to take towards equitable access.
New knowledge gained and new practices put in place
Thanks to the lessons learned from the GEM evaluation, every Tuesday is now women-only at the telecentre, in order to ensure that there are free computers in the Buwama CMC. There is also a new two-hour Sunday afternoon radio show on women's issues at the Buwama community radio.
UgaBYTES currently has plans underway to develop a system that will help the telecentres address gender related challenges in the telecentres. Plans include a community awareness plan, a fund-raising plan, and an implementation plan.
Thanks to its new expertise in applying a gender perspective in its work with the community, The Buwama CMC has also formed new working relationships with the Ministry of ICT and local members of parliament, which will surely help to pave the way towards gender sensitivity in future ICT projects.
UgaBYTES is a not-for profit that was established in 2000 to promote rural access to ICTs in the East African region. To foster improved rural access, UgaBYTES builds capacities of telecentre practitioners in management and technical aspects.
Sarah Nalwogo Mpagi is the coordinator for the Research and Development programme at UgaBYTES, as well as the GEM coordinator. Together with Francis Mwathi and Sandra Nassali, who were community facilitators in the project, they carried out the GEM evaluation over a period of seven months.
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