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April 5, 2022

Bridging the gender-based digital gap in Northern Nigeria

The need for the Nigerian authorities to take concrete steps toward bridging the digital gap across the gender line, particularly in the northern region of the West African nation has been on the front burner of public discourse over past years. By Eric Ojo. First published in Metro Daily.

This need has been further strengthened by the digital economy agenda of Nigeria’s Federal Government, which targets 95 percent digital literacy in the country by 2030, as it aims to lift over 100 million Nigerians out of poverty in the next eight years. Interestingly, it is projected that the digital economy, which currently contributes 17.8 percent to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will play a major role in achieving this laudable aspiration.

The territory known as northern Nigeria currently comprises of three geopolitical zones, namely; the North Central zone (Benue, Federal Capital Territory, Kogi, Kwara, Nasarawa, Niger, Plateau), the North West zone (Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Sokoto, Zamfara) and the North East zone (Adamawa, Bauchi, Borno, Gombe, Taraba, Yobe) which has been the stronghold of Islamic militants and insurgent groups for over eleven years. It is also a hotbed of the perennial farmer/herder conflicts.

As far as the gender dimension of digital inclusion narrative in Nigeria is concerned, there is currently a huge gap between men and women in terms of access and use of the internet.

According to a youth survey report published in 2012 by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS),  in Nigeria, young men are almost twice likely to have a career in computer science and technology-related fields as women. Although this trend is prevalent nationwide, it is worse in the country’s Northern region.

Empirical findings suggest that about 60 percent of female population does not have access to the internet. Similarly, a study conducted in 2016 by the Centre for Information Technology and Development (CITAD), indicates that 55 percent of men in northern Nigeria repudiate their wives to use the internet, while  61 percent of fathers discourage their daughters’ use as well.

In an interview with Metro Daily Nigeria, public affairs analyst, management and development expert, Dr. Jiya Santeli strongly emphasized that the plight of gender digital divide is evidently pervasive across the three geopolitical zones of the Northern Nigeria. This trend, according to him, constitutes another form of gender imbalance with negative consequences for women and girls in the region.

“I am from Kwara State (North Central) and I can tell you without mincing words that women and girls in my home state are equally lagging behind in this regard”, he said.

Mrs. Zainab Umar, a Geography and Environmental Studies postgraduate student at the University of Abuja, shared similar sentiment. Umar decried low level of digital literacy amongst women and girls in the region, noting that the trend is inadvertently limiting their access to the enormous opportunities that abound in the digital space. She said intensified efforts toward the promotion of digital literacy and tech education will go a long way in growing a robust female digital community across the region.

“I strongly believe that digital literacy is key to educational emancipation, financial freedom and social inclusion of the largely conservative northern female population”, she further explained.

Corroborating Umar’s viewpoints, Gloria Kasang Bulus, an indigene of Kaduna State and the Executive Director of Bridge That Gap Initiative, stressed that development is quite worrisome, as it is in a region of Nigeria where basic education system indicates low enrollment and retention of girls.

“Our economic, social, and cultural obstacles have prevented women/girls from accessing technology and its inherent opportunities, thereby leaving a wider gap”, she added. Bulus said closing this gap, will boost economic development, provide more income for women, lower poverty rates, promote gender equality and bridge knowledge gap in the digital space.

In a similar vein, chairperson of Kano State Chapter of the Nigeria Association of Women Journalists and Northwest zonal coordinator of the National Association of Persons with Physical Disabilities, Bilkisu Ado Zango, observed that since digital literacy is still a virgin land, a lot needs to be done, particularly in the northern region. She said there are other socio-economic factors militating against the interest of women and girls in this regard, especially in Kano State (North West).

“When you look at their access to the internet, cost and digital gadgets, you can make a logical conclusion based on their status”, she added.

Zango further stated that people living with disabilities, especially women and girls suffer from  discrimination because they are commonly uninformed, uneducated, abandoned  and their underlying issues are not taken serious by the authorities.

“Women and girls with disabilities have special needs, however we are not included in decision making processes, we are always left behind and we are agitating that we should be allowed to participate in the social economic development of the society at all times”, emphasized Zango.

