Alliance for Affordable Internet and United Nations Women has made public at the 62nd UN Commission on the Status of Women accused several governments of not doing enough to connect women and other offline populations, upon the availability of funds for same purpose in every country.
The fund, known as Universal Service and Access Funds (USAFs)—communal public funds dedicated to expanding internet connectivity—to enabling women access and use the internet, is statutorily domiciled at the Communications agency of nations.
Accordingly, the United Nations is calling on governments to invest at least half of the USAFs to lift women and other underprivileged to become IT compliant and in the process deepen knowledge economy across the world.
In Nigeria, the fund is known as Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF) and is seating as a strategic facility at the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), administered to grow communications technology in mainly under-served regions of the country.
However, use of the facility by NCC seems not to be driving the needed effects as gender access to internet and related technology space still remain weak.
Only late last year, the fund was put to use during a seminar in Cross Rivers where provided ICT training infrastructure that is near moribund was use to train some women and under-served in ICT developments.
Since this year, there has not been any clear use of the fund to do what it was created for in Nigeria.
The Nigerian Communications Act (NCA) No 19 of 2003, Part IV established the Universal Service Provision (USP) and mandated the Board to supervise and provide broad policy directions for the management of the USP Fund. Section 118 of the Act established the USP Secretariat and states that it shall reside in the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) and shall be responsible for the day-to-day administration of the Universal Service Provision. Pursuant to this mandate, the USP Fund started operation in August 2006.
The Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF) was established by the Federal Government of Nigeria to facilitate the achievement of national policy goals for universal access and universal service to information and communication technologies (ICTs) in rural, un-served and under-served areas in Nigeria. The Fund is being managed to facilitate the widest possible access to affordable telecommunications services for greater social equity and inclusion for the people of Nigeria.
Even though USPF has been sponsoring what it termed USPF Changemaker Challenge, industry stakeholders say it has not leaved up to expectations as previous winners are not well guided to monitor their performance after winning the challenge.
Out of disappointments on nations’ use or abuse of the facility, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, Executive Director of UN Women noted in anger that “USAFs offer an incredible and vastly underutilized opportunity for making real progress, an opportunity we cannot afford to miss”.
“Every day that these funds remain unused is another day women and girls are sidelined in the digital revolution. We call on governments to take immediate action to put these funds toward their intended purpose, and to work to make the digital divide history—starting with women and girls.”
Industry analysts say, the connection could bring six million women online, provide digital skills to 16 million women and girls, according to the report Universal Service and Access Funds: An Untapped Resource to Close the Gender Digital Divide.
It noted that failure to utilise the funds risks widening global inequality and undermining global development.
In her assessment, Sonia Jorge, executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Internet and head of digital inclusion programmes at the Web Foundation, averred that “We can’t reduce global inequality without closing the digital divide and online gender gap”.
“We must act now to stop the online world from entrenching offline inequalities. We call on governments to make effective and timely use of available funds, and to invest at least 50 per cent of them in projects aimed at bringing more women online.”
Currently, up to four billion people are not connected online globally. Only around 2 in 10 people in Africa are online; meaning that the continent has the widest gap in internet use between men and women.
Besides, about 37 African countries have a USAF in place, and 62% of the funds considered active, the UN research found.
The report decried that even though most governments are failing to spend the USAF funds collected. In 2016, USAFs across Africa disbursed just 54 per cent of funds collected.
The scenario is further painted red as only few countries are focusing on improving women’s internet access and use — despite the worsening digital gender gap.