Role of Epistemic Data Justice in Data Governance for Rural Women in Africa

Role of Epistemic Data Justice in Data Governance for Rural Women in Africa


Women make up about 50% of the population in Africa.1 70% to 80% of these women live in rural areas. Rural women possess unique knowledge about agriculture and food production, environmental conservation, medicine, energy production, and artisanal mining. Rural women in Kenya, for instance, have unique traditional knowledge about crafts, agriculture, medicine, and other ways of life. In Tanzania, rural women have traditional knowledge about agriculture and environmental protection. Experiences in Uganda and Malawi also mirror this pattern.2 In some cases, knowledge of rural women is passed to them by their female ancestors. In other cases, they acquire the knowledge in construed social contexts3 guiding their life.4

Overall, the knowledge of these rural women influences their participation in the economy, making them stand out in contributing to development. The knowledge also informs women’s personalities when their traditional understanding is baked into data systems or replaced by other new ones. For these reasons, Article 19(d) of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa envisages that digital developments should be mainstreamed to reach rural women. Article 18(2)(c) of the Protocol further emphasizes that a healthy and sustainable development in respect of women in Africa should respect and develop indigenous knowledge systems of rural women. Realizing the Protocol’s objectives ideally requires developers and implementers of digital technologies to be mindful of rural women’s knowledge context.

Contrary to the ideal situation, however, there are recorded instances where digital initiatives intended to positively impact rural women in Kenya and elsewhere backfire. The backfiring occurs when developers of digital technologies disregard data created through rural women’s ways of knowing by considering them primitive or non-rational and, therefore, unworthy of being baked into digital systems.5 Developers of agricultural technologies could disregard rural women’s traditional knowledge about plant varieties and systems. Developers of medicinal technologies could also ignore rural women’s traditional knowledge of medicine when adopting Western classification of health information, for example. The developers could also aggregate women’s knowledge about medicine and agriculture, erasing their unique ways of knowing. Boaventura and Nabudere refer to these forms of disregard as ‘the killing of knowledge systems’. The disregard could lead to miscalculation or misjudging risks that the technologies pose to rights of the concerned rural women. Besides, the disregard causes rural women’s knowledge to be invisible and unrepresented in data systems.6

Therefore, implementing digital initiatives in rural women’s contexts in Kenya and Tanzania raises justice issues such as legitimacy of contexts and lived realities, visibility, representation, and equality. The Tanzania Digital Rights Report 2020 has shown that the initiatives could also raise ethical inclusion issues. Though these issues are present, they are rarely discussed compared to other structural and access factors concerning rural women in the digital age.

Epistemic data justice aims to make rural women’s knowledge visible and ensure they are represented and treated fairly in data systems7 in two main ways. Firstly, the concept recognizes knowledge as a way of making sense of one’s social experience.8 Secondly, it recognizes that rural women have legitimate desires and the ability to think and know based on their experiences. 9 This blog article highlights the primary role of knowledge context and epistemic data justice in data governance for rural women in Africa. It demonstrates how the framework of epistemic data justice in Africa could address the justice and ethical issues arising from the epistemic bias that rural women experience in Kenya and Tanzania.

Why Special Knowledge of Rural Women Matters for Data Governance

For four main reasons, rural women of Africa matter as creators, custodians, and transmitters of traditional knowledge. Firstly, there is a gender perspective to their knowledge. A Food and Agriculture Organization study in the State of Mali in Africa has shown that gender roles and relations impact women’s knowledge of agriculture, a sector that is the backbone of economies in Kenya and Tanzania. Gender roles could influence their inadequate or lack of access, voice, power, status, control, relations, and resource-ownership in a society. These realities, with their limitations, then dictate their ways of knowing.10 Recent studies have shown that the limitations could potentially cause rural women to be left behind in digital development.11

Secondly, there is legitimacy of knowledge that rural women obtain in their lived experiences or inherit from their female ancestors.12 The knowledge causes them to have insights into what prepositions and ways of life they consider valid or evident.13 They also have interests in sustaining and preserving such knowledge, protecting it against unwarranted influence, and negotiating fairly when digital systems replace the knowledge.

Thirdly, women are significant in numbers. The predominant African rural population is reflected in average State-level statistics. The highest percentage is in Burundi at 85% and the lowest in Gabon at 9%. The rural population in Tanzania is estimated to be 63% and is rated slightly higher in Kenya at 71%. Knowledge systems of rural women that account for 70% of these populations14 is, therefore, key.

Lastly, the right of inherent human dignity and the right to hold and express opinions protect rural women’s knowledge. These rights are provided for in Articles 5 and 9(2) of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights 1981 and the Declaration on Principles of Freedom of Expression in Africa.

