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Equal access to digital technologies: A key to resilient recovery



The mobile and digital gender gap is not going to close on its own. We need to collaborate and take coordinated action. 

A global pandemic was far from Sandra Misiribi's mind when she joined


 Good Health Community Programmes digital skills program. The program has trained nearly 1,200 women and youth affected by GBV in Shinyalu sub county to prepare them for opportunities in the digital space.

When COVID-19 drove many companies to shift to digital technologies early the year last year.

Yet, as the world becomes more and more digitally connected, women continue to lag behind men in their use of digital technologies, particularly mobile technologies.  That means they are less likely than men to have access to vital services such as cash transfers, medical information, educational content, or employment opportunities.

Even before the pandemic, women in low- and middle-income countries were 8 percent less likely than men to own a mobile phone.  And 300 million fewer women than men use mobile internet , representing a gender gap of 20 percent. This digital gender divide is now expected to worsen because of COVID-19.

The pandemic is underscoring that access to digital technologies is critical in times of crisis. 

To address these gaps, governments and the private sector need to put a gender lens at the center of their pandemic response.  There are promising early examples. OparanyaCare, a digital cash transfer program to help expectant mothers attend 4 Antenatal clinic.

These initiatives are a step in the right direction—yet more can be done by the public and private sectors to bridge the growing digital gender divide as countries address COVID-19. If the mobile gender gap is not addressed directly, women will be left behind as societies and economies further digitalize.

To tackle the gap requires, first, improving the quality and availability of sex-disaggregated data related to mobile access and use—to better inform strategies, set targets, and track progress.

Second, we need to address the barriers that women face on access, affordability, knowledge and skills, safety and security, as well as make relevant content, products, and services more available to them:

Access: Women in poor and remote areas may find that mobile services and the internet are out of reach, as they’re often available only outside the home or in places that are unsafe or inaccessible.  Women also face difficulties obtaining the identity documents required to open accounts. 

Affordability: Connectivity and device costs can reduce women’s ability to benefit from mobile services , as they often have less financial independence, lower incomes, and less access to external sources of finance than their male peers. In many countries, women are also more likely to have lower-quality handsets and to obtain them later than men. In Kenya, where women are 39 percent less likely to have access to mobile internet, Safaricom partnered with Google to deliver the country’s most affordable smartphone. Each device comes loaded with free 500MB data during the first month.

Knowledge and skills: In many countries, a higher proportion of women are illiterate than men or have less education; they also often lack digital skills or the confidence to use mobile services and the internet. Hence, they face hurdles in accessing digital services. In 15 countries of Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, Viamo provides a free, on-demand information service, by calling 321, in partnership with mobile network operators. This provides women with interactive, educational content, and training in digital skills.

Safety and security: While mobile phones and the internet can become conduits for threats that have always existed (such as bullying) as well as new ones (such as online identity theft), these services can also make women feel safer. As part of IAWRT jitahidi platform, a domestic violence helpline for women,  is helping women use digital technologies to report instances of abuse, both during the pandemic and after the crisis.

Relevant content and social norms: Closing the gender gap requires making relevant content, products, and services available, as well as supporting the development of an ecosystem of apps and services to meet the needs, preferences, and capabilities of women and girls.  

Government policies can support these efforts to address the unique challenges women face. Accelerating regulatory reforms—including by reducing sector-specific taxes and custom duties—can mobile services more affordable for the end user, particularly women, who represent the majority of the unconnected. 

The mobile and digital gender gap is not going to close on its own. We need to collaborate and take coordinated action.  The root causes of the mobile gender gap are complex, diverse, and interrelated and cannot be addressed by one organization alone. Now is the time to join forces to ensure that women aren’t left behind in a rapidly shifting world, where connecting digitally has become the new normal.                                                               

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