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Henriette Kolb

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Connectivity for Women: The Growing Digital Divide

Posted: 14/01/2013 17:14

Last week two international tech summits took place in the US, one on the East Coast and the other one on the West Coast, and they could not have been more different. While the Consumer Electric Show presented limitless possibilities of growing technology innovation, the ICT Forum for Women and Girls organised by UN Women and the US State Department highlighted a growing digital divide.

The digital revolution presently excludes the majority of the world's population. According to data released in Intel's Women and the Web report, 4.6 billion people lack access to the developmental power of the Internet. However the situation is even worse for women and girls. As the report reveals, women in developing countries are almost 25% less likely to have access to the Internet, and this figure soars up to nearly 45% in Sub-Saharan Africa. This gender gap is even slightly higher than the mobile phone gender gap, which was estimated to be on average 21% in developing countries. It comes as no surprise that digital exclusion often compounds existing forms of disadvantage for women and girls.

What type of technology access is important for women and girls and how can the digital gender gap be reduced? These were some of the questions debated among over 100 ICT and gender experts who came together at the forum in Washington DC. Key determinants that keep women off-line include affordability, digital literacy, language barriers, lack of transport to often distant Internet cafes, lack of confidence, and cultural norms. For example, the report mentions that one out of five Indian and Egyptian women think that it is not appropriate for a woman to use the Internet.

All these barriers contribute to the digital exclusion of women and girls. Yet if this gap is closed, women themselves, households and economies would benefit tremendously. The Intel report estimates that if only 40% of women and girls in developing countries had access to the Internet, it would allow for significantly improved health, education, employment and entrepreneurship opportunities for over half a billion women and girls. It would also contribute over $10 billion to GDP across 144 developing countries. Shikoh Gitau, a forum participant from Google's Nairobi office, highlighted the importance of digital literacy. She explained how having access to virtual networks can lead to increased confidence and business opportunities.

I have seen these benefits for myself many times from the Cherie Blair Foundation's e-Mentoring programme for women. We often have women entrepreneurs involved in our programmes who are relatively new to the internet but eager to learn. In some cases, we offer opportunities for the women to practice using applications to access the e-Mentoring platform before meeting their mentors for the first time online. I recently chatted to Laila, a woman entrepreneur from Malaysia. She wanted to try out her ICT skills with me before the actual mentoring started. She told me that this was the first time she had ever used her English since school and the first time she was in contact with a person outside Malaysia. She was incredibly excited to be paired with a business mentor and now a few months in, attests to the many advantages such a relationship can bring. The internet has truly expanded Laila's world.

There are obvious benefits of connecting women and girls to the Internet, with sufficient training and guidance. We simultaneously need to consider the challenges that the Internet can pose to women and girl's learning and personal safety. Providing access to the web with the right support could create opportunities for billions. Let's encourage educators, regulators, policy makers and the private sector to work together on opening up the transformative power of connectivity for all.

 

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