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Good Read of the Week: 'Women and the Web'

March 08, 2013

Women-and-the-Web_coverToday is International Women's Day, and a whole host of events and discussions celebrating extraordinary women and highlighting the inequities women around the globe continue to face are taking place -- many of them online. Yet few women in the developing world are aware of these online activities, let alone able to participate. Despite all the knowledge and opportunity the Internet has created over the last two decades and the millions of lives it has transformed, women in many parts of the world have little or no access to the mother of all networks.

According to Women and the Web (104 pages, PDF), a report from Intel and Dalberg Global Development Advisors, an average of only 21 percent of the women and girls in 144 developing countries have access to the Internet, compared with 27 percent of men -- a weighted gender gap of 23 percent. And the gap widens to 33 percent in South Asia, 34 percent in the Middle East and North Africa, and 43 percent in sub-Saharan Africa. The situation is even more serious, the report argues, when one factors in the tangible benefits of Internet access for women. These include increases in women's income potential and a greater sense of empowerment. Indeed, the longer a woman has been active online, the report finds, the more likely she is to engage in activities that generate economic benefits.

In contrast, societies unwilling or unable to provide women with access to the Internet increasingly must do without the tools and resources needed to achieve development goals such as reducing infant mortality or boosting per capita GDP. In other words, the Internet gender gap holds back not only women, but their families, communities, and countries. "As more of the world's communications and business migrate online, women who cannot or do not use the Internet risk deeper isolation, including missed opportunities for education, jobs and career advancement," says Nancy Hafkin, a senior associate at Women in Global Science and Technology.

What are the barriers that prevent women from accessing the Internet in developing countries? According to the report, 23 percent of the women surveyed were unaware of the Internet or its benefits, 23 percent cited a lack of facility with technology, and 8 percent cited cultural norms. On the latter point, one in five women in India and Egypt believed that the Internet was not "appropriate" for them, while a supportive family was a critical factor in enabling women's Internet use in other countries. Even when women are able to overcome social and cultural norms, however, they often are hampered by technological barriers, including the lack of a robust network infrastructure, limited availability and/or affordability of devices and network access, and the absence of public policy supportive of equal access for women.

So, how do we remove these obstacles and expand Internet access for women in the developing world? For starters, a coordinated effort among industry, the development community, and policy makers is needed to eliminate barriers at both the individual and structural levels, the authors argue. And stakeholders must do more to support and accelerate these shifts. Specific interventions recommended by the report include:

  1. Forming a coalition of stakeholders to advocate for women and girls' right to access the Internet;
  2. Building on existing partnerships with mobile operators to make mobile content more relevant and available on mobile devices;
  3. Incentivizing entrepreneurs to create content targeted to women in local contexts;
  4. Identifying women leaders in the industry to serve as advocates for the benefits of Internet access; and
  5. Tracking on a systematic basis how women and girls access and use the Internet.

Clearly, there's much work to be done if women and girls are not to be left behind as the global economy continues to move online. At the end of the day, the lack of Internet access among so many women and girls is not just a problem for them; it's a problem for all of us.

What do you think about the issues raised by the report? What role -- if any -- does access to the Internet play in advancing gender equality and women's empowerment? Have any examples you can share of how the Internet has transformed women's lives? And what about other areas in which social or cultural norms have been a barrier to women's progress? Use the comments section below to share your thoughts....

-- Kyoko Uchida

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