How can we ensure the inclusion of women and girls in digital development in Latin America and the Caribbean?

Written by Milena Paramo, Regional Coordinator, CLADEM and Ester Pinheiro, Spanish-Speaking Communications Officer, Equal Measures 2030

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day on March 8th was in line with the overriding theme of the sixty-seventh session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW67): “Innovation and technological change, and education in the digital age to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls.” 

The problems related to access, attendance and graduation at different levels of digital education, as well as the quality of education, are a challenge in the Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) region. The interruption of schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic affected millions of children and adolescents in the region, and it is still unclear how many of them were unable to connect virtually mode because they did not have electronic devices or an internet connection

Although the proportion of women worldwide with access to the internet grew from 53% to 67% from 2015 to 2020, only 10% to 20% of students in the region have these devices, according to a 2022 report by ECLAC. In addition, 46% of the region’s children aged 5-12 live in households that are not connected to the internet. And an estimated 4 out of 10 women in the region are not connected and/or cannot afford effective connectivity in the region. 

ICTs are also part of the map of inequalities affecting girls and women, but when it comes to representation of women and girls in science, the LAC region outperforms the global average STEM by 7 points, according to the 2022 SDG Gender Index produced by Equal Measures 2030.  

However, for Milena Paramo, Regional Coordinator of the Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) Committee for the Defense of Women’s Rights – CLADEM, there is still a gender gap in terms of training areas (shortage of women in STEM) as well as barriers to access all the possibilities of the virtual world. “Women and girls have less access to devices, platforms and networks and their digital skills development is lower as a consequence of gender stereotypes that reproduce the imaginary of technology as a male issue,” she analyses. 

Social platforms and networks are virtual spaces that are accessed to communicate, inform, search, entertain, train, treat health, work, etc. And in these spaces, girls and women are suffering forms of sexist, misogynist and racist violence. According to the UN, 73% of women have already been exposed to or experienced some form of violence in the online world. Even the platforms are violent, a global analysis of 133 artificial intelligence systems revealed that 44.2% reproduce sexist biases, with 25.7% also being racist, according to a Stanford report in 2021

The most common violent behaviors in digital spaces against girls and women include harassment or intimidation (cyberbullying), a wide range of sexual aggressions (sexting without consent, sextortion, grooming, among others), smear campaigns, and all those interactions aimed at controlling, manipulating, deceiving or promoting the objectification, exploitation and subordination of women and girls. Considering this reality, how can we reduce the digital gender divide and guarantee the full participation of women and girls in technological development in Latin America? 

According to Milena Páramo, the resources that LAC countries allocate to education, science and technology tend to be limited. This weakness could be reversed if governments realized that investment in these areas has the power to transform the region’s chances of recovery and sustainable economic growth in the mid-term.  

Therefore, priority policies for digital inclusion are needed and CLADEM’s regional coordinator cites some recommendations that should be implemented: 

  • School connectivity so that children and adolescents can access knowledge; guaranteeing that the most marginalized children and adolescents have access to devices such as phones and tablets; and promoting learning content and applications.  
  • The development of infrastructure and digital services in rural areas, where there is a significant delay in the access, use and appropriation of ICTs. 
  • The redistribution of household duties in order to tackle one of the main historical constraints that have restricted women’s ability to enhance their potential in STEM areas.  
  • The incorporation of a gender and human rights perspective in digital education to boost girls’ educational trajectories, expanding their educational possibilities and influencing their future employment opportunities.  
  • Overcoming the digital skills deficit in girls, which increases in the case of girls from rural areas, ethnic origin, or lower classes. These policies should aim to deconstruct one of the key factors of inequality related to patriarchal cultural patterns.   
  • Policies that regulate the entire digital ecosystem to prevent platforms from increasing violence against women. 

As addressed at CSW67, women’s and girls’ access to technologies must be a priority as the digital divide affects them in several ways, potentially preventing them from obtaining information on healthcare, domestic violence and access to educational resources.  

The digital divide is still one of the major challenges in Latin American countries, which must make the future of education and digital transformation more inclusive and intersectional. 

