Minding the digital gender gap

On this 10th anniversary of Girls in ICT Day, Phyza Jameel, Global ETC Services for Communities and Preparedness Lead, explains the challenges, solutions, and ways of thinking about the gender digital divide in a challenging pandemic year.

By Emma Wadland

WFP is the lead agency of the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC), a global network of organizations that work together to provide shared communications services in humanitarian emergencies.

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

What effect has the pandemic had on women and girls from an information and communication technologies perspective?

Affordability, digital literacy challenges, or cultural norms can leave women and girls with less access to communication technologies, which means they often don’t know where to verify or find accurate information on something like COVID-19. Misinformation and misunderstanding can create a vicious cycle of confusion that disproportionately affects women and girls because they are more likely to be the care givers for elderly, sick or children in a family.

Women and girls need access to reliable information as a priority, not as an afterthought.

What has the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) been doing to help counter those effects?

Like so many organizations, the COVID-19 pandemic caused us to reconsider and adapt some of the ways we work — especially in high risk operations.

For example, in countries where there was a huge demand on humanitarian call centers, we are integrating a chatbot service that uses machine learning to answer the most frequent questions in different cultural contexts and local languages.

Machine learning helps us adapt our response to different demographics — understanding people better to serve them better. In particular, for women and girls it shows us how they interact with the chatbot differently than men, what types of misinformation they have been exposed to and whether they might need more information about specific topics.

What are the positive effects when women and girls have access to information technology?

Within the demographics of a humanitarian emergency — including in urban settings — women are in a precarious position, because they are the care workers of the family and the custodians of awareness raising among their children.

However, if women have access to communications technology, they can take part in decision-making and empower themselves, which has wider benefits in terms of dignity and safety for them, their families and their communities.

How can the international humanitarian community support women and girls to access information technologies?

It’s a long process that starts with wider acknowledgement of the problem.

When we look at the people we serve, we need look at how gender impacts the way we collect and analyze data.

That means conception, design and delivery of humanitarian projects and services must reflect that women and girls have a different starting point from men when it comes to obtaining reliable information. Assessments, projects, and services need to be defined so that they can catch up with this differential starting point.

As a woman in humanitarian technology what is your message to the women and girls you serve?

Everyone is capable of identifying what empowers them when they have awareness and access — they know which doors to open when they are presented with them. As humanitarians, it is our responsibility to work around different levels of risk, danger, and social norms to provide that access and let people make those choices for themselves.

Information and communication technologies are crucial in this context. Like education, they open different levels of engagement — allowing someone to be a decision maker or a changemaker in their community or in their family, or to build important coping mechanisms within themselves. These are complex threads that vary from culture to culture, but the underlying principle of self-empowerment pervades.

It sounds like information technology is a catalyst for women and girls to achieve other things…?

Information technology opens so many other avenues or actions and it is a powerful tool in and of itself. As part of the humanitarian jigsaw puzzle of problems and solutions, information technology is a big and powerful piece that helps the rest come together.

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