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The terms and conditions, sometimes referred to as terms of service," are rules and regulations governing the contractual relationship between a service provider and a user of a service. Digital economy platforms have terms of service that workers must accept in order to begin working. These terms purport to govern issues such as how and when platform workers will be paid, how work will be evaluated, and what resources workers have (or do not have) when things go wrong. The big question that arises is: to what extent have gender issues and African women’s concerns relating to the digital economy been incorporated into the terms of service and platform policy documents?
The digital economy is open to all genders, and women entrepreneurs are using social media and digital platforms to make money, as some work from home while others must move around their cities and towns. African women, for example, can now drive professionally on ride-hailing platforms like Uber and Bolt, as they appreciate the flexibility these platforms provide for them during and outside working hours. These platforms also help female entrepreneurs manage successful online businesses while balancing their personal lives. African women are competent but are inadequately represented in the digital economy. Women drivers are not ubiquitous, particularly on digital platforms on the African continent.
Digital platforms have some progressive provisions in their terms of service, but they do not explicitly address gender and women-related issues. For example, both Uber and Bolt in South Africa and Kenya, respectively, introduced features in their apps that provide women drivers with the option of being chosen by fellow women passengers. However, for Bolt, there is an added fee to use this feature. Users avoid this feature because of this extra fee, which causes economic segregation, yet platforms should be inclusive, accessible, and affordable, which is crucial for women's empowerment.
Many women drivers are often victims of sexual harassment and impropriety. Is sexual misconduct and sexual assault included in the terms and conditions, which are very explicit about the sexual harassment African women drivers experience? For example, women drivers have had male clients repeatedly call and text them after rides, apparently mistaking their customer care and friendliness for flirting. In platform community guidelines, for example, the clause on sexual assault does not explicitly state whether this is when with the driver or rider on the trip or whether it also takes into account sexual assault after the trip given that both the rider and the driver retain each other's contacts.
Women face barriers as transportation service providers, ranging from underrepresentation across the sector to widespread safety and security concerns. Do T&Cs have clauses on the safety of women drivers, especially those who want to drive at night when the risks of carjacking and robbery are higher? Can women drivers in ride-hailing businesses cancel trips if they feel insecure or suspicious of the client without penalty or any effect on their cancellation record? Some women drivers avoid driving at night, which causes them to earn less than their male counterparts, as the trip fares during the night are usually higher.
On most platforms the T&Cs clause on costs states that a driver is obliged to provide and maintain all equipment and means that are necessary to perform the transportation services at their own expense, including a smartphone, and to pay all costs they incur in the course of performing the transportation services, including but not limited to mobile data plan costs. They go on to add that apps consume large amounts of data, so drivers need to subscribe to a data plan with unlimited or very high data usage capacity. These are terms given to women on a continent where there is a wide digital gender gap, unequal access to digital technologies, and low digital literacy—a significant hurdle to women’s participation in gig work. Women are therefore less likely to own mobile phones and devices and, later on, afford internet bundles, largely due to socio-cultural restrictions. To address this issue, some platforms could suggest affirmative action and thus offer their own devices to women joining their platform to work with them.
Currently, it may be fair to argue that most digital economies across the African continent have not yet fully embraced gender mainstreaming. What exists are broad terms of service without provisions that address women’s specific concerns with regard to employment in the digital economy as well as access, safety, and security. Understanding and providing for women’s mobility needs requires a very clear gender lens. Thus, deliberate efforts should be made to include issues specific to women in the digital economy. The situation could be even better if more governments recognized the opportunities presented by these platforms and supported their female-led initiatives, as well as encouraged digital economy platforms to make and uphold gender-inclusive policies to support women using their platforms.