Opening a positive and affirming session on the empowerment of women in the ICT sector with a very high-level panel and an engaged and enthusiastic audience, keynote speaker H. E. Lindiwe Daphney Zulu, Minister of Small Business Development, urged government to create a conducive environment for women by working together across ministries, entrepreneurs, academia, policy makers, state development agencies and the ICT ecosystem to address the challenges and opportunities of the changing digital environment – starting with connectivity in rural areas: “Women in the villages say we can see digital, but it is not reaching us, and we also want to join.”
As women, we don’t like segregation, she said, we do want the men in the same space in the world we live in as we can pool our resources. “We have a lot to give as people who also want to participate in the broader economies firstly of our own countries but also in the world. “
Gender inclusion is a major objective of ITU, said Malcolm Johnson, Deputy Secretary-General, moderating the session on behalf of ITU. Women are very successful in the ICT field, yet the gap is still growing between women and men, especially in Africa, so we need to do more.
“Everyone has to make sure they have responsibility,” said H. E. Stella Tembisa Ndabeni Abrahams, Vice Minister, Ministry of Telecommunications and Postal Services. “We need to build technological girls’ programmes from primary education right throughout to tertiary courses to make a dent in terms of the gap in women in industry. If we want to make a success of the fourth industrial revolution, we need a capable army, so we need women.” This calls for cross-sectoral, cross-ministerial collaboration.
E. Nomusa Dube Ncube, MEC Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Governmentpointed out the need for basic infrastructure in rural areas for everyone, let alone for the girl child. “When we talk about a gender digital divide we are recognising a fundamental obstacle to development. Women are at risk of permanent economic backwardness” if they not have access to infrastructure and digital skills.
Onica Makwakwa, Head of Africa for A4AI, World Wide Web Foundation urged mainstreaming gender to close the digital divide, addressing the issues that prevent women from thriving in the ICT sector. “What is keeping women back is mainly a lack of policy, and sometimes bad policy, but that can be changed. We decided for affirmative action for disadvantaged populations and we need it for women to advance in this area,” she said, calling for Universal Service Funds lying dormant across the country to be opened up to address gender inequality in ICT, because “it won’t happen naturally or just by investing in infrastructure, we have to decide to address demand side issues like digital skills and access to affordable devices.”
ICT policy making is foundational to whatever else we do, said Elizabeth Migwalla, Senior Director and Head of Government Affairs-Africa, Qualcomm. “Based on my experience, until and unless we have women, their perspective and their intellect involved in creating the environment, we will be missing out on 50% of our potential. It is the one aspect where we can perhaps make an impact as there women in involved in ICT policy practice, there are women in ministries.”
Pinky Kekana, Deputy Minister of Communications, South Africa, focused on the importance of educating girls, looking at the cultural barriers for girls in early socialising and adopting deliberate and sustainable measures in collaboration with the education department. “We have made English a compulsory subject, so why not also make coding compulsory from an early age?”
“If we are not equipped to join the train, we will leave half the world behind,” said Letty Chiwara, Representative to Ethiopia, Africa Union and UN Economic Commission for Africa, UN Women. Education is the key to releasing the untapped potential of our girls across the continent. “Let’s use Universal Service Funds, policy and private sector spaces to support young girls.”
Summing up, Johnson called for measures including cross-sector collaboration, more coding, reaching rural and remote areas with connectivity and relevant content – and making sure that content is relvant to women. It is important to consult women to help develop policies, make sure we have and implement these policies, and provide protection for women online to give them confidence and security in using the technology.