Horn of Africa: Using digital technologies to advance women, peace and security agenda

March 29, 2023

Nancy Onyango

By Hannah Tetteh, Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for the Horn of Africa

As new technologies are being embraced, gender inclusion is critical to allow women to access emerging technologies that offer platforms through which they can voice their concerns, identify their specific needs and promote access to basic services.

The Women, Peace and Security Agenda (WPS) recognizes the increasing role of digital technologies in fulfilling women’s and girl’s rights, as digital technology impacts both women’s safety and empowerment.

Not enough attention has been given to how women use technological tools to support peacebuilding efforts, for instance to amplify their communication and advocacy efforts, to promote meaningful engagement, and to gain access to decisionmakers.

Women-led organizations have used digital technologies to advance women’s empowerment, health, and safety. Online platforms provide women access to educational services, and women use social media to disseminate information on local political developments.

Women are drivers of peace: increasing ways for them to engage through digital participation must be prioritized.

This shows a need for the international community to institutionalize women’s digital inclusion. The 2018 Gender Responsive UN Peacekeeping Operations Policy has sought to mainstream gender in UN operations.

In 2018, the UN Secretary-General launched his Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) initiative, which creates policy space for ensuring women’s meaningful participation in peace processes.

However, there is still a need to develop more systematic strategies that combine gender mainstreaming and digital inclusion into peacebuilding efforts.

Digital inclusion allows communities to access digital resources and technologies

The economic effects of digital technologies have reached over 50% of the developing world’s population in the last few decades.

However, many women, especially those from poor communities, indigenous and ethnic minorities, remain disconnected from an increasingly interconnected world.

As this widening digital gender gap amplifies socio-economic inequalities, bridging the digital divide provides unparalleled opportunities for development.

Investing in women’s economic empowerment drives economic growth and poverty reduction. In Africa, women’s participation in economies is growing despite a large gender gap, and greater digital access for women can boost African economies by 10% in 2025.

Strengthening collaboration between governments, the private sector and the international community is also important to close the digital gender divide. The UN looks forward to working with IGAD and others to support a coherent regional approach allowing women to benefit from digital technologies.

Digitalization and IGAD women peace and security agenda

In Africa, digitalization and new technologies play a critical role in economic development, promoting access to basic services and peacebuilding efforts. Access to technologies has soared: 88.4 per cent of the continent has mobile cellular coverage.

At the regional level, various instruments and initiatives in place can be utilized to improve women’s rights and gender equality.

These include the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, and the 2011 Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) Regional Action Plan on UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325. These frameworks show the attention given by governments, international institutions, and development partners on this issue.

While challenges remain to fully implement these instruments, a next-generation approach to Women, Peace and Security could explore ways to leverage technology and digitalization to fast-track the WPS agenda in the Horn of Africa, by focusing on three key issues:

  1. Addressing the digital gender divide:  In the Horn, the adoption of digital technologies remains slow, with insufficient investment in digital infrastructure and skills development. Despite great progress in innovation and access in the region and beyond, the digital realm still often excludes women.

For instance, Sub-Saharan African women are 37% less likely than men to use the mobile internet – the largest gender gap globally. Many women and girls have also not acquired the necessary skills to participate in the digital space, perpetuating their economic exclusion. Lack of affordability, literacy, digital skills, and awareness remain critical barriers. It is therefore essential to identify the obstacles to women’s access to digital technologies and develop their leadership capacities in this area.

  1. Protecting women’s rights and digital safety:  While digital technologies offer opportunities for women, they can also be tools for gender-based cyber-bullying, online harassment, hate speech and disinformation, particularly in online advocacy, election campaigns and conflict settings.

This compounds existing tensions and threatens women’s efforts to build more inclusive societies. Women’s rights advocates and female public figures have been disproportionately targeted on online platforms. In the Horn, during elections and in conflict settings, they have been the targets of online hostility, such as gender-based reputation and privacy attacks.

The online space has also been used for advocating against the rights of women and promoting violence against them. Increasing awareness and leveraging the WPS Agenda to address online harassment against women using emerging technologies is critical to maximize the benefits of digital technologies as tools for promoting the rights and advancement of women and girls.

  1. Strengthening regional collaboration:  The African Union’s Digital Transformation Strategy is designed to guide the continent’s digital transformation by leveraging regional cooperation. Regional collaboration efforts could facilitate the exchange of information, best practices, and harmonization of policies in areas such as data protection, digital safety, and inclusion of women and girls in digital technologies.

Strengthening collaboration between governments, the private sector and the international community is also important to close the digital gender divide. The UN looks forward to working with IGAD and others to support a coherent regional approach allowing women to benefit from digital technologies.

The role of African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) in women’s empowerment

The AfCFTA is reshaping the economic development narrative in Africa and can foster gender-inclusive trade and development policies. Women’s inclusion in digital economies must be central to its implementation.

Gender mainstreaming in the AfCFTA can address the systematic barriers to women’s inclusion in the formal and informal economy, while increasing access to capital markets and expanding ‘Aid for Trade’ initiatives supporting funding for women entrepreneurs.

Direct funding and capacity building for initiatives that increase women’s economic participation are untapped ways to promote sustainable economic growth and development.

Opportunities for Digital inclusion to sustain peace

Digital technologies help identify the drivers of conflict and best strategies to build and sustain peace. Conflicts and efforts to resolve them are becoming increasingly digitized: conflict prevention mandates increasingly rely on ICT, and conflict analysis uses complex data to predict conflict patterns.

New technologies provide unique opportunities to engage with women, who have been historically marginalized, to inform more effective strategies for better protection, prevention and greater participation.

Women are drivers of peace: increasing ways for them to engage through digital participation must be prioritized.

Digital technologies can contribute to women’s political, economic, and social inclusion, which requires sustained commitment by the international community to foster inclusive digital engagement.

We must also prioritize initiatives that support women’s digital skills and capacity building through training and education, while supporting sustained societal changes towards digital inclusion.

This article was originally published by African Renewal

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