ICTs may not provide optimal solutions to every challenge, but they can enable women’s and girls’ freedom, equality and dignity under the right circumstances, said UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kate Gilmore.
She was speaking on the Human Rights Council panel discussion on Advancing Women’s Rights in Access to ICTs along with experts from the private sector, government, and civil society.
The same can be said of other excluded communities. Gilmore noted that the global ‘offline’ population is disproportionately poorer, rural or isolated, and female. Yet innovation exists within a context of social and cultural norms that do not necessarily promote gender equality.
There must be a combined effort to bridge this digital divide which prioritises the four A’s of awareness, availability, accessibility and affordability, in order to make progress on the Pathways Commission’s stakeholder priorities to connect the unconnected.
There are several interesting examples of ICT4D in action in low-resource settings. Here we look at programmes designed to bridge the digital divide by building hard infrastructure, innovating business models and educating communities for longterm use and empowerment.
Refugees need wifi
UN Refugee Camp Management Officer Marie Beroit says that the first question refugees ask her when they arrive at Lagadikia refugee camp is how to connect to the wifi. It’s for a simple reason: the only way that they can move onwards is by claiming asylum. And the only way to do that is for them to call a Skype number.
Mobile data connections are too expensive and so wifi is their only connection to the wider world, to relatives already in transit or back home, and to the next stage of their journeys.
NetHope saw that wifi infrastructure investment was crucial in the migration crisis facing Europe. It worked in more than 20 camps on the migrant routes through Europe to provide wifi connectivity that helped refugees to not only call the Skype asylum number, but also to continue with their studies, to seek information about health issues and to stay in touch with their families.
Humanitarian organisations also benefit from the wifi; camp workers use the connection to track and upload data on health issues or supply needs.
A digital lifeline
Access to information is a lifeline for the unconnected. NetHope saw that wifi connectivity was a crucial tool on the migrant journey. But they also needed information in their own language about what they would face on the path ahead.
With its partners Google, Mercy Corps and the International Rescue Committee, NetHope built Refugee.Info, an information hub to where NetHope wifi users are automatically directed on login to find information about border closings and asylum procedures. It provides reliable information and facts in six languages, to counter misinformation that can quickly spread among migrants in the camp and on the routes across Europe.
A new business model for access
The private sector is also making progress on infrastructure for access.
Hundreds of millions of Indians use the railway network daily, and they are also likely to have a wifi-enabled device. In Mumbai, Google has built a wifi network across the metropolitan railway network where people can access the internet for a limited time period.
This project undoubtedly provides a valuable service for many millions in Mumbai, but it does not address the issues of access for women and girls. Cultural and social practices in India are deeply entrenched and mobile ownership is largely male. Further, it is a purely philanthropic programme so its scalability is questionable.
Also in India, the new mobile network Jio is another infrastructure project building a digital lifeline for the unconnected. India has one of the highest rates of mobile penetration in the world, and the cheapest data costs.
Jio was launched in late 2016 by Reliance Industries with a three-month voice and data package completely free of charge. It now offers a data-only service, voice services free-of-charge, with the lowest data rates globally.
It was certainly an innovation in telco provision, but so far it has stopped short of other initiatives to improve access for women and other excluded communities such as subsidising handsets or providing preferential tariffs.
Techplomacy as an educational bridge
That’s where basic digital literacy comes in. Rokhaya Solange Ndir, Head of Digital Ecosystem Relations for Sonatel in Senegal, said on the HRC panel discussion that her experience was that if women are not specifically targeted by a programme, they do not think it is meant for them and they will not participate.
In many parts of the world, girls are kept at home to do chores instead of going to school. If girls do not stay in school, Ndir says, they will not learn digital skills. State incentives must be put in place to stem this brain drain at puberty as girls need school-level education in basic and digital literacy to take ownership of their lives.
The African Girls Can CODE initiative is a joint programme of the African Union Commission (AUC), UN Women Ethiopia and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) with support from the Government of Denmark. It teaches girls across the continent in a four-year programme on digital literacy, coding and personal development skills.
The programme aims to teach 2,000 girls and spark their interest in ICT careers. That may seem like a small proportion of the continental population, but the programme is replicable with other partners at the national level.
Girl-powered bikes bring internet to India
Google’s Internet Saathi programme in India hopes to become a blueprint for scalability. Women ambassadors, kitted out with bikes and wifi enabled entry-level devices, cycle on a route taking in 300,000 of India’s rural villages.
They come to train the village women how to use these devices to access the internet to help them in everyday life challenges. The Saathis are trained by Google, and supported on a stipend from Tata Trusts. They come from diverse backgrounds; some are teachers looking for other ways to support a community’s learning journey, others are from low-income families and need additional monthly income.
Together, they are teaching India’s rural women and girls how to use devices and access information that until then was beyond their reach. Impact is difficult to track on long-term use; a call centre does random follow up calls with village women who have been trained to see if they are still using the internet, but there is no measurement framework in place to track usage post-training. According to reports, three out of four women do not access the internet again after being trained.
If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it
ICTs don’t inherently promote gender equality. Partners across private, government and civil society sectors must invest in the build and maintenance of ICT infrastructure to provide access. They must ensure that excluded communities are involved in the design of these ICT solutions, and they must train these communities to use the solutions for their own benefit at a cost that is affordable for their means and to get information that will empower them.
Lastly, if we don’t measure programme successes (and failures) then we cannot improve them. The target is to meet SDG 9; to significantly increase access to ICT and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020.
Building infrastructure is one part of the solution. The excluded will come, but only if you teach them how.