Unseen: 52% of women without access to the internet

By Anne Connell, Senior Data Advisor, Equal Measures 2030

29 October is Internet Day: access to the internet is skewed in favour of men.

Globally, 58% of men have access to internet, compared to 48% of women. Some women and girls simply lack internet at home, in their schools, or in their places of work — in part because of women’s overrepresentation in the informal economy, care work, and home-based work. For many, including in Europe and North America access is too expensive or service provision is severely limited in rural or underserved areas. Cultural factors also influence the gender gap in uptake of new technologies: for example, in Asia and the Middle East gender norms may mean that men have greater mobility in public and access to internet cafés, or can use the internet at work, while women only have access within the home.

Internet access and use is a critical cross-sectoral issue. It’s not only about technology — about the newest hardware or cutting-edge app. The internet is increasingly playing a central role in society, and some suggest that the digital revolution may hold promise for “leapfrogging” access to economic and social change in African countries, such as Kenya with the launch of mobile money technologies like M-Pesa. Yet it may also reinforce — or even deepen — existing disparities if we aren’t careful.

Though the cost of this digital gender divide is high, it can go largely unseen. Lack of connectivity and skills for the digital age are not issues that are typically prioritized by gender advocates, or even thought of as “gender equality issues.” A 2018 Advocates Survey that EM2030 conducted with over 600 advocates around the world highlighted priority issues such as violence against women and girls, reproductive health and health care, education, and women’s economic empowerment. Women and girls’ access to technologies did not emerge as a priority.

This even though the internet is increasingly linked to “core” gender equality issues. Internet is a crucial way for women and girls to learn, enter markets and earn income, and access critical information and services. This is particularly true today in the context of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Take a timely example: the connections between internet and gender equality in education have been laid bare by the pandemic. Internet can improve the quality of education, opening doors to information and opportunities for learning, both in and outside the classroom. But as the COVID-19 pandemic has moved many aspects of education online in countries around the world, lack of connectivity is not only an inconvenience, it is a crisis. There currently isn’t nearly complete enough data to fully understand the effects of COVID-19 on education or the well-being of girls — but early evidence suggests that there may be educational losses and widening gaps between girls and boys, affluent and less affluent students, and rural and urban communities.

Internet access and use is linked to other areas that gender advocates prioritize, too.

The internet — and the skills to use new technologies — make it easier to connect with other business owners, start new businesses, seek out financing, sell products to new markets, and find better-paying jobs. As online commerce and mobile money continue to expand, over 900 million women remain unbanked and excluded from the digital economy, in large part because of lack of internet access.

Internet access is even linked to the issues that top the list of advocates’ priorities: violence against women and girls, and women’s health. The digital gender gap can preclude women and girls’ ability to get health information (e.g. on sexual and reproductive health) or information regarding important social services (e.g. services for victims of domestic violence). And as tight lockdown restrictions are creating what UN Women calls a “shadow pandemic” of gender-based violence, internet technology — including encrypted web-based mobile messaging services and apps providing information to survivors — can even prove to be lifesaving.

These links between connectivity and gender equality build up equitable access to the internet for women and girls is a roadmap to cross-sectoral growth. How can governments and the private sector better support the globally untapped 52% of women and girls currently not online?

Governments and the private sector must engage with women’s rights organisations in the creation of technology policies and national broadband strategies. For one, including more voices around the table would expand the base of stakeholders with ownership over technology issues, and build consensus around technology principles. Private sector actors — especially mobile network operators, who play a central role in enabling access in low-income countries — should also see the real value in tapping into new markets through technologies and content tailored to women and girls.

For civil society organisations — and women’s rights organisations, in particular — policy discussions around internet and communications technologies could be leveraged to draw connections across issues and advance gender equality. Internet advocacy organisations that already push for expanded access to the internet (for example, for lower data bundle costs, waiving data usage fees, or zero-rating websites with educational content) should partner with women’s rights organisations to strengthen advocacy. Direct input from gender advocates could ensure that the rollout of new technologies takes into account different population groups’ specific needs and use patterns so that technologies reflect the real challenges facing women and girls in their daily lives.

Governments, the private sector, and gender advocates alike can and should be more ambitious in thinking about internet connectivity to inclusion and opportunity. Women and girls need access to technologies — and the skills to use them — so that they are not left behind in an increasingly digital world.