The gender digital divide and COVID-19: Towards feminist internet regulations in Southern Africa

The full impact of COVID-19 is yet to be fully understood, and, while there are many unknowns, the rapid and continued reliance on the internet cannot be denied. The internet has been lauded as a lifeline and critical force during this global health crisis, but without equal and meaningful access to the internet, its ability to solve problems is limited. The gender digital divide in the Southern African region ordinarily discourages gender equality and entrenches the discrimination of marginalised and at-risk groups. Within the context of a global pandemic, the pervasiveness of existing inequalities and structures of discrimination are magnified. The time has come – a feminist internet is imperative.

The African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms (African Declaration) and the Feminist Principles of the Internet (FPIs) advocate for an internet that is accessible, available, useable and affordable to all persons, without discrimination. Realising these principles has become increasingly urgent in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Against the backdrop of structural inequality and contemporary challenges, this article reviews the COVID-19 regulations in select countries in the Southern African region to determine the extent to which the regulations and responses meet the standards envisaged in the African Declaration and the FPIs, in particular, whether present responses recognise the principles of internet access, gender equality, and non-discrimination of marginalised groups and groups at risk. As becomes apparent, the responses by states in the region are largely underwhelming. While most states reviewed included some reference to information and communications technologies (ICTs), recognition of digital gender inequality is lacking, as are meaningful responses to it.

This article highlights that certain conditions have aligned to present a unique opportunity to recalibrate existing efforts, shift narratives and develop new standards that can enable and reflect genuine equality and inclusion on the internet. These conditions include (i) pre-existing inequalities and vulnerabilities; (ii) the magnification of these issues in the present context; (iii) inadequate regulatory responses; and (iv) the online nature of the COVID-19 pandemic. Combined, these conditions present an opportune moment for the FPIs to be re-galvanised and infused, alongside the African Declaration, into the ICT regulatory response to COVID-19 in the region. While the COVID-19 context presents innumerable challenges, it has sparked important conversations around online spaces and digital rights, and within this crisis, there are opportunities for the FPIs and the African Declaration to be realised. This article suggests that now, more than ever, is the time to ensure that we have a feminist internet. The article concludes with recommendations on suggested requirements for feminist ICT regulations.


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