Bridging the Gap in Education and Equality
The Day of the African Child is a yearly celebration highlighting the resilience and potential of African children. Every year on June 16, we honour the students who bravely protested against educational injustice and inequality in the apartheid regime, remembering the tragedy that unfolded in Soweto, South Africa, in 1976. Recognized as the Day of the African Child since 1991 by the African Union, this significant occasion brings attention to the importance of safeguarding children’s rights.
This year’s Day of the African Child has a special focus on safeguarding and championing the rights of children in the digital world. With the growing number of children using the Internet, the digital environment holds tremendous potential to provide them with excellent and inclusive education, including distance learning and mobile resources, along with access to valuable information. However, it’s crucial to acknowledge the risks that come hand in hand. Cyberbullying, sextortion, exposure to harmful content, mental health concerns, and data misuse pose significant threats to the well-being, health, and rights of children.
In May 2022, Africa had approximately 590 million users, with an internet penetration rate of 43%. Among these users, children make up a significant portion, representing one-third of all internet users worldwide. This means that they are actively engaging with the virtual world. However, it’s important to note that not all children have access to the internet. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this inequality, particularly for learners in marginalized areas. Many children residing in these areas come from disadvantaged households that lack essential resources like electricity and internet connectivity. Additionally, these households often struggle to afford smartphones, which are fundamental tools for accessing online educational content.
The 2019 Kenya Population and Housing Census revealed that 4.0% of primary school learners and 23.9% of secondary school learners utilize the Internet. However, a significant regional disparity exists between rural and urban areas. In rural regions, only 2.0% of primary school learners have access to the Internet, whereas, in urban areas, the figure rises to 10.3%. These glaring disparities highlight the substantial gap in internet and mobile phone accessibility for low socio-economic households in marginalized areas.
The lack of internet access further hinders the realization of children’s rights in the digital realm. Our work at Men End FGM involves working with communities in rural areas to create an environment where children can flourish and express themselves without being subjected to any form of violence that could impede their potential or harm their well-being. Through my encounters with parents in these areas, their desire is to see their children have access to the internet and learning equipment such as mobile phones and computers, to enable them to experience the same online educational opportunities as children in urban areas.
Unfortunately, this is not the reality for the majority of learners in marginalized areas, as they could not access quality education during the prolonged school closures due to a lack of internet connectivity, poor data transmission and poor infrastructure. Furthermore, the pressing concerns of meeting basic needs often take precedence over digital requirements, making digital access a low priority for these communities.
Bridging this digital divide is crucial to ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting non-discrimination by granting all children equal and effective access to the digital world.
As we celebrate the Day of the African Child, let us remember the importance of protecting and promoting children’s rights in the digital age. While the digital environment offers immense potential, it also poses significant risks. Without adequate protective measures in place, children become more vulnerable to online harm. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to establish the necessary conditions for a safer digital environment. Stakeholders, including parents, educators, and policymakers, play a pivotal role in promoting and safeguarding children’s rights in the digital sphere.
In addition, it is essential to implement policies and other measures that promote affordable internet access. Addressing the disparity in the digital divide is crucial. Children should not only have access to the internet but should also be equipped with digital literacy skills and tools to navigate the online world safely. It is our collective responsibility to bridge the digital divide, ensuring that every child, regardless of their socioeconomic background, has access to inclusive and equitable education.
WUSC, 2020; Engzell et al., 2020
African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) 2020