According to experts, disparities in the way women and girls can access and participate in the digital ecosystem can be seen through the use of internet and Information, Communication and Technologies (ICTs). In ICT literacy rates,  low presence of women and girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) professions and other related disciplines. At the present time these red flags are very glaring in the Nigerian society and the statistics are extremely low for women and girls in the northern parts of the country.

Socio-economic constraints

Several factors that resonate social, economic, cultural and religious norms and beliefs have been identified as underlying grounds of digital gender gap in the region and these issues have continued to work against the interest of women and girls in the digital space.

Meanwhile, the comparatively low level of the girl child’s access to basic education in the region, has also aggravated the situation.

According to a 2007 UNICEF report, the number of girls that are not attending school in the region is very high.  The ratio of girls to boys in school ranges from one girl to three boys in some states and zones.

The report further noted that North Central and North West present the worst national scenarios, as only twenty percent of women and girls in North West and North East are attending school.

Similarly, the perception of science and technology as a male-only field of study, poses as a drawback for women and girls. This assertion was aptly captured in a presentation by Dr. Amina Sambo-Magaji, at a conference organized in Abuja, Nigeria by the Nigerian Women In Information Technology (NIWIIT), under theme: “Promoting Digital Inclusion: Harnessing Opportunities With A Gender Lens”. Dr. Sambo-Magaji who was the lead speaker added that women tend to see the ICT sector as unfriendly, alienating, and intimidating as it is dominated by men.

Notably, some experts have also attributed the gender digital exclusion in the region to patriarchy and deeply entrenched practice of gender role differentiations.  The beliefs and duties are limiting to women and girls.

Prominent woman and children rights advocate and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Nagata CHANGE Initiative, Muhammad Mainasara said in an interview with Metro Daily Nigeria that due to socio-cultural factors in the northern part of Nigeria, internet cafes are easily accessible to boys than girls because, boys appears to have more freedom of movement than girls.

Mainasara, based in Sokoto State (North West) also noted that girls in the region see computer science as a ‘man thing’ and not something that a woman should bother herself about studying in the first place, while boys have continued to take more interest in it. He added that, this disparity made boys being computer literate than girls.

“But with the advent of smartphones such the Android brand, most girls are now digital-complaint because of the constant use of such phones. Most girls should be encouraged to study computer science or any other computer related course through scholarships and other initiatives to close this gap”, he suggested.

Making his submission from legal perspective, the National Coordinator of Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA), Comrade Emmanuel Onwubiko said the problem of digital gender gap persists in northern Nigeria, because that part of the country does not honour    provisions of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria as amended. Thus why the fundamental rights of women and girls, including their digital rights are flagrantly ignored.

“The Northerners don’t respect the Constitution and nobody is doing anything about it. The essence of having one country is defeated if the Constitution is treated with ignominy by certain section of the country. Instead of adhering to the Constitutional provisions, most states in the North have gone ahead to create their own laws, i.e.medieval kind of laws which are not in consonance with the Constitution of Nigeria, just to maintain the regime of oppression and discrimination against women and girls in their respective states”, he said.

Concerns have also been raised over limitations arising from lack of electricity, particularly in rural areas of the region. The findings from CITAD’s study published in 2018 notes that lack of electricity is a key impediment to the use of the internet.

The study further stated that, “while men could go about to commercial power points where handset are charged for a fee, most women do not want to patronize these for fear of intrusion into the privacy of their handsets while being away”. The study also harped on the issue of language barrier and offensive contents, as well as affordability of internet services, where available in the region.

Executive Director of Goggoji Zumunchi Development Initiative (GZDI), Hajiya Aishatu Yakubu noted that the heightened insecurity in northern Nigeria has further complicated the plight of young women and girls in the region.

Hajiya Yakubu, who is based in Adamawa (North East), added that the high level of insecurity prevents girls from accessing the few available ICT centres as the fear of abduction, kidnapping or killing by the Boko Haram in the North East, Banditry in the North West, which resulted in the abduction of the famous Chibok girls, Dapchi girls and many others, is yet to abate.