Threats to Rural Women’s Way of Knowing and Data Governance Challenges

Digital initiatives can only empower rural women15 if the design and implementation of digital technologies in all sectors consider their knowledge and underlying beliefs and perceptions.16 Furthermore, the design and implementation should ensure fairness by effectively balancing justifications for the digital revolution with rural women’s knowledge claims, without any rush. In practice, however, this is not a given due to the following roadblocks that embed epistemic bias against rural women:

  1. Previous research17 and judicial experience in the Nubian Rights Forum case in Kenya have shown that deficiencies in digital infrastructure in rural areas could render knowledge of rural women invisible.

  2. Guidelines on data protection risks safeguards, such as data protection impact assessments under the Kenyan Data Protection Act 2019 and Tanzanian Personal Data Protection (Personal Data Collection and Processing) Regulations 2023, may not adequately capture the unique and invisible data protection risks and risk impacts posed to rural women.

  3. The experience with Worldcoin operations in Kenya has shown how data controllers can potentially abuse the gap between rural women’s traditional knowledge and digital knowledge to circumvent legal requirements for free and informed consent.18

  4. Kenyan and Tanzanian governments19 have a monopoly over information and knowledge. The monopoly is coupled with inadequate transparency about new technologies and cases of insufficient participation of rural women in implementing the technologies. The monopoly and the inadequacies could systematically perpetuate bias against the knowledge systems of rural women.

  5. Some donors and entities design digital developments affecting rural areas with an aim of ‘saving’ rural women from ‘abject poverty.’ This motivation sees rural women as helpless and without knowledge of their own. Therefore, realizing the aim can marginalize women’s knowledge as ‘superstitious, primitive, or non-rational’.20

  6. Developers and implementers of digital technologies may be motivated by colonial, historical, scientific, academic, and literary rationales that disregard the knowledge of rural women21 and their ways of living.22

  7. Complex geopolitical contexts and power imbalances often cause a rush to substitute knowledge of rural women with dominant Western or foreign dictates seen as role models of ‘truth’ and ‘belief’. The substitution risks removing the rural women’s perspectives from data that concerns them.

  8. Power dynamics of society can elevate knowledge propositions or evidence by patriarchal systems, as dominant over that of rural women.

Kenya’s and Tanzania’s digital inclusion reports both recognize the need to address existential threats of epistemic data biases to rural women and their possible negative impacts on data governance.

What Epistemic Data Justice Generally Proposes to Solve the Challenges

Realizing epistemic data justice is an ongoing conversation in Africa. Several African regional data protection instruments already provide for epistemic data justice and promise to address the existential threats and associated challenges to the ways of knowing from social justice and ethical perspectives. They include the Personal Data Protection Guidelines for Africa 2018, which recognizes that data governance mechanisms should appreciate Africa’s unique cultural and geopolitical contexts.23 These contexts cover the realities of rural women in Africa. For its part, the African Union Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection 2014 calls for the adoption of data governance systems that promote and do not undermine or override rural women’s lived realities in their social, economic, legal, and cultural senses.24

Furthermore, Articles 21 and 22 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights 1981 provide that all forms of development, including digital development, should be based on preserving identity and mutual respect for rural women. The AU Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa 2020-2030 addresses inclusion as a guiding principle that envisions digital transformation for everyone.25 It adopts a human-centric approach to digital development and requires that every rural woman be included.26 It explains that the envisaged inclusion means considering the needs, realities, and local contexts of the rural women in Africa.

The African Union Data Policy Framework 2022 expressly recognizes epistemic data justice as key to realizing effective data governance in Africa.27 The instrument requires addressing injustices such as structural inequalities and historical injustices resulting from reliance on data. It also prioritizes fairness to ensure that rural women are visible, represented, and treated equally in handling of their data.28

Overall, this epistemic data justice framework in Africa requires additional implementation of the following principles that guide the path to robust data governance:29

  1. Supporting rural women’s right to form an opinion in digital systems and influence digital technologies from design to implementation. The human rights-based approach, sustainability, digital sovereignty, and self-determination are key to this principle.

  2. Obligating players in the data governance ecosystem to fully embrace the pluralism of knowledge. Considering the knowledge of rural women, including those who are members of marginalized ethnic groups such as the Maasai living in Tanzania and Kenya, is a crucial aspect of this principle.

  3. Adopting both law and practice that ensure control, transparency, and stewardship over the data about rural women in their individual and group capacities.

  4. Creating a mandatory obligation for data controllers, processors, and other key players to consider rural women’s situated knowledge30 to avoid the risk of a single story.

  5. Adopting a bottom-up approach that guarantees meaningful engagement of rural women in the design, roll-out, and implementation of digital technologies. This principle requires experts to step outside their expertise and involve rural women as knowledge creators, custodians, and transmitters when implementing digital technologies impacting rural areas or targeting rural women specifically.

