By Leanne Melnyk, Head of Global Supply Chains, Diginex Solutions, and Sung In Marshall, Associate Director, Worker Engagement, Elevate Limited
What is the digital gender divide?
The digital gender divide is the gap between girls’ and women’s access to technology and the internet versus boys and men. Girls and women often have less access, particularly in developing countries, where affordability, literacy and skills, safety and security are key barriers. Cultural attitudes that disapprove of a woman’s access to technology or the internet also play a key role in widening the gap.
Let’s look at the figures to better understand the gap.
Pre-pandemic, women in low- and middle-income countries were 8 percent less likely than men to own a mobile phone. In real numbers this means 300 million fewer women than men used mobile internet. The divide is now expected to widen even further because of COVID-19 — owing in part to the pandemic’s disproportionately negative effects on girls and women in key socioeconomic impact areas such as education, household income and job security.
Geographically speaking, girls and women in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia face the widest digital divide. In Bangladesh, only 16 percent of women have access to mobile internet — compared to 33 percent of men, representing a gender gap of 52 percent. The differences are even starker in rural families, where a woman’s role is expected to revolve around the home, and her ability or confidence to travel without male accompaniment may be low. Mobile phone sharing is common for rural Bangladeshi women, and women are more likely to be ‘secondary’ sharers, with less immediate access to a handset and lower daily mobile usage.
What are the implications of the Digital Gender Divide in Bangladesh?
The implications of the digital gender divide in Bangladesh are far-reaching and can disproportionately affect a woman’s ability to find work both at home and abroad. Bangladesh is one of the world’s largest migrant-origin countries, and remittances sent home by its workers abroad are critical to the economy. Given the high volume of migration and the risks of migration — including recruitment fees, contract substitution, and other risks of labor exploitation — there is a need for reliable, accessible information for prospective migrant workers. This includes gender-sensitive and gender-specific information on how to migrate safely and how to access support services in case of exploitation or abuse.
A consortium of ELEVATE, Diginex Solutions and Winrock International has been using mobile and other forms technology to provide up-to-date and interactive information, services, and content to prospective migrants. Through funding provided by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), and the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery (GFEMS), we developed SafeStep, a mobile application that is now live on the Google Play App Store.
SafeStep is designed for Bangladeshi workers considering migrating to work in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. The current version of the app includes features such as:
The power of tools like SafeStep is that they can democratize female access to information on migration, which reduces their reliance on male relatives, local brokers and labor recruiters who are often the only source of information for prospective migrants. Digital pre-migration outreach also offers an improvement over traditional pre-migration programs because of the consistency of messaging, ability to quickly update content, lower cost, geographical reach and overall opportunities to scale.
The appetite for digital tools on safe migration in Bangladesh, particularly as we start to see a light at the end of the COVID tunnel, is clear to see. In the few months that SafeStep has been live, we’ve seen an accelerated uptake as hundreds of workers have tested the app and are interested in using it as a tool to safely migrate. Yet, despite targeted efforts to engage female users, there are still many more men on the app versus women.
While the lower numbers are in part rooted in the fact that fewer Bangladeshi women migrate to the GCC compared to Bangladeshi men, interviews with community leaders and focus group discussions with potential users have also pointed to the digital gender divide. Although SafeStep was designed for accessibility and inclusivity, the fact still remains that only 16 percent of Bangladeshi women have access to mobile internet and most of those women are “secondary” sharers. This lowers female users’ comfort level with technology and limits the time they have to access online information and services.
The good news is that the digital gender gap is closing. In South Asia, the regional mobile internet gender gap narrowed from 67 percent in 2017 to 51 percent in 2019, bringing another 78 million women online. This suggests that mobile gender gaps can be reduced, and the benefits of connectivity distributed more equally.
More can also be done to accelerate the progress in Bangladesh and elsewhere. This can include facilitating greater access of Bangladeshi women and girls from rural communities or lower-income households to Union Digital Centers (UDC). It can also include challenging gender stereotypes and biases that limit women and girl’s freedom of movement and access to mobile internet compared to men and boys; for example, by challenging patriarchal attitudes and beliefs that restrict women’s rights to public spaces, preventing them from accessing UDCs, outside employment, and co-ed training facilities.
The private sector can also play a key role by facilitating low-cost access to mobile-internet for lower-income or rural women and girls in Bangladesh and other parts of South Asia. Technology providers should also take into account the unique needs of women and girls when designing tools — helping to make them more inclusive and providing gender-specific information where applicable.
On this International Women’s Day, we call all potential stakeholders to come together and choose to challenge the digital gender gap so that women and girls have equal access to life-changing services, information and tools. The SafeStep consortium will also do our part by continuing to research and explore how we can increase women migrant workers’ access to technology so that we reach true gender representation in our user-base. More information about SafeStep can be found here.