Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web states that:
The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.
The term digital divide or the digital split, is a social issue referring to the differing amount of information between those who have access to the Internet (specially broadband access) and those who do not have access. It also refers to the differences in resources and capabilities to access and effectively utilise Information and Communication Technology for development that exist within and between countries, regions, sectors and socio-economic groups.
United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan’s Statement to the World Summit on the Information Society Geneva, 10 December 2003:
The so-called digital divide is actually several gaps in one. There is a technological divide great gaps in infrastructure. There is a content divide. A lot of web-based information is simply not relevant to the real needs of people. And nearly 70 per cent of the world’s websites are in English, at times crowding out local voices and views. There is a gender divide, with women and girls enjoying less access to information technology than men and boys. This can be true of rich and poor countries alike.
The digital divide is often characterised by low levels of access to technologies. The factors that impedes access to ICT infrastructure, especially in developing countries are, poverty, illiteracy, lack of computer literacy and language barriers.
Internet usage figures collected by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in 2003 illustrate this gap. United States reported 5,558 Internet users per 10,000 persons, compared with 690 users per 10,000 persons in Asia and 156 users per 10,000 persons in Africa.
Gender Digital Divide:
Throughout the world, economic, social and cultural obstacles prevent or limit women’s access to, use of, and benefits from ICTs, a phenomenon referred to as the gender digital divide.
Women need ICT for the same reasons as men; to access information of importance to their productive, reproductive and community roles and to obtain additional resources. Access to ICT can enable women to gain a stronger voice at local and global level. ICT can be of particular value to women who face social isolation, including many women in developing countries.
Women’s access to, and benefits from ICTs is constrained in different ways. Some constraints which affects both women and men, includes technical infrastructure, connection costs, computer literacy and language skills. These overall constraints are, however, exacerbated in many cases by gender-based determinants which particularly disadvantage women. Existing gender inequality transposes offline divides into the digital space and causes and aggravates the gender digital divide.
Role Players of Gender Digital Divide:
The most significant barriers to increasing adoption of ICTs among women are the socio-economic disadvantages faced by women especially the gender wage gap that persists globally, make the relatively high price of Internet access in many low- and middle-income countries.
Secondly, women’s economic dependence on male relatives in some countries often results them to have less control over finances and unequal division of paid and unpaid work which significantly impact the affordability of ICTs for women.
Isolation and Lack of Equality:
Although geographical isolation and poor technological infrastructure can affect both women and men to access ICTs but for women, the physical inaccessibility is exacerbated by power inequalities and socio-cultural norms. Women’s access to ICTs is limited in countries with marked gender disparities in education, income, and political power, cultural norms.
Lack of Relevant Content:
Lack of relevant content for women is another crucial obstacle to the continued use of available ICTs. English language has become a prerequisite for access to most of the information available on the Internet which is not understood by billions of people especially women who cannot access information because of language barriers. Women’s exclusion from information production means that the diversity of their viewpoints, experiences and concerns are not well represented. This results in cementing the stereotypical portrayal of women in the established media.
Apart from the absence of relevant content, Internet filters may also contribute to the problem. For example, filtering policies, which are in place in some countries, may block access to health and sexuality information, affecting women’s health and reproductive rights.
Stereotypical portrayal and Exploitation of Women:
Aggressive online environments marked by negative stereotypes, biased and conservative gender roles, harassment, and hate speech constitute additional factors impeding women’s access to and use of ICTs. Hostile online environments, as well as conservative gender roles, may also be associated with a gender divide regarding participation in online political discourse.
In addition to that, internet is not only used to perpetuate violence against women but it is used to normalise and accelerate sexual exploitation of women. Certain mediums are utilised for distribution and marketing of pornographic materials and prostitution and they can also facilitate human trafficking for sexual purposes.
Why is it Important to Bridge the Gap:
There are a variety of arguments regarding why closing the digital divide is important. Women’s digital inclusion can help to catalyse broader gender equality in social, economic and political dimensions, benefiting not only women themselves, but also their communities and the broader economy.
Women’s equal and meaningful participation in the digital society is seen as both integral to the realization of women’s rights in the 21st century, as well as the realization of a just, inclusive and rights based information society and to achieve global objectives around gender equality and women’s empowerment by 2030.
New ICTs provide opportunities for women to get economic independence through bypassing the traditional male-dominated and exploitative market structures, including “middle-men”. Additionally, ICTs enables women artisans to connect directly to global markets and support their economic activities with market and production information.
New ICTs can also play a critical role in health education and information dissemination, bring communities and health facilities closer to each other through regular and systematic information exchange.
Also, the possibility of ICTs to allow privacy, protect confidentiality, and provide personalised choices in information, builds trusts and make access to information about health easier for women.
ICTs offer many possibilities for non formal and continued education for women. They can deliver education content to the doorstep, which, for women with constraints on mobility and access to public places, can be a significant starting point. Such combinations are being used the world over for open and distance learning.
ICTs as Tools to Challenge Gender Inequality and Promote Women’s Empowerment:
ICTs have been used by women’s organisations for challenging gender inequalities and empowering women in many different ways. ICTs allows space for self-expression and for building connections that permits the discriminated to communicate and represent themselves in a comprehensive way. My previous post on ICTs for Women’s Economic Empowerment describes in detail how ICTs can be utilised in empowering women.
The Outcome Document of the high-level meeting of the General Assembly on the overall review of the implementation of the World Summit on the Information Society emphasises that
Efforts to end the gender digital divide and to achieve gender equality are mutually reinforcing and calls for ‘immediate measures to achieve gender equality in internet users by 2020, especially by significantly enhancing women’s and girls’ education and participation in ICTs, as users, content creators, employees, entrepreneurs, innovators, and leaders’.
Although ICTs are not a universal remedy for all developmental problems but bridging the gender digital divide can provide the basis for substantial progress in development.