July 21, 2021

Engendering Women’s Data Use, Privacy, and Protection in Africa (by Olayinka Adeniyi)

Globally, social network and messaging apps have not only become part of human life but also a platform of information sharing and transfer. The information or objects being transferred over the platform include those of personal nature, detailed or otherwise. Personal data is any information of an identified or identifiable living individual. Data protection laws regulate information and privacy matters including exchange and transfer. These laws set or guide structuring of sharing and transfer frameworks for all data including of personal nature providing the necessary components such as how, when, circumstances’ etc. In Africa, the legal frameworks on data protection and privacy are nascent but the discourse of its inclusiveness cannot be postponed.

Inclusiveness is the practice of embracing every class of people in the society irrespective of race, gender, disability or others, especially those who might otherwise have been marginalized. Gender inclusion therefore entails the provision for all gender without discrimination against a particular sex, whether male or female. In the discourse of data privacy protection, since men are mostly referred to in legal framework, this is gender exclusion and gender inclusion will mean including women in the provisions for the protection and privacy in the same way as the men.

The digital gender divide brought about the speculations that men were more users of technology than women. Notably, research reveals that as at 2005 women were catching up with men in the use of internet. Women surpass men in number of app use, depending on the purpose, including the areas of health and medicine. Commercial growth rate for women’s participation in these online activities is greater than the one for men.

Kenya’s internet use by both gender is the same and stands at 29.7 while women’s use of mobile phone is higher standing at 92.7 compared to men at 90.0. WhatsApp and Facebook dominate social apps used by Kenyans across all ages. By gender, Kenyan men are more active in the use of Telegram (66.1%), LinkedIn (62.1%), and Skype (61.6%) while women are most active on Snapchat (61.9%), TikTok (53.6%) and Pinterest (50%). Money transfer increase the usage of mobile phones due to its convenience especially during the pandemic after the introduction of government restrictions on use of cash payments. In lower Eastern Kenya, more women than men were found to benefit from the use of mobile money transfer services (MMT) using their mobile phones.

The presence of women on the internet and their use of mobile phones bring to fore mechanisms on these platforms to regulate such use. This is because women may particularly be among the top list of vulnerable to have their privacy infringed by smart devices, apps, search engines and social media platforms. The UN Human Rights Council and the General Assembly have noted that violations and abuses of the right to privacy in the digital age may affect all individuals and have particular effects on women.

When it comes to the particular effect on women, privacy exposure, infringement, and other related issues are some of the concerns attached to internet use. Violation, cybercrime, third-party data sharing, gathering and exposure, online harassment, including the creation and dissemination of falsehoods and inaccuracies online are possible negative impact of social media use. Research provides that violations of their right to privacy in health issues have been found to be a disincentive to seeking care for subsequent deliveries for women.

International and regional data protection regulations contain provisions on data privacy and protection, from definition to establishment of systems, control etc. Presently the framework in many African countries are inadequate.  The sufficiency of these provisions for gender purposes are arguable. The mere fact that the right to privacy exist in constitutions does not preclude the adoption of a robust data protection law.

Nigeria has many legislations on data protection, yet not one is gender specific, or an expression of the recognition of its provision for women. While Kenya boasts of a robust data protection law, although still under analysis, the gender or women issue has not come up for consideration. The same can be said of South Africa with its robust human rights and women friendly legislations and policies. Indeed, the discourse with regards to women inclusion in the legal framework on data privacy and protection cannot be said to form the topic yet. This is even an upcoming topic in the academic circle, albeit a necessary one.

However, the field of data privacy and protection in Africa is still an evolving area and women inclusion can be contemplated and ensured now. The use of inclusive clauses like providing in definition clauses that where men is mentioned, it should be taken to include women may fill the gap. More research is also needed on women relating or dealings with the existing regulations. At this stage however, legislation or its reform to be gender inclusive or friendly may be necessary. Other approaches including budgeting for gender mainstreaming, already practiced by some countries may also be included.

The summary is that women should not be treated as afterthought in legislations, particularly in issues of importance like data privacy and protection in this information age, because a feminist internet is in the best interest of everybody in the society.

Dr Olayinka Adeniyi is a researcher on women’s rights at the Centre for Intellectual Property, and Information Technology Law (CIPIT) Strathmore University, Nairobi, Kenya. Her current research area is Gender and AI.

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