Applying the above five main principles to data governance frameworks promise to cause various players to take steps to understand the knowledge context of rural women when implementing digital technologies that affect ways of life in rural areas. It also invites the players to appreciate the different rural women’s perspectives about nature and scope of risks arising from technologies and risk impacts.


Knowledge context for rural women is double-sided. Either the colonial, historical, patriarchal, and other competing knowledge systems could preserve structures that cause bias against rural women’s knowledge. In other cases, rural women are concerned with fairness in replacing their legitimate and sometimes unique knowledge, passed to them. Both sides of the knowledge context could produce different forms of epistemic bias that negatively impacts data governance for rural women in Africa. This blog article has deduced five principles from the African framework for epistemic data justice. It has also proposed how these principles could tackle the identified data governance challenge of epistemic bias by enhancing visibility, representation, fairness and inclusion of rural women. Overall, the five principles promise to allow rural women to take the driver’s seat in influencing digital developments through their knowledge and insights on what they accept as just.

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1 African Digital Transformation Strategy 2020-2030, p 35.

2 World Bank, ‘Tanzania Gender Assessment’ (2022), p 68.

3 Susan Philipps, ‘Defining and Measuring Gender: A Social Determinant of Health Whose Time Has Come’ (2005) 4(1) International Journal For Equity In Health 1-4 <> accessed 20 February 2024.

4 Canadian Institute of Health Research, ‘What is Gender? What is Sex’ < > accessed 26 February 2024.

5 Dani Nabudere, ‘Ubuntu and Development: Decolonizing Epistemologies’ p 6 <> accessed 26 February 2024; Boaventura De Sousa Santos, Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against the Epistemicide (Routledge 2014) 351 accessed 4 March 2024.

6 Canadian Institute of Health Research, ‘What is Gender? What is Sex’ < > accessed 26 February 2024.

7 Linnet Taylor, ‘What Is Data Justice? The Case for Connecting Digital Rights and Freedoms Globally’ (2017) 4(2) Big Data & Society 1; Silvia Masiero, and Soumyo Das, ‘Datafying Anti-poverty Programmes: Implications for data justice’ (2019) 22(7) Information, Communication & Society 916-933 <> accessed 13 February 2024.

8 Miranda Fricker, Epistemic injustice: Power and the ethics of knowing (Oxford University Press, 2007) p 6.

9 Richard Bowd, ‘Access to Justice in Africa Comparisons between Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Zambia’ (Policy Brief Nr 13, October 2009) <> accessed 13 February 2024.

10 Personal Data Protection Guidelines for Africa 2018, p 5.

11 Vidya Diwakar and Andrew Shepherd, ‘Understanding Poverty in Kenya, ‘A Multidimensional Analysis Report’ (December 2018), pp 8, 25 <> accessed 26 February 2024.

12 Personal Data Protection Guidelines for Africa 2018, p 5.

13 Roderick Chisholm, ‘Theory of Knowledge’, p 100 <> accessed 7 March 2024.

14 African Digital Transformation Strategy 2020-2030, p 10.

15 As envisaged by the African Digital Transformation Strategy, p 36.

16 Food and Agriculture Organization, ‘Chapter II: The Gendered Perspective’ <> accessed 26 February 2024.

17 Sylvia Kang’ara and Mercy King’ori, ‘Data Protection and Privacy: A Gender Perspective (KICTANet Policy Brief, July 2022), p 15.

18 Kenyan Office of the Data Protection Commissioner Determination on Complaint No. 1394 of 2023.

19 Center for Intellectual Property and Information Technology, ‘Advancing Data Justice Research and Practice Project’ p 2 <> accessed 26 February 2024.

20 Dani Nabudere, ‘Ubuntu and Development: Decolonizing Epistemologies’ p 6 <> accessed 26 February 2024; Boaventura De Sousa Santos, Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against the Epistemicide (Routledge 2014) 351 <> accessed 4 March 2024.

21 Adrian Currie, ‘Stepping Forwards by Looking Back: Underdetermination, Epistemic Scarcity and Legacy Data (2021) 29(1) Perspectives on Science, 104-132.

22 Dani Nabudere, ‘Ubuntu and Development: Decolonizing Epistemologies’ p 6 <> accessed 26 February 2024.

23 Personal Data Guidelines for Africa 2018, p 5. Culture, a crucial factor influencing uniqueness, also influences gender roles and gender relations.

24 The AU Convention on Cybersecurity and Personal Data Protection 2014, preamble.

25 AU Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa 2020-2030, pp 6, 18.

26 The Strategy focuses on digital health, digital infrastructure, digital education, digital infrastructure, digital entrepreneurship, and digital ID.

27 Africa Data Policy Framework 2022, part

28 Ibid.

29 GPAI, ‘Data Justice in Practice: A Guide for Developers’ p 11 <> accessed 4 March 2024.

30 GPAI, ‘Data Justice in Practice: A Guide for Developers’ p 11 <> accessed 4 March 2024.

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