Safety and opportunity: Why women and girls must have access to communications technologies
By Tom Mallah
Digital technologies have become increasingly pervasive in the last decade, catapulted by mobile technology and the Internet. But there is persistent gender gap in access to these technologies. According to the latest data published by the UN International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the global proportion of women using the Internet is 48 percent, compared to 55 percent of men. And in developing countries, there are roughly 327 million fewer women than men with smartphone and access to mobile Internet.
Beyond these numbers, a trend is growing: The ability to access online content, communicate and leverage digital platforms is increasingly synonymous with the gender digital divide women face. The 2022 Girls in ICT theme highlights that both access and safety are pre-requisites to reducing the digital gap and can help women empower themselves in daily life as well as in emergencies.
In developing countries, women’s access to technology and digital communication is often limited because of inherent cultural norms as well as social dynamics and economic constraints. This digital divide even impacts employment opportunities for women, thereby hindering their financial independence and social mobility
The COVID-19 pandemic underscored how vital it is to connect online for both employment and education. A recent report produced by the Gender Digital Divide Index suggests that “by the end of 2021, nearly two thirds of the global population had used the Internet and digital technologies (…) Anyone not online is being left out of work and educational opportunities and missing out on potentially life-saving information and services.” For countless girls and women, the pandemic has continued to widen the chasm separating them from equal digital opportunity.
The Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) integrates considerations specific to women in the design of its services and technological solutions as part of its ETC2025 strategy including free-to-use charging stations and toll-free calling centers that women feel comfortable accessing.
Masha Saleh, Global ETC Services for Communities Officer, has seen the tangible impact that access to safe digital communications can have for affected communities — particularly women and girls during emergencies. For her, digital literacy and access are entwined with the technologies themselves as well as the economic constraints faced by millions of women in developing countries.
“We should work to make devices, apps, and related products friendlier for total novices, simpler user instructions for instance, that can operate on limited storage and run on older operating systems (limited functions but with broader compatibility). More importantly, we need to offer a way for vulnerable girls to take advantage of these opportunities safely and discreetly,” she says.
Masha also points out that in certain parts of the world, women’s digital access is often monitored and controlled by a male relative. She suggests providing girls with an option to use a device offline, or alternatively, allow multiple user logins with different passwords to help foster confidence and greater participation of women in the digital realm.
In 2020, ITU and the ETC released a joint report, Women, ICT and emergency telecommunications — opportunities and constraints, which identifies the need for innovative and culturally sensitive approaches to help more women and girls empower themselves through digital technologies. The report draws a link between women accessing communications technologies with the ability to save lives during emergencies.
Ria Sen, Global ETC Preparedness Officer, notes that “when a woman has access to accurate information prior to and during emergencies, this not only has a direct impact on her own survival and disaster resilience, but also that of her community.”
Statistically, women are several times more vulnerable and likely to die compared to men during a disaster, in part because they lack access to technologies for advanced warning. When women are empowered with information, they use it to protect children, the elderly, people with disabilities and others.
The ETC and ITU have developed a joint emergency telecommunications preparedness checklist, which integrates considerations related to ICT requirements considering vulnerable groups, including women. In countries where the ETC is activated for preparedness such as those in the Pacific region, the cluster is facilitating collaboration with women as part of key stakeholder groups.
While there is still a long road ahead, digital access and safety are essential steps toward digital gender equality, where women can benefit from greater inclusion, digital literacy, and opportunities to engage fully online, and ultimately, help contribute to ending the gender digital divide.
To find out more about Girls in ICT Day 2022, go here.
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