Remote Connections to Empowerment

Navigating the Gendered Digital Divide in Gondar, Ethiopia

Bachelor Thesis, 2014

56 Pages, Grade: 1st Class with Distinction(93%)


Table of Contents



Table of Figures





Chapter One: Conceptual Field
The ‘D’ in ICT4D: Tied to technological determinism and economic growth
Gender in ICT4D: “Add women and stir”
Diluted Empowerment
Identifying and Bridging the gap in ICT4D
Reconceptualising Empowerment in ICT4D: Incorporating choice and ‘jugaad’

Chapter Two: Research Location

Chapter Three: Methodologies
Sampling: Representativeness and limitations of chain-referral methods
Ethnography: Reflexivity and practice
Interviews and Focus Groups
Researching the Youth: triangulating PRA methodologies
Voicing the Silent Women

Chapter Four: An Uneven Landscape of Access

Telecommunications Infrastructure: A monopoly market
Education in Gondar: Stretched resources and unequal provision
Urban-Rural Digital Divide

Chapter Five: The Gendered Digital Divide
Cultural Constraints to ICT access: “The man, he controls the mouse”
Heterogeneity of Women’s Experiences: Tsega and Tadila

Chapter Six: Navigating the Digital Divide




Table of Figures

Figure 1: The choice framework (Kleine, 2011; based on Kleine, 2007; Alsop & Heinsohn, 2005)

Figure 2: ITU's Least Connected Countries (LCCs), 2011

Figure 3: Map of Ethiopia (Source:

Figure 4: Map of Gondar displaying key field locations. (Source of base map: ArcMAP Online and OnlineStreetMap)

Figure 5: Diagramatic representation of 'chain-referral' network

Figure 6: A photo of Rekebnaha school teachers in the ICT class

Figure 7: Students watching a group presentation on Ethiopian culture

Figure 8: Students learning how to create a poster about ‘ICTs in Ethiopia’ using Microsoft Word

Figure 9: Debate classes on the topic of 'Gender in Gondar', Rekebnaha School

Figure 10: Market monopoly of ETC. Source: (Adam, 2010: 3, Table 2)

Figure 11: Donated equipment in its original packaging left unused due to no free classroom space, University of Gondar

Figure 12: Functional computer facilities deemed broken and left unused in Rekebnaha School

Figure 13: The urban-rural landscape of Gondar (Source:

This statement is to declare that the following research is the product of my own work and does not include plagiarised material. All sources influencing this research have been clearly identified in the references and acknowledgments. Additionally, all photographs and diagrams are my own unless otherwise referenced. This dissertation does not exceed the stipulated word limit.


Firstly, thank you to my college and the David Richards travel grant for giving me the opportunity to travel to Ethiopia. The trip would not have been feasible had it not been for their generosity. I am extremely grateful to all of the respondents who kindly took the time to participate in this study, a particular thank you to Rekebnaha for allowing me to run ICT classes in her lovely school. Many thanks to the staff of Link Ethiopia: specifically Zemene, who personally went out of his way to facilitate interviews with his many friends across the city of Gondar. I would also like to thank the kind assistance of Dr Elizabeth Watson and Dr Emma Mawdsley who supported this project from its conception to its finish.

Lastly, to my research partner, thank you for your continued encouragement and support between London, Addis Ababa, Gondar, and Cambridge.


As technologies are becoming increasingly pervasive in Ethiopia, there is a need to investigate the differential engagements with and uses of ICTs by gender. Therefore, this research initially sought to narrate the experiences of Ethiopian women with technology. However, this angle had to be modified as it soon became apparent that so few women had tangible access to technologies in the area I visited. Thus, a focus on the barriers to technology, and how these were negotiated, posed a more feasible and worthwhile research project. Moreover, while there are benefits to be drawn from focusing methodologies solely upon women, I felt that by including men and youth, this study would give a more holistic impression of the gendered issues relating to ICT4D (ICTs for Development) .

This research was facilitated by the organisation Link Ethiopia, an educational charity based in Gondar. This charity arranged for my research to take place alongside a volunteering placement.


Whilst the development of ICTs in Ethiopia has proved in many instances to be a promising tool for women's empowerment, a "complex web of factors" (Buskens & Webb, 2008) that determine access to these facilities has caused the scope of their benefit to be limited. In Ethiopia, engagements with ICTs in education and society continue to show a marked gender gap. To identify the obstacles to ICTs faced by women, the focus of analysis must extend beyond women themselves. Hence, this research has taken a multi-perspective approach, sampling a diverse range of respondents including men, women, youth, University students, IT professionals and government officials. This cross-section was taken from Gondar Town in the Amhara Region of Northern Ethiopia in order to situate the gendered barriers to ICT amongst a broader social, cultural, economic and political landscape. Therefore, since “ICT usage represents a social reality” (Wood, 2001: paragraph 5.7), “a gender lens alone becomes insufficient: other forms of social exclusions […] have to be considered” (Rowbotham, 1995:65, Morgan, Heeks & Arun, 2004).


