Gendered Participation in Digital Spaces in Africa: Contextualities & Nuances
Written by GeDIA member Fiona Ssozi // Lecturer in the School of Computing and Informatics Technology at Makerere University in Uganda.
“How do we develop design processes with African women at the centre?”
Understanding gender dynamics in diverse sectors and developing responsive design processes requires intentional effort and collaboration. Designing for a digital space requires an even deeper engagement with complexities across different realities. Why is that? The challenge with the digital world is that we have had limited time to experience it. Our experience is not necessarily based on empirical evidence but on a hunch on what “women might like”. Due to gender imbalances in the IT sector, much of the digital tools, interfaces and systems are designed by men. It is frequently men’s hunches that shape women’s digital experiences, including in African countries. This also applies to public services that are commonly designed as enmeshed with digital systems. Some argue that breaking down the complex identities behind simple binary gender terms is a winning strategy. Considering the intersection of gender and other markers — such as income, age, education, marital status, tribe, and geographical location — individuals of the same gender within the same community may have significantly different experiences. This complicates the design process even further.
How then do we design standard services for such diverse groups? How do we make the design more inclusive to African women who experience inequality and marginalisation? Admittedly, design processes have evolved from user-centric to more participatory methods, thereby improving research and project outcomes.
When designing gender-sensitive social protection programmes, Tebaldi [1] argues that it is vital to understand and differentiate between practical and strategic needs. Practical needs stem from women’s practical experiences navigating unfair systems, whereas strategic gender needs arise from women’s structurally defined subordinate conditioning to men [2]. Unfortunately, the active participation and recognition of women’s contributions are often perceived from the social position of men, which the sexual division of labour shapes.
In the case of public works programmes, we see that community infrastructure and women’s quality of life can be improved by addressing women’s needs by making some of their daily tasks less time-consuming. This would then encourage freed-up time for technical advancement and entry into spaces traditionally reserved for men [2]. An analysis [3] of these programmes in sub-Saharan Africa illustrates how to include women in public work programmes by being more ‘gender aware’. This has been done by:
(1) Setting explicit targets for women’s participation;
(2) Linking mothers and young children in areas of the intervention to nutrition services;
(3) Conducting awareness-raising campaigns and including ‘soft’ public works activities (gender-differentiated tasks), which traditionally attract more women; and
(4) Having childcare facilities on-site and by some of the beneficiaries, encouraging women’s participation, adopting flexible working hours, and the possibility of working half-days due to women’s home-related responsibilities.
It was also observed that, for women who are the head of their household, it is difficult to juggle their household responsibilities and participate in the programmes. Conversely, where men were the head of the household, women often reported lacking control of funds and transfers attributable to their household. This signifies a need to understand constantly changing gender dynamics.
Tebaldi [1] notes that remaining solely concerned with women’s roles as mothers and wives may only reinforce traditional gender-based inequalities. Such concerns must be accompanied by other measures to promote women’s empowerment, such as links to training and services that support their access to the labour market. For example, investigating and addressing gender differences in agriculture through program design gives these agricultural programs a better chance at meeting their objectives. Adopting gender-inclusive tactics like allocating men physically intense roles like land preparation while women take up tasks such as weeding and other post-harvest processes make it easier for women to participate.
Differences also exist in behaviour, such as the fact that women spend more income in their control on food and children’s healthcare, and rely more on social networks as compared to men [4]. These, in addition to differences in access to agricultural resources and inputs between men and women, are essential factors to be mindful of to achieve successful project outcomes.
There are vital lessons here that can be applied to digital-related service provision. Designing for inclusion begins with recognising exclusion. This can occur by focusing on excluded people and identifying bias in design whilst leveraging diverse perspectives when developing design solutions. This can further help define design constraints in a way that subsequently leads to products and services that are more widely usable [5] [6].
However, as we continue to delve into participatory research methods, it is essential to acknowledge that technologies and technology projects are not gender-neutral even when designed and implemented using participatory processes [7] [8].
[1] Tebaldi Raquel, Gender and social protection in sub-Saharan Africa: a general assessment of programme design, International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth (IPC-IG) November 2016 .pdf
[2] Molyneux, Maxine. 1985. “Mobilisation without Emancipation? Women’s Interests, the State, and Revolution in Nicaragua.” Feminist Studies 11 (2): 227–254.
[3] Oxfam: Quick Guide to Gender Analysis: to-gender-analysis-300114-en.pdf;jsessionid=226B9AD9467965C80BF8EB7D8519B714 ?sequence=1
[4] Agarwal, B. (2000). Conceptualising environmental collective action: Why gender matters. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 24(3), 283–310.
[6] Mihaela Vorvoreanu, Lingyi Zhang, Yun-Han Huang, Claudia Hilderbrand, Zoe Steine-Hanson, and Margaret Burnett. 2019. From Gender Biases to Gender-Inclusive Design: An Empirical Investigation. In Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ‘19). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, Paper 53, 1–14. DOI:
[7] Tigist Shewarega Hussen, Nicola J. Bidwell, Carlos Rey-Moreno, and William D. Tucker. 2016. Gender and Participation: Critical Reflection on Zenzeleni Networks in Mankosi, South Africa. In Proceedings of the First African Conference on Human Computer Interaction (AfriCHI’16). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 12–23. DOI:
[8] Ineke Buskens. 2014. Developing the capacity for gender awareness in development research: Some thoughts and suggestions –A think piece for the IDRC’s Information and Networks Team, IDRC: Ottawa.

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