Where Women Aren’t
Internet cafes are ubiquitous in Kampala and represent one of the dominant market-driven approaches to increasing access for those who cannot afford personal ownership of information and communication technologies (ICTs). Through renting and re-designing an Internet cafe for women’s empowerment, I realized that despite the ‘accessibility’ of Internet cafes, this approach will always be skewed in favor of Ugandan men.
The fixed location of cafes caters to those with mobility, while the pay-per-minute business model requires access to expendable financial resources and high levels of digital literacy. Due to inequitable structural roles for men and women in the economy and equally unbalanced roles in household production systems, Ugandan women have restricted mobility and limited access to financial and educational resources in comparison to their male counterparts. As a result, women are often the minority in tech hubs, Internet cafes, and NGO-sponsored ICT centers.
Where Women Are
Women aren’t in Internet cafes and ICT centers because they are in fields, markets, shops, and domestic spaces, working 50% more than men in both market and household economies (Ellis et al. 2006, 32). Established in 1980, the open-air Bugolobi Market in Kampala, Uganda is one of these women-dominated spaces where women work.
The market is encircled by two-story structures, constructed in 1995 to establish storefronts for 350 shops. The interior of the market provides space for 3,000 – 3,5000 vendors who trade each major food crop, restaurateurs offering prepared food, and hawkers selling anything from shoes to manicures.
While owning a small enterprise offers women autonomy, women must undertake business activities in ways that are compatible with demanding domestic expectations from their husbands or crippling constraints brought about from being a single parent or widow. Business registration, heading into town to purchase inventory, visiting Internet cafes, and other activities that involve travel, waiting, or delays, constitute an especially heavy burden for women.
While none had visited an Internet cafe, owning a feature phone was common amongst women vendors, often with multiple SIM cards. However, use practices are quite different from within the United States:
- Phones are not available for use at any time due to charging at kiosks and sharing amongst family members
- SMS messaging was not as familiar to older women due to usability issues with their phones and lower levels of literacy
- The main experiences older women had with SMS were through receiving messages from Umeme (a local electrical company), network operators, pastors, and sometimes their children
- Sustained conversations over SMS were uncommon due to financial constraints