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Information communication technologies (ICTs) are becoming an increasingly pervasive force in the developing world. Promising to offer prosperity and social mobility, the potential of ICTs as ‘tools for development’ has been embraced by governments and development agencies since the 1970s (Litho, 2005). ICTs continue to be presented as a ‘magic bullet’ for the developing world, offering opportunities to “leapfrog stages of development” and raise standards of living (Litho, 2005; Soltane 2002; Castells 2000).

The discourse of ICTs for Development (ICT4D) is frequently associated with the term ‘empowerment’: a catchword used across the field of development that has largely escaped precise definition. ICT-enabled empowerment is considered to equip traditionally marginalized groups of society with better economic prospects, wider communication networks, access to information and an “enhanced ability to acquire education and skills and to transcend social restrictions” (Hafkin and Taggart, 2001:3; Figure 1).

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Figure 1: World cloud of the ICT4D empowerment discourse using text from Sharma, 2001; Abbasi, 2001; UNDP, 2013; The World Bank, 2009.

However, the accelerated diffusion of digital technologies has occurred unevenly, creating a ‘digital divide’ between and within countries. Unless the existing inequalities within a city, region or country are understood, there is the risk that the marginalised groups who are alleged to benefit from ICTs will be further socially excluded, pushed to the wrong side of the digital divide and remain the ‘have nots’ of the impending information society (Tambulasi, 2009). The position of women in this divide is complex: they face both the potential of empowerment and further marginalisation. Consequently, ICT4D warrants further critical attention.

This research uses the case study of Gondar, a city in the Amhara region of Ethiopia, to analyse the gender dimension of ICT4D. Despite the mainstreaming of both gender and ICTs into development policy, Ethiopia continues to remain one of the least connected countries in the world (ITU, 2011), and suffers from some of the lowest gender equality performance indicators in sub-Saharan Africa (UNWOMEN, 2013). Contrary to the technologically deterministic accounts of ICT4D, I argue that’s the potential for ICT-enabled empowerment is heavily contingent on the context within which ICTs are implemented (Arun, Heeks, and Morgan, 2004). Therefore, through analysing the existing inequalities within Ethiopian society, this research contends that ICTs are socially deterministic tools that produce varied implications for both men and women.

Within the field of ICT4D, there is a dearth of research actually conducted within immediate local contexts (Isaacs, 2002). Therefore, many of the claims made about women’s (and men’s) engagements with ICTs are conjectured and unsubstantiated. I argue that this has propagated a conviction in ICT4D that is detached from local realities, and thus serves to homogenise the diverse experiences of men and women in developing countries. Over the course of two months, I ran two ICT classes for students and teachers in Gondar. This situated my study within the parameters of educational contexts, and lent an ethnographic approach, providing the nuanced empirical data that ICT4D has traditionally lacked. Furthermore, ICT4D has assumed gender to be synonymous with women. Thus, relatively little research has addressed the role of men, or concentrated on the specifics of gender relations and ICTs (Arun, Heeks and Morgan, 2004). Consequently this study focuses not on women per se, but on gender relations and their embeddedness within a broader structural landscape (Gillard et al, 2007:5).

Although there are numerous material artefacts associated with ICTs, I will focus primarily on the use of computers and the internet. In light of these parameters, this research aims to address the following questions:

1. What are the main obstacles affecting engagement with ICTs in Gondar?
2. Are women in Gondar disproportionately affected by the digital divide, if so, how do these gendered barriers relate to other factors affecting ICT access?
3. How do individuals in Gondar negotiate the (gendered) digital divide, and how do their realities compare to the ICT4D empowerment discourse?

To tackle these questions, I will first give a conceptual overview of the theories surrounding ICT4D. This involves scrutinising the development goal that ICT4D aspires to, and examining how gender is framed in the literature. Secondly, using Kleine’s (2013) ‘choice framework’, I posit that the concept of empowerment in ICT4D could be improved by focusing on individuals and structures in tandem. The third chapter details how this approach was operationalised through ethnographic methods. Chapter four reflects on the insights gained from these methods to show the structural inequalities in politics, education and space have produced an uneven landscape of ICT access. This is followed with a discussion of the gendered barriers to ICT and the heterogeneity of women’s experiences. Finally, Chapter six argues that these multifarious constraints to ICTs are navigated by individuals in unique ways, revealing a digital ‘spectrum’ rather than a monochromatic divide (Lenhart and Horrigan, 2003).

