Africa's digital future won't start until we fix this huge problem

Ingrid Brudvig is lead researcher of the Women's Rights Online program at the World Wide Web Foundation, set up by Web Inventor Tim Berners-Lee. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)This week, the African Union is meeting to discuss human rights, and particularly how the continent can realize the full potential of its women.

Naturally, the power of information and communication technologies are on the agenda for discussion.
But haven't we been here before? We are more than half way through the "African Women's Decade" launched in 2010. What has happened in the intervening six years? Since 2010, much has been made about Africa's mobile and digital revolution and its ability to propel development. But are women advancing triumphantly into Africa's digital future too?
    In short, the answer is no.
    For our recent Women's Right Online study, we interviewed 7,500 women from poor urban areas in 10 cities across the world, including five in Africa (Yaounde, Nairobi, Maputo, Lagos and Kampala), about their experiences in accessing and using the Internet.
    The results revealed that limited Internet access and digital literacy is a roadblock to gender equality, preventing women from claiming their rights. Controlling for income, age and education, women surveyed are nearly 50% less likely to access the Internet than men in the same communities, with Internet use reported by just 37% of women in the study.
    What's even more alarming is that African cities fall below this average in the study, with figures for female Internet users standing as low as 20% in Nairobi, 21% in Kampala, 33% in Maputo and 36% in both Lagos and Yaounde.
    These results are surprising considering the narrative of cities like Nairobi and Lagos as rising digital stars on the continent. Lead researcher for the study in Nigeria, Temitope Ogundipe of Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, said: "It was surprising that over 60% of women surveyed in Lagos' poor neighborhoods found Internet access unaffordable, and that only few women who are online access information that can improve their lives."
    If we don't act now to make sure women have equal access and rights online, Africa's digital future will replicate and entrench existing gender inequalities.
    The AU must face the reality that many women are not getting online, and the digital revolution is not transforming their lives because they lack digital skills, do not find an Internet that is relevant to them and - critically - they cannot afford it.
    And even those who do get online are not benefiting from it as much as their male counterparts. Controlling for other factors, our study showed that women are 25% less likely than men to look for a job online; 52% less likely than men to share controversial views online, and 20% less likely than men to use the Internet to find information related to their rights.
    Last year the AU Gender Pre-Summit made a number of commitments, including investment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) systems for women, and access to training, mentorship and investment in STEM education for young women. Many AU member states have ICT plans to get more of their citizens online.
    But blanket initiatives to "connect everyone" and a smattering of training programmes will not be enough to see real economic and social change. Governments must also create and implement focused programmes that put the needs of women at the center.
    Even in an African digital hub like Kenya, gender is not a part of the country's ICT master plan. Racheal Nakitare, of the International Association of Women in Radio and Television who led the study in Kenya remarked: "ICT is a major pillar of the economic blueprint as projected in Kenya's Vision 2030. Kenya's constitution is explicit on the need for affirmative action in order to include women in all aspects of development, but the plan does not make good on this commitment."
    So how can the AU change this?
    First and foremost, the African Union must urge Member States to make digital literacy a basic right for their citizens, by ensuring every national education strategy includes budget for digital skills courses for all children starting in primary school, with an emphasis on the importance of girls' participation and inclusion.
    In addition, the AU must support Member States in adopting an official national policy or directive to encourage increased access, training and use of the Web for women and girls, with concrete, measurable targets for gender equity in this area. This should include support in measuring the progress made to ensure the programmes are working, and sharing feedback among AU member states to continually improve and adapt their programmes.
    We will not achieve women's empowerment through technology unless technology policy is specifically designed to tackle and overcome the steep gender inequalities outlined in the Women's Rights Online study. Africa lags behind other regions surveyed, and the African Union needs to get serious about closing the ICT gender gap to secure African women's future in the digital economy.