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International Women’s Day, 2023
Promoting Gender Equality and Closing the Digital Divide

The following opinion piece is part of series to mark International Women’s Day, March 8.

Researchers from different backgrounds and genders at a project meeting in Guimarães, Portugal, during a conference. Credit: UNU-EGOV / Cristina Braga

Guimarães, Portugal, Mar 7 2023 (IPS) - The accelerating pace of digitalization has ushered humanity into a whole different era of information and communication. Today, digitalization permeates every aspect of our lives, socio-economically and politically.

People can leverage digital technology to scale up activities to impact their private and public lives. Citizens can access various digital services such as registrations, voting, conducting business and making online transactions, amongst others. Changes have seen digital technologies thrive.

However, this has come with little or no impact on gender, especially on women and girls. Thus, how is gender equality promoted amid this fast pace of digitalization, and how has this impacted digitalization?

There is a great gap in women’s and girls’ adoption of digital technology compared to men’s and boys’. It has been reported that more than 50% of women are offline globally. In the Global South, this is more pronounced as the internet penetration rate for women is 41%, compared to 53% for men.

In 2020, it was found that 393 million women in developing regions do not own mobile phones when compared to 8% globally.

Mercy Erhi Makpor. Credit: UNU-EGOV / Cristina Braga

There are also substantial regional differences, especially in the sub-Sahara and South Asia regions, with gender gaps in ownership of digital devices falling as low as 13% and 23%, respectively. Invariably, women are more likely than men to share or borrow digital devices from friends and family members.

Some studies show that women are 20% less likely than men to own a digital device. Depending on the ability to access, use and adopt digital technology, digitalization will keep increasing in speed.

More so, as digital technology is proactively embraced, it is essential to facilitate skills, access, affordability, and usage for women and girls. Associated policies for facilitating these processes should propel or bring about change for gender equality and inclusion.

Digital technology can indeed be a concrete tool for the development of policies and programs for women and girls to overcome inequalities. Digitalization can also help to speed up gender policy interventions while at the same time bridging the gender digital divide.

This can be achieved by engaging more women and girls in sectors such as health, education, technology, services, etc. However, in the absence of indicators differentiated by gender, it is difficult to measure impact.

More so, without indicators such as age, income level, and literacy, there is always bound to be little or no impact. Gender equality remains one of the fundamental means of curbing the gender digital divide while digitalization is taking place. It is very significant to the progress of women and girls in a digitalized society.

Currently, taking up initiatives for the promotion of gender equality is one of the ways through which countries strive to close the gender digital divide amid digitalization. For instance, there is a strong call for promoting an educational and knowledge infrastructure scheme in remote rural areas in the Global South.

Countries such as Ghana, Kenya, Botswana, India, Bangladesh, and Nepal are taking the initiative to improve the skills level and usage of women for the reduction of the gender digital divide. For women with small- and medium-scale enterprises, having proper access to financial products and services is of great importance.

Governments and financial institutions are seen to be taking up initiatives to help accelerate access for female entrepreneurs and business owners to tap into financial resources, which in turn leads to a reduction in the digital gender divide and the promotion of gender equality.

Furthermore, women play very vital roles in their families and communities, as they traditionally are the incubators of small start-up businesses. This also promotes gender equality while presenting the possibility of accelerating women’s participation in digital technology, thereby reducing the gender digital divide.

For instance, In Europe and North America, scholars and institutions are calling on policymakers to address the need for the continuous improvement of digitalization and skills for women through innovative technical ideas.

As a functional tool for attaining sustainable development, digitalization is not only central to modern societies; it is a means to unlocking opportunities for social interactions. More so, it is an opportunity for the promotion of gender equality and the reduction of the gender digital divide.

However, due to it not being gender-neutral, gender dimensions that impact women and men must be considered when addressing the gender digital divide. Significantly, access, ownership, and use of digital devices are not gender-neutral; therefore, women tend to face more barriers than men in the accessibility and use of digital technology.

There have to be better opportunities for women to be able to access and take advantage of both socioeconomic and political positions. Also, access to digital devices will help to increase women’s online activities, thereby reducing the gender digital divide and promoting gender equality.

Notably, women must play active roles, get involved, and through gender experts and women’s organizations, come up with policies and service designs to enhance women’s needs, inclusion, and empowerment.

Governments must ensure that the privacy and security of women and girls are protected. They should also safeguard enhanced, affordable, and inclusive service delivery for women, especially those in rural environments.

In summary, engendering digital technology by adopting digitalization policies with gender perspectives is significant not only to women but also to the whole of human development.

Mercy Erhi Makpor is Senior Research Assistant at the United Nations University Operating Unit on Policy-Driven Electronic Governance (UNU-EGOV).
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