Thandeka Moyo-Ndlovu, Chronicle Reporter
MOBILE internet and data usage went up by about 43 percent in Zimbabwe due to the outbreak of the deadly Covid-19 pandemic last year.
The pandemic also pushed up internet usage worldwide by up to 73 percent as masses were forced to migrate to online platforms for school, business, entertainment and pleasure to curb the spread of the virus.
While an increase in internet and data usage can be celebrated as a step towards development, the advancement exposed a massive resource constraint among thousands who have no access to gadgets, network and money to purchase internet bundles.
The most affected are the rural folk who found themselves cut from economic, political and social activities because they have no means whatsoever to be online.
With imposed lockdowns which ban gatherings and travel, Covid-19 also worsened resource challenges that have always been faced by women in politics especially those in rural areas.
Job cuts, closure of small to medium companies and the informal sector left many others without access to basics like food and medication.
Now that everything has moved online, only a handful of women are able to keep afloat with expectations from their constituents as they too cannot afford internet charges.
Despite socio-economic challenges brought by Covid-19, service providers have been hiking prices ever since lockdown putting data and internet bundles out of reach for thousands.
In September 2020 data bundle tariffs were reviewed upwards and Econet subscribers are expected to pay $13 (about US$1.5) for a daily 20-megabyte (MB) data bundle, up from $8, while 100MB of monthly data bundles have been adjusted from $42 to $67.
Econet’s monthly 8G private Wi-Fi bundle was reviewed to $960 from $1 300.
NetOne proceeded to hike prices by almost 200 percent meaning its subscribers are now paying $16 for a 20MB daily bundle and $100 for a weekly 150MB bundle.
Telecel is charging $15 for daily 50MB bundles and $100 for a monthly 220MB bundle.
Women in politics have described the migration to online as a stumbling block since many already had financial challenges prior to the pandemic.
Nkayi North legislator Ms Stars Mathe said more than half of people in Matabeleland North have no access to the network, which means they have been missing out on the online general developmental activities.
She said that she has spent the greater part of her 54 years in Nkayi where she comes from and has also faced a number of resource challenges as a politician.
“The journey hasn’t been easy because it is not easy leading if you are a woman who does not have any economic means to finance a political career for starters. It is hard to get resources as empowerment has always been biased towards men from the olden days and with Covid-19 the situation has worsened,” she said.
Ms Mathe said many women do not have basics to sustain themselves and families hence political participation becomes a mountain to climb.
Women in rural settings do not even own cell phones that enable them to use the internet as their measly resources are often used for food and clothing says Ms Mathe.
For her, lack of access to information and communication technologies is the reason some parents failed to help their children with school work since the outbreak of Covid-19.
“Besides finding resources to interact with our people online and follow proceedings during this pandemic, the truth is only a handful of women have mines or farms to finance campaigns,” she added.
“Sometimes asking for handouts from men exposes us to a danger of being labelled as desperate because men think that women who want their money are interested in intimate relationships as well. Going to other women is hard as well as many of us still struggle to support each other,” she said.
Gender activist Mrs Sibusisiwe Bhebhe said despite the impact of Covid-19, women in politics have been victims of external and internal forces which affect their participation.
“For starters a woman must have vast sources of income to travel and campaign while she remains visible to her constituents. It is only those politicians that have big cars who are deemed capable and useful as we live in materialistic communities,” she said.
“They expect the MP to give them lifts and bring donations whenever they can which means even prospective females must secure resources to go around campaigning even before they are elected. Many women do not have those resources hence it is a struggle to make it,” she added.
For her, Covid-19 has left many women with no means of a livelihood hence data and internet usage become a luxury for the rich.
Despite the fact that parliamentarians are elected to make laws, Mrs Bhebhe said society still expects politicians to run around and bring donations for constituents.
“A lot of women may be vocal in parliament but because they do have resources to run around, they may be dismissed as useless politicians. Women are also raised to think men are the only capable leaders which explains why some do not have confidence in themselves and their ability to bring about the much-needed change,” added Mrs Bhebhe.
Women’s Action Group executive director, Mrs Edna Masiyiwa said the pandemic has affected most of the decision-making positions.
She noted that the situation is worse for unemployed women who relied on the informal sector.
“For women in politics the issue of data and online meetings has been a challenge as one needs to be well versed with technology so that you can navigate some of these platforms and have online meetings and participate fully. The issue of capacity to use the gadgets is a challenge as well,” said Mrs Masiyiwa.
She said the pandemic could have worsened resource challenges for many women especially those in politics.
“I want to talk about network problems and these pause challenges when meetings are conducted online. Before we go onto issues on data, we need to address access to resources challenge which is the reason why many women are not actively involved in politics,” she said.
Contacted for comment, Information and Communication Technologies, Postal and Courier Services Deputy Minister Mr Dingumuzi Phuti said Covid-19 came earlier than the country’s preparedness in terms of ICT services.
“Government has a deliberate approach to ensure that everyone is connected and we are already working with different players to ensure members of the public have access to network. However, this pandemic also challenges us Ministry to look into gender dynamics and ensure women have access so that they participate in all economic and political activities in the country,” he said.
Mr Phuti said he was aware that data charges are hindering many especially women from actively participating in politics.
“The truth is women are so organized and it is pity that they have been lagging behind in terms of access to ICTs but it is something that I intend to work on. We are also passionate about empowering young women whom we know are involved in village banking and other powerful programmes whose growth will be enabled by access to ICTs,” he added.