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The Digital Gender Divide: “The digital space must undergo a feminist revolution”

[1]


International Women’s Day (IWD) is celebrated annually on 8 March, and this year’s theme is DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality. This theme is linked to the 67th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW67, held from 6-17 March 2023), which in turn has the theme of “Innovation and technological change, and education in the digital age for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls”. The theme was chosen because of the opportunities that digital technologies present for women, and on the flip side, the existence of the digital gender divide.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights recognizes the “transformative power of digital technology to connect, mobilize, and drive social change, while fighting against the persistent pushback of women’s rights.” He provided examples of how women and girls have been using social media, like Greta Thunberg, to draw attention to issues like climate change, the women and girls in Colombia and Ireland who started online campaigns to repeal anti-abortion laws. He also mentioned the use of social media by young Iranian women, to challenge patriarchal norms and demand equality, similar to Sudanese women who used online tools to mobilize protests against religious fundamentalism. He also noted, however, that digital exclusion and gender-based violence prevent women’s access to digital technology, and maintained that “The digital space must undergo a feminist revolution.” [2]


SDG 5 focuses on achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment, and this year’s IWD theme (DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality) fits perfectly with this SDG Goal.


Over the globe, the digital divide has affected girls and women disproportionately. Worldwide, 37% of women do not use the internet, so 259 million fewer women have access to the Internet than men. [3] 44.2 per cent of 133 AI systems across industries have demonstrated gender bias [4] and women hold just 22% of jobs in artificial intelligence. In Sub-Saharan Africa, there is a 37% gender gap in the use of mobile internet services, with more than 190 million women not using mobile internet services. [6] Only 54% of women in Asia and the Pacific have digital access. [7] Moreover, anonymity and lack of accountability in online spaces result in more forms of violence against women; [8] in fact a study cited by UN Women noted that 38 per cent of women have personally experienced online violence. [9] There is discrimination and bias in the tech sector that cause and strengthen gender inequality. Laws and regulations to protect privacy and rights are inadequate. [10]


Women in rural areas face even more difficulties and disadvantages in accessing information and digital technologies. They are more constrained by issues of affordability, illiteracy, digital skills and discriminatory social norms. [11]


As noted by the FAO, the obstacles preventing women’s access to digital technologies include the high cost of devices and data plans together with women’s lower financial capacity to pay for digital access, low female literacy (including digital literacy), ID requirements, risk of online abuse, and the lack of content and services specifically designed for women.” [12] Other causes include deep-rooted discriminatory social norms; gender-based violence; and unequal distribution of unpaid housework which leaves women with less time to access digital technology. [13]


The effect of the digital gender gap

Lack of access to digital technology leads to less participation and input from women, girls and other marginalized groups, which means their voices are not heard. “Gender-responsive digital technology represents an unprecedented opportunity for the global empowerment of women, to eliminate all forms of disparity and inequality in the digital age, and to transform innovation ecosystems.” [14]


Moreover, digital skills and tools are increasingly essential to access health, education, social protections, and financial services. Digital technologies with corresponding digital skills are increasingly required for jobs, and with women lagging in acquiring these skills, this results in less jobs for women. The Global System for Mobile Communications Association found that over a five-year period, closing the gender gap in mobile internet use in low and middle-income countries could generate an additional $700 billion in GDP growth. [15] Citing recent data, UN Women said that not including women in the digital world has caused losses of USD 1 trillion from the gross domestic product of low- and middle-income countries in the last decade, and if action is not taken, the loss is likely to reach USD 1.5 trillion by 2025. [16]


“Women’s economic empowerment, in conjunction with girls’ education, family planning, reproductive and sexual health, and reduced child marriage, can facilitate the transition to low-carbon economies, help improve resource use, and assist in lowering environmental damage and land fragmentation, as well as increase resilience.” [17] Advancements in digital technology, and women having access to these technologies will help achieve the SDGs. “The need for inclusive and transformative technology and digital education is therefore crucial for a sustainable future.” [18]


What is being done to address the digital gender divide?

Various activities conducted by different agencies and governments have been addressing the digital gender divide.

