From the field: Empowering women in rural Africa through internet access

 

Emily Echas says she taught herself to sew. Emily (62) lives in Groot Aub, a rural community to the south of Namibia’s capital of Windhoek. The sandy settlement has a population of over 6000 and mostly consists of pensioners and small scale farmers. Poverty is widespread. Despite not having any formal education, Emily has managed to earn an income through doing needlework. “Everything that I am doing I taught myself,” she says.

 

Posted by Vymala Thuron

 

But Emily still had one obstacle holding her back. She could not teach herself to make or cut patterns for the clothes she sewed. “Normally I struggled to cut fabric without a pattern and had to rely on other people to do the cutting.” This changed when AfChix established the Groot Aub Community Network* during the first round of the WomenConnect Challenge, funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Emily allowed the Community Network to use her yard to erect a tower for the equipment needed to connect to the internet and became one of around 40 households that gained internet access through the project.

 

This connectivity opened up a new world of knowledge to her as she soon realised she could improve her sewing skills by watching instructional videos on YouTube. “I found programs where ladies show how to measure and cut different types of garments. I started to watch these programs, and try to cut patterns while listening to them. I successfully cut and sewed a dress. I am so grateful, now I do not have to rely on somebody else any more.”

 

What does a community network do?
Community networks contribute to improving internet connectivity and building the capacity of communities to establish and maintain telecommunications infrastructure. AfChix has built four community networks by installing communications infrastructure in rural areas in Namibia, Senegal, Kenya and Morocco. We train local women to technically maintain the installed network infrastructure and to develop sustainable business plans to manage the way their communities access the internet connectivity now available to them.

 

The empowerment programme delivered in these community networks helps women to establish their own businesses, provides important community services, and positions these women as role models. This creates entrepreneurial opportunities for rural women to run local internet service providers, work as network engineers, and enhance their digital knowledge and skills. As one of the winners of the third round of the WomenConnect Challenge, AfChix is now working to expand the four community networks it has already established. In Groot Aub, we plan to erect more towers to expand the reach of the network to ultimately connect the entire community to the internet. This will give more women like Emily access to information and skills that can improve their lives.

 

Digital literacy and safe spaces for learning
Digital literacy is the new literacy – it has become just as crucial as reading and writing. While pens and books may be easily accessible, the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information requires more than just devices and internet connectivity. Communities also need to be empowered with cognitive and digital skills to truly benefit from the internet. The Groot Aub Community Network has seen nearly 70 community members receive basic digital skills training. The next round of the project will continue to focus on providing digital skills training to unemployed women.

 

AfChix sees Community Networks as a means to create safe spaces where women and girls can access the internet and receive training without discrimination. We believe that training and capacity building is vital to help girls and women to be empowered and increase their confidence in using technology. This not only gives them access to new information, but also new choices. When women are empowered to generate an income and able to influence decision-making, they can bring about change that has a lasting impact on their own well-being, that of their families and the next generation.

 

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The Groot-Aub Community Network (CN) is run and supported by the ISOC Namibia Chapter members and additionally Groot-Aub CN is the southern African site in AfChix initiative to promote women in establishing, using and managing CNs. We thank ISOC our partner for the support https://isocnamibia.org/news/community-networks/

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