Internet Shutdowns: An Evaluation of Women’s Online Expression and Participation in Uganda

By: Sandra Aceng, WOUGNET

Following the earlier contributions to this blog series, which provided an overview of the six GNI-Internews fellows’ research projects, in this collection, fellows document their work over the last few months.

This post was originally published on Medium

Navigating the Internet as a woman in Uganda can be stressful and devastating, especially when it is shutdown. While the Internet serves social, economic, and political sectors globally, countries around the world continue to threaten Internet access by blocking or disrupting particular applications, websites, and mobile telecommunications services such as instant messaging and voice over Internet protocol calling.

In Uganda, women are faced with economic hardship, online threats and harassment, surveillance, lack of accessible content online, expensive Internet bundles and taxation, coupled with gender insensitive information and communications technology (ICT), and Internet policies. Acts such as Internet shutdowns tend to worsen women’s online freedom of expression and participation in Uganda and can deny them their right to democratic participation during elections or protests when the Internet is needed the most. There is substantial evidence on how Internet shutdowns affect women’s online participation and how women cope with the effects of Internet disruptions in Uganda. Studies by Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET), World Wide Web FoundationGSMA, the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) and among others document women’s access and use of the Internet and to some extent, these affect women’s inclusive development as part of the socio-economic impact of shutdowns.

The uptake of strategic litigation against the state’s decision to disrupt the Internet is vital. Despite much documentation on the impact of Internet shutdowns on citizens’ several digital rights such as health care, access to information, privacy, freedom of expression, and even the country’s economy, the government still continues to employ different tactics to ensure the Internet is shutdown. This continues to affect the marginalized and vulnerable groups such as women the more.

Even though there is a lack of general technical understanding of the government’s reasons to shutdown the Internet coupled with the use of the country’s laws such as the Uganda Communications Act 2013 which gives the communication regulator broad powers and functions under Section 5 to shutdown the Internet, it is important to note that shutdowns negatively impact women’s online freedom of expression and participation. While conducting the study on how Internet shutdowns impact women’s online freedom of expression and participation in Uganda, a female interview participant from Kampala said:

“Yes, they are very much affected because if the Internet is a source of employment, then you can only imagine what happens if it is disconnected like for us here in Uganda, social media is what we call the Internet. So, if social media is disrupted, then a woman cannot connect to the next buyer so a woman’s economic power is really affected. Similarly, when it comes to gender roles, women’s movements are limited so if the Internet is shutdown, this affects them socially, economically, and even politically because we have seen women share their views online and express themselves very confidently.”

When women in Uganda are grappling with the online transition swift, studies such as this brings out the hardships women face in the online space with no Internet access. It holds hope that the digital space with time will be favorable for women and girls when there is available literature or references that highlight women’s issues to improve their rights online.

Global Network Initiative (GNI)-Internews Fellowship

In March 2020, Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET)’s Program Manager, Information Sharing and Networking, Sandra Aceng was awarded a six-months fellowship by GNI and Internews to conduct a research on the impact of Internet shutdowns on online freedom of expression and privacy on women in Uganda.

Focused Group Discussion in Lira District Credit: WOUGNET

The research was conducted in three districts (Kampala, Lira, and Mukono) to ensure representation of urban, rural, and peri-urban areas of Uganda respectively, reaching a total of 79 interview respondents 65.8% female and 34.2% male. These respondents also participated in the focused group discussions, key informant, and semi-structured interviews with a representation of 43.5% male and 56.5% female from Kampala, 29.6% male and 70.4% female from Mukono, and 31% male and 69% female from Lira district.

Participants filling questionnaire in Mukono district Credit: WOUGNET

The research offered a quantitative and qualitative sample perspective of women’s experience as Internet users in Uganda.

Our Findings

From our study findings, there is no doubt that Internet shutdowns affect both men and women directly. It affects the enjoyment of fundamental freedoms of expression, association, and political participation. Yet, for women, the effects of Internet shutdowns may have far-reaching negative effects as a result of how they use the Internet compared to men. Women regularly access developmental programs, and not having access to the Internet further undermines their role in contributing to national development. For example, across the three districts, 37.70% of men and women reported using the Internet daily to access information with also 23.80% using it for online business and 32.50% using it for socializing. A female focused group discussion respondent from Lira mentioned that “I use the Internet when there is a certain information I want to get. For example, during this COVID-19 with lockdown, I go to find out information on updates that I am supposed to follow on COVID-19.