She also pointed out that the belief by numerous people across the region that, ICT knowledge leads to negative exposures of girls to unacceptable cultures, behaviors and especially through copying foreign attitudes, actors and musicians, is another stumbling block which regrettably does not apply to boys. “This is discrimination”, she stressed.

Interventions to digital exclusion

Data obtained from the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) reveals that between 2018 and 2019, the agency trained 360 women on ICT and entrepreneurship in three states namely, Gombe (North East), Jigawa (North West), and Nasarawa (North Central) and allocated Laptops/computers to enhance their opportunities for self-employment in ICT related areas.

It also conducted a skills/gap analysis for ICT entrepreneurship requirements for women in 4 of the 6 geopolitical zones in the country.  In 2020, NITDA equally trained 100 women on ICT in Nasarawa state to boost digital literacy and to empower them with tools to be used in bridging the gender-based digital gap in the state. The beneficiaries were also given laptops, bags, and Wi-Fi routers.

During the Digital Journalism for Women workshop held in October 2021, a total number of 50 women were trained by the agency in the Northwest zone and all other participants were presented with laptops. Moreover, approximately 200,000 people were trained on different aspects of digital literacy last year. 

In January this year, 60 female participants drawn from Jigawa State attended a programme which was held for five days at NITDA Hub in Dutse, the state capital and the agency also handed over laptops and other accessories to the trainees.

By and large, NITDA has successfully established up to 80 digital capacity-training centres across all geopolitical zones in Nigeria, it has also set up three IT hubs, four innovation and incubation parks, six IT community centres and three IT capacity-building centres in higher institutions of learning located in underserved communities.

The agency also operates an academy that is a self-learning platform. Furthermore, it also runs its Women ICT Techprenureship Training Programme to empower women of all ages with digital literacy skill to promote digital inclusion.

The National Communication Commission (NCC) stated that its activities in the last three years have all been focused on promoting Nigeria’s vision to migrate to full digital economy, adding it has achieved this by expanding key infrastructure to boost digital literacy and skills in recognition of the enormous benefits derivable from digitalization across all sectors of the economy.

The Commission is also playing a pivotal role in the implementation of the Nigeria National Broadband Plan (NNBP), 2020-2025 and other related policies that are geared towards increasing connectivity to all citizens in order to bridge gender digital disparity in any part of the country.

Another pillar of the government at the national level that is also advancing the frontiers is the Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy. The ministry has also facilitated capacity building programmes on ICT skills. Data obtained from the ministry shows that between August 2019 and July 2021, over 219,000 Nigerians have directly benefited from training on digital skills. .

In December 2021, the ministry in collaboration with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), organised a two-day workshop themed: “Eliminating Gender Imbalance: A Pathway to Nigeria’s Digital Economy”.

The workshop was attended by senior secondary school girls from the Federal Capital Territory (North Central) featured talks and presentations on topical issues such as nurturing ICT profession among girls, raising awareness of Gender Issues in ICT, as well as building a digital economy that is gender inclusive.

Representatives of selected schools, shared their experiences about ICT skills development in their respective schools, particularly in areas such as robotics, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and coding. .

It is also pertinent to note that, the National Centre for Women Development (NCWD) has equally made its mark in training women and girls on series ICT skills across the board. 

At the closing ceremony of a recent training on ICT and Modern Agricultural Practices for Female farmers in South-South Zone, the Director-General of the Centre, Dr. Asabe Vilita Bashir said ICT is a vehicle that drives development in all sectors of the economy, including agriculture.

Dr. Bashir added that, ICT enables farmers to use research data and adopts the technology to accelerate growth in the agricultural sector. She said the workshop which trained a total of 80 participants chosen from different farmers’ associations, is designed to expose farmers to various ways the ICT can help farmers, and decision-makers to improve their agricultural practices.

Head of Information and Communication Technology for the centre,  Johnson Morrison Udobong said the department  was initiated by the American government in 2003, with aim of bridging the digital division  in Nigeria.

Thus far, it has trained over 10,000 for both women and girls in different ICT skills. Udobong added that, the Americans conducted a research and found that there’s huge number of males,  who showed an interest to get in involved in the IT industry in Nigeria and decided to intervene, because they knew that IT will be very useful in every aspect of development to the Nigerian economy.

