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Social Norms in the Gender Digital Divide: USAID Digital Strategy Update

By Guest Writer on April 21, 2021

digital gender gap funding

Please RSVP Now to learn more about USAID’s Digital Strategy at the Global Digital Development Forum on May 5. Our amazing agenda features an entire conference track on the gender digital divide and multiple sessions focusing on USAID’s Digital Strategy.

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 commits to achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls. This includes enhancing the use of technology to further these goals. USAID’s Digital Strategy aims to continue its commitment to advancing women’s social and economic empowerment by closing the gender digital divide.

“I feel like I’ve been to Dubai.”

These are the words of a young, rural Kenyan girl with the power of the internet at her fingertips for the first time, unleashing a world of opportunity; however, this is not the norm. A recent national survey, conducted by the USAID Digital Frontiers project in Kenya, found that of those who never access the internet, 68 percent are female.

That seems like an enormous waste of opportunity and indicates the existence of a significant, untapped market. In many countries, the gender digital divide is as stark or worse than Kenya’s. So, why are women not online?

The Gender Digital Divide

A key initiative of USAID’s Digital Strategy, launched in April 2020, is to help close the gender digital divide. The digital divide is the distinction between those who have access to mobile and internet technology and are able to make use of the advances in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and those who are excluded from it.

The gender digital divide reflects the inequalities between men and women in terms of digital technology access and use. These divides are often compounded further for those who face intersecting barriers (e.g., age, disability, geography, language). There is a staggering 47 percent gap in internet use between men and women in least developed countries.

While being online can pose significant risks to women and girls, such as online harassment and data privacy issues, connectivity can also open opportunities. ICT provides women with access to finance and critical health services and opportunities for education, employment, entrepreneurship, and civic participation, enabling time-savings, greater security, and freedom of expression.

Closing the gender digital divide can also catalyze economic growth. It is estimated that closing the gender gap in mobile internet use across low- and middle-income countries could add $700 billion in GDP growth globally. The digital world is thus not only a vital gateway for boosting women’s economic empowerment and gender equality but is also a benefit to everyone globally.

Addressing adverse stereotypes

Change takes time, especially when it is a matter of influencing social norms. Negative gender stereotypes—such as the notion that women can’t use technology or a fear for their personal safety online —can affect their ability to participate in the digital realm, reinforcing the gender divide.

A 2015 GSMA study found that young women in Egypt, India, and Jordan, particularly from rural areas, often have their mobile phone use monitored and controlled by their families; this is said to protect them from harassment and to control their communication with men outside the immediate family. These actions are frequently referred to as gatekeeping—where heads of households (usually men) serve as the decision makers and influencers, shaping gendered social norms, perceptions, and behaviors around the use of digital technologies.

One of the most important strategies to close the gender digital divide is to identify and support digital champions within families and communities. USAID’s recently published Gender Digital Divide Risk Mitigation Technical Note and Resource Toolkit outlines actions for involving these digital advocates:

  • Ensure ICT outreach activities and digital literacy initiatives are tailored to and/or include men and other family gatekeepers, and
  • Engage a variety of community members, such as local religious/political leaders or female heads of household, when discussing the potential risks and benefits of access to digital tools.

Asking the right questions

If you’re wondering how to use the Toolkit in your work, look no further. It provides checklists, case studies, practical steps, and guides to help you better engender transformative change at each step of the program cycle and across sectors.

Say, for example, your activity is trying to increase women’s access to and use of mobile phones and the internet. The Toolkit recommends considering the following questions to identify if your activities are adequately including male/female/family gatekeepers in ICT:

  • How is your project campaigning to highlight the benefits of and minimize risks associated with women’s use of mobile phones?
  • How are the products, services, or training offered promoting benefits and engaging both men and women?

Asking these questions can lead to incredible results. For example, Indian mobile operator Telenor focused on male gatekeepers—training them on the value of women’s phone ownership and selling SIM cards in pairs—and saw a significant uptick (33 percent) in the number of first-time female mobile users.

In Nigeria, Women Connect Challenge winner Equal Access International produced a 12-episode radio drama to address deeply entrenched negative beliefs around women and girls’ use of digital technology.  Following each episode, on-air discussions with local gatekeepers, such as community leaders and religious clerics, helped reinforce positive messaging about family life and the freedom for women and girls to access and use technology.

The project elicited community discussion about underlying norms, enhanced family understanding and awareness (particularly male heads of households) of the benefits of digital, and provided the community with practical skills that showed the immediate benefits of women and girls using digital technology.

So, why are women not online?

In short: it’s complicated. Changing adverse social norms is a slow process, but digital champions and gatekeepers are key to addressing some of these complicated barriers. As development practitioners we need to keep fighting to close the gender digital divide; incremental impacts are better than none at all and efforts to close it shouldn’t be limited to “gender folks.”

Women and girls make up more than half the world’s population and yet their needs are often overlooked in the design of standard development programs. After all, no country can truly prosper until everyone can benefit from the gains of a global digital ecosystem.

USAID’s Digital Strategy was launched in April 2020, with the goal of supporting its partner countries through their digital transformations. It aims to improve USAID development and humanitarian assistance outcomes through the responsible use of digital technology and to strengthen the openness, inclusiveness, and security of partner country digital ecosystems.

By Ariel Magid, Digital Strategy Specialist, and Raiyan Kabir, Digital Development Specialist, DAI/Digital Frontiers, a five year (2017-2022) cooperative agreement administered by USAID.

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2 Comments to “Social Norms in the Gender Digital Divide: USAID Digital Strategy Update”

  1. Good argument about increasing or providing women access to the Internet. However, as an educator who teaches technology for teachers, as a woman, who has access to the Internet, How does being online enhance women’s lives? What do I do online that makes the expense of paying for internet service worth? So many poor women pay substantial amounts of money for airtime!
    They borrow airtime from different carriers so that they can communicate!

    I find airtime very expensive in kenya, tanzania where I have lived and worked as a Fulbright and Carnegie scholar.

    Let’s talk about the pandemic and the gap that exists between countries as well as rural and urban area access and the other intersectionalities including gender, age, etc!

    Affordable and Education on how to use the internet to enhance the lives of women and in deed men as well is critical! Advocacy for women and girls to be online is fair but how can it improve their lives? Can they afford to be online? Who really do they enrich why on Facebook? How much are zuckerberg, Alphabet INC as well as local providers like safaricom using their massive gains to fund true educational opportunities for women, girls and poor in general!

    We need meaningful tangible online experiences that will transform lives. We need to overcome poverty!!

    • Natasha says:

      Hi Dr. Ndunda,
      I am in agreement with you on many points. Airtime in Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia (these are just the eastern and southern Africa countries where I have also worked) is far too expensive. Telecommunications companies are often greedy and need to do a better job of opening access via reducing the price of their services.

      In terms of how being online enhances women’s lives — I agree there are many reasons to think that being online DOESNT improve womens lives — however if we think along the lines of the current capitalist systems and potential access to markets for women’s goods/services as well as access to education and other information where they can improve their knowledge, skills, etc. then it is hugely beneficial.

      And yes, these are complex issues specially considering the intersections between livelihood, age, gender, location, etc. There is no one easy answer and I appreciate your comments.