Efforts are being made to encourage girls to study STEM subjects, which would help in increasing the number of women who could work in technology. This includes changing the way STEM subjects are taught and establishing specific programs targeted toward girls. In Vietnam, for example, the National Early Childhood curriculum has been revised by the Ministry of Education and Training with the purpose of “de-stereotyping” women and girls. [19]


The UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) has created the Catalyzing Women’s Entrepreneurship project, which have made technology solutions such as payment platforms, online markets, bookkeeping and inventory management more available to women. [20]


The World Bank (WB) has been taking steps to close the digital gender divide which:

  • Support affordable and inclusive internet access for all through projects that address accessible pricing, subsidies for women’s access to devides, coverage in remote areas and safe and accessible public access centers;

  • Push for more sex disaggregated data;

  • Build digital skills tailored to women’s needs and interests;

  • Support digitally enabled firms with funding, networks/market access, and skills tailored to women; and

  • Improve accessibility of products and services (including government services) through digital identification (ID).

In Rwanda, the WB is involved in a financing scheme intended to improve women’s access to smartphones. It includes women-centered digital skills training, which takes into account issues concerning women (suitable times, locations and childcare). It also includes mentorship programs and early-stage financing for women entrepreneurs, as well as technical assistance to the industry regulator so it can collect sex-disaggregated ICT data on access and use. In Somalia, the WB is financing a project to address the issue of lack of identification documents that prevent access to financial services, which affects more Somali women than men. While in Ethiopia the Africa Gender Innovation Lab (supported by the WB) creates and evaluates digital tools to support female entrepreneurs. There is also a phone-based platform that provides business advice for women and helps make digital tools more accessible. [21]


The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has been promoting digital technologies that support women, through the following initiatives: the International Platform for Digital Food and Agriculture, FAO Digital Portfolio, E-Agriculture Community of Practice, and the 1000 Digital Villages. FAO established an Office of Innovation which created the Global Network on Digital Agriculture and Innovation Hubs to support its members to foster innovation within their digital agriculture ecosystem, with a special focus on women and young agripreneurs. In April, FAO will release a report on the Status of Women in Agrifood Systems, which will provide evidence on how empowering women can address food insecurity and make agrifood systems more resilient and sustainable. [22]


The World Food Programme (WFP) has been working on digital financial literacy to increase communities’ skills, improve their livelihoods and access to financial services and tools, which will result in stronger food security. Through cash-based transfer programs, WFP seeks to directly address barriers to digital and financial services caused by socio-cultural norms and gender-based stereotypes. Through digital and financial literacy training and working with community champions, women are able to open their own banking, mobile money or other digital accounts. [23]


The World Health Organization has launched digital health and information platforms intended to “improve health outcomes for women and girls and enhance their autonomy and privacy – they enable informed health decision-making, improve access to health services, therapies and medicines, and increase awareness about women’s rights, including sexual and reproductive health and rights.” The initiatives include self-care interventions, the WHO Women’s Health Chatbot on Viber and Florence, WHO’S first virtual health worker. WHO also created a learning platform to increase the number of women in the health workforce; OpenWHO offers courses in public health in 65 languages. [24]


In Ghana, a project on app-based drone delivery of livestock vaccines will help women overcome gender norms, which prohibit women farmers from approaching male veterinarians, while in Rwanda, Radio Listeners Clubs helped more women have access to information on climate and other issues affecting smallholder farmers. In Tanzania, a social media campaign called Heroine Girl (#BintiShujaaz) was able to showcase examples of young women engaged in agri-businesses. [25]


Footnotes

[1] Quote from the current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. HC: The digital space must undergo a feminist revolution, UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, March 2023, https://www.ohchr.org/en/get-involved/stories/hc-digital-space-must-undergo-feminist-revolution

[2] Ibid

[3] International Women’s Day: Innovation and technology for gender equality, 8 March 2023, at https://unric.org/en/international-womens-day-2023/

[4] Press release: International Women’s Day spotlights massive costs to GDP and innovation caused by the exclusion of women from the digital world, 8 March 2023, https://www.unwomen.org/en/news-stories/press-release/2023/03/press-release-international-womens-day-spotlights-massive-costs-to-gdp-and-innovation-caused-by-the-exclusion-of-women-from-the-digital-world

[5] International Women’s Day: Innovation and technology for gender equality, UNRIC, 8 March 2023, at https://unric.org/en/international-womens-day-2023/