ICT usage represents a social reality, thus the barriers to technology symbolise a microcosm of existing inequalities. Failure to acknowledge the relational nature of these inequalities in ICT4D risks the further marginalisation of individuals in the developing world.

Chapter One: Conceptual Field

The academic field of development is dynamic, constantly evolving and contested. However, the intellectual endeavour of ICT4D is lagging behind (Kleine, 2013), often focusing on the practical application of ICT4D, rather than theory (Heffernan, Lin and Thomson, 2012). Previous studies have typically collated secondary evidence sourced selectively from the reports of governments and development agencies, or the projects of NGOs. Thus, I argue that practitioners need to engage with contemporary theory to avoid the possibility of entrenching existing digital divides (Heffernan, Lin & Thomson, 2012). This requires a “step back from the frenetic speed of technological innovation” and an attempt to “understand the underlying principles and recurring patterns in this story of change” (Kleine, 2013:2).

This section will serve three purposes:

1) To integrate ICT4D theory and practice
2) To situate ICT4D in the broader theories of development, gender and empowerment
3) To introduce new literature that has reconceptualised ICT4D and empowerment

The ‘D’ in ICT4D: tied to technological determinism and economic growth

First and foremost, any research located in the contested intellectual space that is ‘development’ fundamentally needs to address what is meant by the term itself (Kleine, 2010:108). In the broadest sense, the field of development has demonstrated a shift from top-down, modernist approaches centred on economic growth, to bottom-up practices recognising the need for social goals addressing inequality and uneven development (ibid).

While the field of development has evolved significantly both in academic and practical spheres, much of the ICT4D rhetoric remains tied to modernist theories of technological determinism and economic growth. Technological determinism defends the idea that “technology leads to social change and increases opportunities, and that the absence of technologies leads to constraints” (Litho, 2005:1; Heap et al, 1995). This has been critiqued by social constructivist theories, which argue that development does not result from the existence of technologies alone. Rather, structural factors such as institutions, policies and norms can aid or constrain ICT access, and subsequent development outcomes. However, in the field of ICT4D, technologies continue to be presented in a reductionist manner as a panacea for development. Moreover, the measures that quantify ICT4D success are directly premised upon growth: increased GDP, internet penetration rates and computers per household. This is fundamentally detached from the social fabric and the impact of structures (Litho, 2005; Raiti, 2007).

Thus, ICT4D has not evolved to keep pace with bottom-up theories of development that address individuals and the landscape they are embedded in. Instead, ICT4D echoes “a pattern familiar to the heyday of modernization theory, which advocated technological modernisation as the way to development” (Kleine, 2013:19; Rostow, 1960).

Gender in ICT4D: “Add women and stir”

Women in developing countries are in the deepest part of the digital divide, and ICTs are thought to be empowering tools that can enhance women’s opportunities (Hafkin & Taggart, 2001). This has been the dominant framing of gender in ICT4D. I argue that although this is valid, greater attention needs to be paid to the potential of ICTs as disempowering tools that entrench existing inequalities and further marginalise women (Tambulasi, 2009; Hafkin & Taggart, 2002, Stahl, 2008).

In the development literature, gender studies have progressed from the ‘women in development’ (WID) approach, that called for the mainstreaming of women’s issues in development (Boserup, 1970), to ‘gender and development’ (GAD) which argues for the involvement of men and sees gender as a dynamic social construct (Chant, 2000; Moser, 1993). The WID era can be aligned with the emergence of the ‘women in technology’ approach, which focuses primarily on women’s exclusion from technology, though takes a gender-neutral view of ICTs themselves (Henwood, 1993). The practical application of this theory has involved increasing female participation through improved access and equal opportunities policies (Morgan, Heeks, Arun, 2004; Wood, 1999). This has served to arbitrarily ‘tick’ women off the checklist of policy, but has not addressed the wider structures and the cultural landscape that shape how women in developing world interact with ICTs.