According to him, they gave focus on empowering women and bringing them into ICT and therefore, they brought in all  computers,  professionals and the  equipment that you can think of to make the department fully equipped.

He explained that, the Centre, facilitated training in different parts of the country, mainly targeting women in entrepreneurship, farming, managers and students.  “We went to Akwa Ibom State (South South) and we trained 80 female farmers on ICT, because farming is now technologically driven, we gave them brand new laptops and at end of the training, we also [facilitated training for the same number] of farmers in Borno State (North East)  [then our last stop was  Osun State (South West)”, he added.

He said the department has programmes for children, which are organised mostly during summer holidays, adding that 50 young girls were trained on software development and given Laptops during the 2021 edition of the International Day of Girls in ICT.

“As a pioneer staff of this department, I knew the original design and what the whole mission of this department was, so we still keep to that original focus. So, we’ve been training, we keep to the same mission, we keep to same standard and the same way of doing things”, he stressed.

In recent times, some states in the region have benefited from the pockets of interventions by frontline technology companies, local and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs), development partners, intergovernmental organisations, UN agencies and other government.

Various institutions such as  Google, Cchub, Andela, StarBridge Africa, Microsoft and Intel., United Kingdom (UK) Government, Cybersafe, DigiGirls Technology for Social Change and Development Initiative (Tech4Dev), the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), as well as the North East Development Commission (NEDC), have all been visible in that space.

Metro Daily Nigeria check also reveals that Kaduna State (North West) is fast becoming the most visible ICT hub in the entire region. The state which is perceived as demonstrably gender-sensitive due to its current status as a state-run with a female deputy governor, prioritizes the development of the ICT sector and encourages the private sector to participate in growing the industry.

For instance, the Click-On Kaduna programme is focused on equipping young women and girls with digital skills to enable them to earn an income and be self-employed.

Going forward

Executive Director of Women Africa, Chinwe Oyeukwu observed that the situation would improve if the government can pay more attention to providing girls and indeed all children in the Northern region with equal access to education. That dealing with the patriarchal and harmful traditional norms that enable it through reorientation, laws and sanctions for defaulting then of course girls will have more opportunity to access digital education and internet use and services.

“I think the first thing to do is to increase access to quality basic education for all in northern Nigeria, especially for girls. There’s a need to put in place appropriate measures to promote free and basic education for girls. The disparities in the education are too high because of the diverse discrimination girls in this region face ranging from sexual and gender-based violence such as rape to child/early marriage to female genital mutilation”, she further explained.

In his recommendations, the Nagata CHANGE Initiative manager observed that the NGOs could intervene by helping girls in the region to be computer literate.  Mainasara also stressed the need for state governments to improve in terms of giving equal educational opportunities to both boys and girls, adding that they have to give more priority to girl child education.

Similarly, Hajiya Yakubu called for intensive campaigns, awareness and sensitization of the general public and parents on the numerous advantages of educating women and girls and by extension use of the ICT and its goodies, adding that regular discussions with the girls, formation of girls peer groups and sensitizing them on the numerous positive advantages they can benefit by accessing and operating the ICT, educationally, socially, economically and spiritually, will help  in closing the gender-based digital gap across the region.She also harped on the need for the government and development partners to provide more access to ICT knowledge and skills for girls in a secured environment both in the urban and rural areas. She equally urged the government to demonstrate a stronger commitment towards the provision of adequate security in the region by putting an end to the spate of insurgency and banditry.The NGO leader further called on parents to stop discriminating against their daughters by denying them access to education, noting that they should enroll their girls in schools, ensure retention and stop child marriages. “When girls acquire adequate education, then they can use ICT to further improve their wellbeing socially and economically, thus reducing poverty”, she stressed.

On their part, women  experts in the ICT sector have urged the supervisory ministry  of the sector (Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy) to develop and implement gender equity policies at all levels to strengthen its current efforts to bridge the gender digital division across the country, and to foster partnerships with grassroots NGOs in implementation of solutions.

The group in a communique made available to the media, also challenged the ministry to promote access and affordability of internet connectivity for marginalized women in a bid to enable ‘a more inclusive diverse tech ecosystem in Nigeria’.

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