[6] Accelerating Gender Equality: Let’s Make Digital Technology Work for All, Victoria Kwakwa, March 07, 2023 https://blogs.worldbank.org/africacan/accelerating-gender-equality-lets-make-digital-technology-work-all

[7] Harnessing the Digital Age to Empower Women and Girls, Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana 8 March 2023 Guest Article: Harnessing the Digital Age to Empower Women and Girls | SDG Knowledge Hub | IISD

[8] International Women’s Day: Innovation and technology for gender equality, 8 March 2023, at https://unric.org/en/international-womens-day-2023/

[9] International Women’s Day 2023: “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality”, UN Women, 22 December 2022, https://www.unwomen.org/en/news-stories/announcement/2022/12/international-womens-day-2023-digitall-innovation-and-technology-for-gender-equality

[10] International Women’s Day: Innovation and technology for gender equality, UNRIC, 8 March 2023, at https://unric.org/en/international-womens-day-2023/

[11] International Women’s Day 2023: Bridging the digital gender divide is essential for unleashing women’s potential in rural areas, say UN food and agriculture agencies, UN FAO, 8 March 2023, https://www.wfp.org/news/international-womens-day-2023-bridging-digital-gender-divide-essential-unleashing-womens citing Investing in information and communication technologies to reach gender equality and empower rural women, https://www.fao.org/publications/card/en/c/CA4182EN/ , 2019.

[12] International Women’s Day 2023: Accelerating Equality and Empowerment, World Bank,

[13] Harnessing the Digital Age to Empower Women and Girls, Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana 8 March 2023 Guest Article: Harnessing the Digital Age to Empower Women and Girls | SDG Knowledge Hub | IISD According to this article, in Kenya, 54% of women said affordability was the main barrier to getting a mobile phone. In Uganda, 45% of women (compared to only 8% of men) of men experienced online harassment, bullying or stalking. While data on digital skills are limited, women are only 30% of tertiary ICT graduates in the Eastern and Southern Africa countries where data is available.

[14] Press release: International Women’s Day spotlights massive costs to GDP and innovation caused by the exclusion of women from the digital world, 8 March 2023, https://www.unwomen.org/en/news-stories/press-release/2023/03/press-release-international-womens-day-spotlights-massive-costs-to-gdp-and-innovation-caused-by-the-exclusion-of-women-from-the-digital-world

[15] International Women’s Day 2023: Accelerating Equality and Empowerment

[16] Ibid

[17] Accelerating Gender Equality: Let’s Make Digital Technology Work for All, Victoria Kwakwa, March 07, 2023

[18] International Women’s Day 2023: “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality”, UN Women, 22 December 2022, https://www.unwomen.org/en/news-stories/announcement/2022/12/international-womens-day-2023-digitall-innovation-and-technology-for-gender-equality

[19] Harnessing the Digital Age to Empower Women and Girls, Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, 8 March 2023, Guest Article: Harnessing the Digital Age to Empower Women and Girls | SDG Knowledge Hub | IISD

[20] Ibid

[21] Accelerating Gender Equality: Let’s Make Digital Technology Work for All, Victoria Kwakwa, 7 March 2023, https://blogs.worldbank.org/africacan/accelerating-gender-equality-lets-make-digital-technology-work-all

[22] International Women’s Day 2023: Bridging the digital gender divide is essential for unleashing women’s potential in rural areas, say UN food and agriculture agencies, UN FAO, 8 March 2023, https://www.wfp.org/news/international-womens-day-2023-bridging-digital-gender-divide-essential-unleashing-womens

[23] International Women’s Day 2023: Bridging the digital gender divide is essential for unleashing women’s potential in rural areas, say UN food and agriculture agencies, UN FAO, 8 March 2023, https://www.wfp.org/news/international-womens-day-2023-bridging-digital-gender-divide-essential-unleashing-womens

[25] Gender Insights, Opinion: Forget ChatGPT – the greatest tech breakthrough would be getting cell phones to rural women, Nicoline de Haan, 6 March 2023, https://gender.cgiar.org/news/opinion-forget-chatgpt-greatest-tech-breakthrough-would-be-getting-cell-phones-rural-women

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