Towards gender equality: the digital rights of girls and women

The pandemic catalysed a worldwide shift to virtual engagement. But girls and women are still missing out.

Georgina Diaz's picture
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24 January 2022

Georgina Diaz is digital officer in IIED’s Communications group

Woman wearing a blazer checks her mobile phone in the street.

A woman in Kenya checks her mobile phone. Data shows mobiles are the primary way people access the internet, particularly women (Photo: WorldRemit via FlickrCC BY-SA 2.0)

Digital technologies offer immense opportunities for people’s development and societies’ growth. The COVID-19 pandemic pushed us further into the virtual world and many realised the internet’s huge potential not only to help us adapt to crises, but to improve our lives.

But the pandemic also exposed stark inequalities between online and offline populations. Digital ownership, awareness and use are unevenly distributed across countries and socio-economic groups; the internet’s life-enhancing benefits are only available to some.

The digital divide refers to inequalities in resources and capabilities to access and use digital technology. In 2020, 37% of the world’s population – 2.9 billion people – had never used the internet. Low technology access, computer illiteracy, poverty and excessive internet costs are all factors widening this gap.

These obstacles tend to hit rural women from low- and middle-income areas the hardest. This digital gender gap deepens already prevalent gender inequalities across the globe.

Watch an IIED Debates event that explored how to make the digital world more inclusive and close the digital gender gap

The data behind the digital gender gap

Data shows that globally, men are 21% more likely to be online than women, increasing to 52% in the least developed countries (LDCs), where only 19% of women are using the internet.

According to the 2021 Mobile Gender Gap report, mobiles are the primary way people access the internet, particularly women. However, across low- and middle-income countries, an estimated 933 million women are still not using mobile internet, proving that women are 15% less likely to use mobile internet than men.

Gendered stereotypes around men being more suited to using technology may prevent girls and women from using digital tools, fearing a backlash for using tools and services traditionally kept for men. In addition, women are more likely to suffer from online violence and cyberbullying, which can discourage them from participating in online spaces.

This could explain why women in Africa are 50% less likely than men to use the internet for activities that can transform lives – such as finding work and taking online learning classes – according to Onica Makwakwa, head of Africa at the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI).

Without equal access to information and resources, hundreds of millions of women and girls worldwide are missing out on many opportunities such as training courses to learn new skills or start their own businesses, finding better jobs, accessing banking services or participating in a more public life, for example, through social media.

Gender mainstreaming to get women online

Closing the digital gender gap is key to creating more equal societies. To achieve this, governments should start by collecting and analysing gender-disaggregated data. This would help policymakers understand how different people are using the internet and develop technology policies accordingly. Currently, only 24 countries in Africa and Asia collect data in this way.

Training and educating school-age girls -– but also adult women – in digital literacy by prioritising STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, would equip girls with the aptitudes and confidence they need to navigate the digital space and help shrink gendered stereotypes about technology capabilities.

Another fundamental issue is addressing online gender-based violence. Governments and private companies should implement good safeguarding practices to tackle the virtual harassment women are exposed to. This is essential to make women feel comfortable in the online public space and encourage their participation.

Local solutions for a global problem

However, all these efforts will be in vain if we don’t acknowledge that ‘women’ are not a homogenous group with the same needs and behaviours. Their individual contexts and backgrounds will determine their digital use, argued Nasubo Ongoma, researcher at Qhala, in a recent IIED Debates event.

Similarly, policies in different countries and regions will also influence people’s internet access.

For instance, in 2018, Uganda introduced a tax on social media applications. This disproportionately hampers women’s internet access because they usually face more financial hardship than men and are less able to afford data.

Ugandan digital rights activist Pru Nyamishana interviewed women in a slum in Kampala and said: “I learned that for them, WhatsApp and Facebook are the internet. These are the only platforms they know how to use. So, with the new tax, they will be cut off altogether.”

Gender mainstreaming techniques, from public policies to private initiatives, need to address online accessibility challenges presented by regional, cultural and personal circumstances.

By harnessing the power of technology while deploying solutions that work for everyone, we can advance towards gender equality.

About the author

Georgina Diaz (georgina.diaz@iied.org) is digital officer in IIED’s Communications group and a member of IIED's Gender Equality Champions’ Network

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