Undeniably, the newly introduced social media tax in Uganda will deepen the digital gap. But let me focus on women because the barriers Ugandan women face in accessing and using the internet are still massive. 1 in 9 women in Africa have access to the internet. Only about 37 percent of women surveyed in ten selected cities in the world, Kampala inclusive are found to be using the internet compared to 59 percent of males
The sustainable Development goals commit government to achieve universal, affordable internet by 2020 but high costs are keeping majority women offline.
According to a score card by the Web Foundation, in Uganda, 1GB data priced at 22% of average monthly income. Countries that have expensive internet such as Uganda and Mozambique have the lowest numbers of women on the internet.
A research conducted by the Women of Uganda Network and the Web Foundation indicates that as a result of Feminised Poverty, many women who are dependent on subsistence Agriculture cannot afford to buy a smart phone and data bundles and those who can afford have problems of language barrier since most of them are illiterate and thus lack of knowledge and limited skills for expressing themselves using ICTs.
Considering that women’s general income status in Uganda, internet is expensive to purchase, maintain and use smart phones, laptops and computers.
The traditional setting of the society that creates the negative thinking towards women’s participation and engagement in accessing public spaces like cafes and telecentres also affects women’s access and use of internet.
Patterns of gender inequality, as reflected in political participation and representation in decision- making structures; differences in economic opportunities, access to resources, and division of labour within the economy; women’s over-representation among the poor; women’s higher levels of illiteracy.
The persistence of stereotypical attitudes about women’s roles and of discriminatory laws and practices, are among the factors that also shape women’s capacity of access to and use of ICT.
The study further reveals that teacher educators hardly apply technology in their classroom practices; scanty institutional practices that facilitate or impede the use of digital resources as pedagogical tools. The greatest challenge reported by all the teacher educators was the problem of having limited access to ICT facilities, especially the Internet. The only Internet access point at the college that was readily available to both students and staff was the one at the computer lab. The Internet connection at the college had been cut off due to non-payment of the connection fee, which the college was expecting to receive from the Ministry of Education, but to no avail; and lack of Internet connection is very frustrating.
I am convinced that the newly introduced social media tax is frustrating all the efforts that have been put in place to bridge the digital divide but instead, the gap will grow wider and wider. Listening to President Museveni saying that social media is a luxury good, and that people have a choice not to use it if they don’t want to pay a tax hurts. This is 2018, the rest of the world has moved towards artificial intelligence, innovation around internet of things, free internet access in public places. Uganda has made a terrible mistake of switching off Over the Top services that can only be paid after an irritating daily direct tax of 200 shillings. By the way, when talking to the women in Bwaise before the tax was passed, to them, the internet is WhatsApp, Facebook and for a few google. That means they that they have been cut off.
The digital revolution gave Ugandan women a voice online to politically engage, to speak truth to power, to dismantle the patriarchy, to seek counsel from their friends, to access information, to connect with clients, to start charities, psychosocial support groups, coordinating savings groups, neighborhood watches for kids when they are away. It is clear that President Museveni is missing the point when he says that social media is for gossip. But even if it was, communication is a basic human need.
If only the Members of parliament, the president’s many advisers, the ministry of ICT stopped for just a second to listen to the outcry of the Ugandan people that we have seen on social media since 1st July when the tax came into effect then they would repeal it. If only the government of Uganda adhered to Article 19 of the UN Human Rights council on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet, they would know that the internet should be open.
Article 19 seeks to bridge the gender digital divide and enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of all women and girls and to reaffirm the human rights and fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
By switching off the internet which is a public good the state disregards Article19 that is deeply concerned by measures that intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online and for the Internet to be open, affordable and accessible.