Coronavirus pandemic is exposing the gender digital divide

To mark International Girls in ICT Day, a look at information and communication tech’s potential to empower

Somalia: A woman uses her mobile phone to order food from an online shop at a WFP distribution centre in Mogadishu, Somalia. Photo: WFP/Ismail Taxta

By Emma Wadland

As COVID-19 overwhelms health systems and forces people into lockdown, it is also shining a light on the “gender digital divide”. Women and girls who suffer domestic and family violence in the developing world, for instance, do not have the same recourse to phones and digital services as their Western peers.

In March, a report by the OECD found, “roughly 327 million fewer women than men have a smartphone and can access mobile internet. Women are on average 26 percent less likely than men to have a smartphone. In South Asia and Africa these proportions stand at 70 percent and 34 percent, respectively.” According to UN Women, 1.7 billion women in low- and middle-income countries do not own a mobile phone.

Girls will face greater challenges in education. The latest figures from UNESCO, show school closures in 185 countries are keeping 1.54 billion students out of school. That includes 743 million girls — 111 million of whom live in the world’s least developed countries where unpaid domestic and care work is disproportionately handed to girls and women. This can result in them losing access to information technology, jeopardizing girls’ return to school, while increasing the risk of sexual exploitation, early pregnancy and early and forced marriage.

A woman in Rukban camp for displaced people in Syria — ETC provided security communication and power solutions to 40,000 people there. Photo: WFP Syria/ Marwa Awad

Jacqueline Paul, Senior Gender Adviser at the World Food Programme says: “Access to information is a stepping stone to having a voice and having agency. If, because of systemic inequalities, you’re ‘kept in the dark’, you’re at great risk of being oppressed.”

She adds: “Not knowing what you’re entitled to — or what your rights are — is not your fault. That’s discriminatory social norms and structures that deny you access to information and education — among much else.”

Reliable health and safety information is harder to reach for people without access to computers and gadgets. Less likely than men to have a mobile phone, women in at-risk communities are often absent from decision-making during the response to an emergency caused by extreme weather, conflict or a virus outbreak. They risk not knowing how to protect themselves or their families.

Women and children in an internally displaced persons camp in the Central African Republic. Photo: WFP/Phyza Jameel

Phyza Jameel is a services for communities adviser to the global Emergency Telecommunications Cluster — a WFP-led hub of humanitarian agencies working to empower humanitarians and affected populations with technology.

“Technical infrastructure is often blind to the accessibility differential of men and women and fails to see men and women as equal shareholders,” says Jameel.

“When disasters happen, we need all perspectives — and crisis often reveals a social landscape where women are completely out of public life,” says Jameel. “Their role is often to manage the private lives of other women, children and older people. Women, like men, should be equitable users of technology with needs to communicate and link with accessible information.”

To reach women, programmes must consult with, and engage, women and women’s groups. The ETC will soon open phone booths in an internally displaced persons camp in the Central African Republic — where WFP assists 500,000 people — so women have a safe hotline to women operators.

But more must be done, says Jameel. “We need to go the extra mile.”

In Libya, the Emergency Telecommunications Sector (ETS) COVID-19 hotline applies a gender-equity lens to its work. Project Coordinator Sarah Mace says: “We need to collect gender data, it is critical that we understand how men and women access and use information differently.”

“This will help us ensure that we are able to meet their specific needs and provide the best results for all segments of the population,” she says.

Phyza Jameel, second from right, conducts an assessment of communications needs with women in the Central African Republic. Photo: WFP / Mohamedou Ndiath

Osglesdei is a 26-year-old Venezuelan woman taking shelter with her three-month-old child in Lima, Peru.

“The internet is my lifeline to what I was forced to leave behind,” she has said, “I don’t think I could cope with this situation if I didn’t have a phone.”

She is one of 4.3 million Venezuelans who fled their country amid an ongoing and volatile socio-political situation.

Erika Perez Iglesias, who works with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) on connectivity for refugees, tells me that during focus group discussions with newly arrived Venezuelan women on the border with Peru and Ecuador in September 2019, only 20 percent had access to a personal or shared ICT device.

Central African Republic: ETC assistants deployed from World Vision to Batangafo to set up VHF security communications services for UN agencies and NGOs. Photo: WFP

“Now more than ever, technology can make a difference to mitigate the consequences of this pandemic and it is a common responsibility to ensure that solutions implemented are accessible and inclusive from gender and diversity perspectives,” says Erika.

As WFP’s Jacqueline Paul puts it: “How do you exercise your rights if you don’t know what they are, and you don’t know who you can turn to for support.”

This raises the issue of empowerment, a frequently used term in humanitarianism. But what does it really mean in the context of women and access to information and communication technology?

That women should be designing and creating technology solutions, as well as using them, is a feminist notion of empowerment where women are active participants in a process — not passive beneficiaries.

There is still a long way to go. As of 2020, the share of female graduates in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) is still less than 15 per cent in most countries.

It is essential that women be producers of technology, as well as users, so they are not closed off from the economic, political and cultural influence offered by communications technologies.

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The United Nations World Food Programme works towards a world of Zero Hunger.