Therefore, Internet shutdowns infringe on women’s digital rights, for example, a female focused group discussion respondent from Lira said that “Women perceive that they have been denied their rights especially those who run big businesses because they cannot communicate with their customers when the Internet is shut down.” Another interview participant from Kampala said, “I think it also denies the vulnerable groups access to health emergencies. For instance, there are apps developed to help vulnerable groups. Physically disabled persons who cannot easily go to the health centers use such applications to explain their health complications to the respective health service providers.”

Internet shutdowns were reported in the three districts affecting a spectrum of rights and freedoms. Notably, these include the economic rights of women operating small online business enterprises; political rights of women dependent on social media platforms to organize campaigns, support their candidates of choice, or present their political agenda when contesting for political spaces; and social interactions facilitated by freedoms of expression and association via online groups.

Youth during Focused Group Discussions in Kampala Credit: WOUGNET

The most experienced form of Internet shutdowns was the social media blackout in 2016 and the subsequent censoring of online media content through the Uganda Communications Commission.

During the study interviews in the three districts, there were diverse understanding and perspectives of “Internet shutdowns.” While some respondents clearly defined what Internet shutdown is, the majority seem to not clearly understand it. For example, a male participant interviewed from Kampala said;

‘In Uganda, an Internet shutdown could occur if they breach a particular law or a regulation. If for example, someone is using the Internet in the commission of a crime. If you are going to use the Internet, for example, you have set up a website to carry out child online exploitation, or publishing content that is against or content that is false or fabricated, then that website may be denied access and as a result, you who consume the content on that website experience a shutdown on that particular website’.

The young people perceived an Internet shutdown as a point when there is no access or when they experience restricted access to the Internet. One participant from Mukono cited, “Internet shut down is when a nation or a country is not able to access some social media platforms may be for a meantime or for a period of time.”

The key informants perceived Internet shutdowns to be partial shutdowns, mostly effected by the local Internet Service Providers. They further contend that it’s almost unimaginable for any government to effect a total shutdown since most if not all online activities dependent on the Internet would be affected. In essence, even a government/institution would have to experience a shutdown the same way. A voice excerpt from one of the key informants in Kampala said, “You cannot shut it down completely because the air traffic system that uses the radar depends on the Internet a lot. The cameras that are installed in cities here also depend on the Internet because they ran over fiber and they communicate on it. So, a total shutdown would be so devastating and would be like a doom’s day and would cause a lot of pandemonium.”

There are also differences in how women experience Internet shutdowns based on whether they are in rural or urban areas. Women in rural communities didn’t seem to feel the burden of Internet shutdowns and in some cases, some of them have limited online access. This contrasts with a majority of women from urban settings who are slowly migrating to online business processes and increasingly engaging in social media activities.

Women respond differently during periods of Internet disruptions. While some choose to protest, the majority silently withstand the situation. For example, a male key informant respondent from Lira said “When the Internet is shut down then there is no way, they just say that my Internet is shutdown and they just keep quiet because they think there is no alternative. Using the Internet is a modern technology and most women are still struggling to catch up with men because they need to have more knowledge on how to use it because with the Internet you keep upgrading your skills.” The study findings indicate the possible high use of virtual private networks (VPNs) during election periods to circumvent blockage of websites and particular applications, although the majority seemed to have used and known it mainly to avoid payment of the Over the Top (OTT) tax imposed by the government of Uganda for use and access of social media platforms.

Mukono Focused Group Discussion Credit: WOUGNET

In an attempt to continue business operations during Internet shutdowns, women tend to migrate business offline. This makes them incur additional direct costs such as rent, transport, and marketing. Studies have reported increased costs of business as a result of OTT tax and widening of the gender digital divide gap for Uganda’s poorest residents, and in turn, left them with less access to information. The benefits from the use of digital technologies are not evenly distributed because women are less likely to have access to the Internet for political and economic empowerment.

Even though the impact of Internet shutdowns on women’s online rights is devastating, women also mentioned other limiting factors that do not allow them to freely express themselves and participate online. For example, a male participant referred to the lack of technical skills of women to operate new gadgets and access the Internet.

Next Steps

One of the key issues raised by women during the interviews was their limited Internet skills. In response, this study will produce a booklet on circumvention methods for women to access and use the Internet in case of blockage of websites and applications during politically tense periods or crises in Uganda. WOUGNET plans to conduct capacity building on how to use the circumvention tools and methods during Internet shutdowns or censorship, especially in rural areas in Uganda.

The need for a strengthened awareness campaign on the critical role played by the Internet in advancing the realization of women’s rights online and the rights of marginalized groups is still a necessity.