A wealth of literature has attended to the ways in which gendered norms, burdens and resources directly influence women’s access to ICTs (Arun, Heeks & Morgan, 2004b; Hafkin and Taggart, 2001; Buskens and Webb, 2008). Societal and familial expectations of women have traditionally restricted women’s time, and in turn their opportunities for both education and technology (O.Agbonlahor in Archibald et al, 2006). In addition to gendered levels of access, critics such as Hafkin and Taggart (2001) have asserted that ICTs themselves are not gender neutral or socially neutral. They have emerged out of social processes and choice negotiations “that are designed in the interest of a particular social group and against the interest of others” (Litho, 2005). Over time, this has established technology as a masculine space (Dlodlo, 2009). Therefore, the empowering benefits of ICTs for women and girls are often limited by cultures within society and technology itself.

The framing of gender in ICT4D continues homogenise women by using a WID approach (Heeks, 2008). Women and girls are clustered together as a homogenous group, portrayed as innately disadvantaged, excluded from technology, and in need of ‘empowering’ ICT4D interventions. Women continue to be treated passive recipients of technology rather than active participants in the knowledge society (Hafkin and Huyer, 2006). This has neglected women’s agency and has served to exacerbate a ‘masculine’ culture that surrounds technology. Furthermore, in treating third world women as a coherent group, other inequalities such as class are also rendered invisible. In addition, the failing within ICT4D to adopt a GAD approach has meant that gender is perceived as synonymous with women. Males have been blindly treated as the privileged group with an innate advantage to less restricted ICT access. I argue that this is equally homogenising and serves to mask the inequalities experienced by men in the developing world.

Diluted Empowerment

Since the advent of ICT4D in the 1990s, the term ‘empowerment’ has been used repeatedly to describe the effects of ICTs on women in the developing world. The concept is founded in the ability of individuals to “maximise the opportunities available to them without or despite constraints of structure and State” (Rowlands, 1995:102). However, “empowerment as a term, has gone from bad (being underdefined and overused in academic discourse) to worse, (being underdefined and overused in policy and public discourse)” (Kleine, 2013:31). The use of the term in relation to ICTs, women and development has been deliberately vague and sloganising (see Action Aid, 2004; Rowlands, 1995;). A lack of definition has therefore resulted in a number of contradictions.

Contradiction 1: The term ‘empowerment’ is historically rooted in gender studies and associated with a commitment to power analysis and social change (Kleine, 2013:34). Empowerment theories were therefore thought to offer a much needed social dimension to development, a field which has typically been measured in terms of economic growth. Yet within ICT4D literature, narratives remain centred on the idea of economic empowerment, assuming that power is gained through the economic strength associated with ICT skills (Everts, 1998; Asiedu in McGovern & Walliman 2009).

Contradiction 2: Empowerment is fundamentally linked to increasing opportunities at the individual level, encouraging men and women to develop the knowledge, skills and self-confidence to control their lives (Parpart, 2002; Kleine, 2013). However, it is also conceptualised as a collective praxis for development and a metaphor for wider social transformation (Craig & Mayo, 1995). This perspective contradicts the supposed ‘individual’ aspect of empowerment: in the pursuit of an idealised collective development goal, the unique aspirations and choices of individuals are overlooked.

In spite of the contradictions that surround the use of ‘empowerment’, the fundamental values it represents should not be ignored: “as a term focusing on individuals’ power to shape their own lives, it is too precious to be abandoned.” (Kleine, 2013:31).


Excerpt out of 56 pages


Remote Connections to Empowerment
Navigating the Gendered Digital Divide in Gondar, Ethiopia
University of Cambridge
BA Geography - Gender and Development
1st Class with Distinction(93%)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
13397 KB
This dissertation explores the gender dimension to ICT4D within Northern Ethiopia. It specifically focuses on the multi-faceted barriers to ICT access, and the resulting effect this has upon the social landscape. The dissertation was submitted for a BA in Geography at the University of Cambridge, and was marked at 93%. The dissertation has since won the nationally prestigious Gladstone Memorial Prize, the William Vaughan Lewis Prize, the Jessie Forbes Prize, the Eleanor Sidgwick Memorial Prize, and was nominated for the RGS Gender and Feminist Geography Research Group Dissertation Prize
ICT, gender, geography, human geography, gender geography, feminist geography, ICT4D, development, development geography, ICT access, barriers to ICT, digital divide, women, Africa, Ethiopia, Gondar, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, Alice Apsey, 1st Class, Gladstone Memorial Prize, Jessie Forbes Prize, William Vaughan Lewis Prize, Eleanor Sidgwick Memorial Prize, International Development, African Women and ICTs, Buskens and Webb, Hafkin and Taggart, empowerment, disempowerment, ICT education, Amhara, inequality
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Alice Apsey (Author), 2014, Remote Connections to Empowerment, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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