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A guide to gender issues in digital inclusion

By Mia Hem

What does digital inclusion entail? To ensure availability to the benefits of the internet and digital technologies to everyone. It involves the change of gender inequalities in resources and capabilities to access and efficiently use information and communication technology (ICTs). Across the world, women are hindered to fully benefit from the use of digital technology, an issue of concern as it may provide unique opportunities for their political participation, empowerment and contribution to decrease the existing gender gap by giving women the possibility to earn additional income, increase their employment opportunities, and have access to information and knowledge. Some recent studies presented some optimistic statistics with 58% of women in low- and middle-income countries now accessing mobile internet. Unfortunately, however, this still leaves 234 million more women than men who do not have access to mobile internet.

The UN High Level Panel on Digital Cooperation has specified the need to adopt policies that support digital inclusion and equality for women, which may contribute to the strengthening of research and the promotion of actions against barriers women face in digital inclusion and equality. The Panel emphasizes the need to apply a gender lens to all interventions on digital cooperation and technologies. A gender-responsive ICT must address both the connectivity challenges and needs of all groups in society, considering the specific issues faced by women in accessing and using the Internet and including concrete targets and measurable funding.

There are several examples addressing some of the most common barriers on access and usage to gender equality in digital inclusion: the significant gender divide in access to devices and the internet, gender gaps in ‘meaningful connectivity’ and, poor service quality and availability which affects more women than men (because more women tend to be in rural areas while working-age men tend to be in urban areas with more developed infrastructure). Furthermore, there is an issue of affordability, as well as a limited awareness of the benefits of the Internet and ICTs, which leads to few incentives to use the Internet due to a scarcity of relevant content, and a safety and security issue, since women are more targeted and exposed to online gender-based violence, which often limit their participation online. Moreover, Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems cause disproportionate harm to women and girls, as algorithms tend to stereotype based on gender. Other barriers concern literacy and digital skills: socio-cultural factors resulting in gender-biased digital exclusion and stressing the need for solutions that take societal gendered inequalities into account; the burden of women’s unpaid/paid care work which adds a limitation to their time to use and benefit from being online; digital financial exclusion due to the fact that existing gender norms relating to financial inclusion, lead women to have less control over household spending and financial decision-making, affecting internet access and mobile purchases. Finally, women are unrepresented in ICT jobs and top management, as well as in academic careers relating to technology.

A gender analysis on digital disaster risk reduction (DRR) and disaster risk transfer (DRT) the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF); identified the challenge of leveraging the potential of mobile and other digital technologies to enhance the resilience to disaster of rural women in Haiti, Malawi, Mali and Senegal by improving their access to both DRR and DRT and other financing mechanism. They aimed to find methods which could ensure that the most vulnerable populations are included in the ongoing digital revolutions, to avoid a deepening of the gender digital divide and prevent advancements in women’s empowerment and equality from slowing down. The analysis suggests a few digital solutions, such as working against digital illiteracy by introducing simple technology easily implemented and understood by local communities (e.g. warning systems through SMS), or the use of social networks to introduce new services and products. In those contexts - where women have access to smartphones, DRT products can provide mobile loans to allow for farmers to distribute loans and making payments, thus reducing the cost of transactions, or setting up WhatsApp groups to exchange crucial information of potential risk/disasters (which can then be shared further offline through existing social networks). Furthermore, DRT products can be used to offer banking and insurance solutions via applications to strengthen women’s economic capacities and allow for confidential transactions, and, lastly, to deliver risk reduction training to women farmers through YouTube videos or WhatsApp communication.

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