Ruwandi Perera explains the need for more gender equal digital inclusion

The world celebrates International Women’s Day on 8 March every year. Throughout the month, virtually the entire web – including social media feeds – is inundated with posts, memes, videos and articles reflecting everything from gender equality debates to Wonder Woman aspirants.

While there’s much talk about women on the internet, the digital gender divide persists with reports stating that males seem to enjoy a larger slice of the cyber pie. Apart from the fact that even in Silicon Valley – considered the core of global tech companies – women earn less than their male counterparts, it’s disappointing to note the limited female access to what the internet offers.

Although many notable women from Ada Lovelace to Grace Hopper have played a part in making the internet what it is today, the web seems to continue to be a man’s world – especially in developing countries. This trickles down to even mobile internet usage, which is how most people access the web in these nations.

The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2018 published by GSMA notes that in low and middle income countries, women on average are 10 percent less likely to own a mobile phone than men – that’s a whopping 184 million women who don’t own phones!

According to the report, which is based on a study of 23 low and middle income nations, there are women who own mobile phones but don’t enjoy internet usage. The gender gap is wider in South Asia where women are 26 percent less likely to own a phone and 70 percent less likely to use mobile internet than men.

The situation is surprisingly (or perhaps not) better in Sri Lanka, according to another GSMA report titled ‘Triggering mobile internet use among men and women in South Asia’ based on a 2017 study on India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

While regionally, women faced permission and literacy issues that hindered their web usage, Sri Lankan women were more affected by the relevance and affordability of using the internet.

This means that while other South Asian women did not have the permission of their guardians (e.g. husbands), Sri Lankan women who didn’t use the internet simply didn’t want to! In fact, for most women who use mobile data in Sri Lanka, the need has arisen as a result of frustration over household data sharing and spouses proposing that they use a mobile.

The report also states that the theme of ‘girl meets boy on Facebook and begins a romantic relationship’ is very common in soap operas here in Sri Lanka – this is probably why Sri Lanka was reported to be very concerned about children being exposed to the web.

Encouraging women to use the internet more requires the collaborative efforts of many parties: government, data service providers, families and most importantly, women themselves. As is apparent in the above-mentioned reports, women first need to want to use the internet by recognising its potential to enrich their lives.

Globally, women are comparatively more burdened with housework and childcare. Therefore, they miss out on opportunities available to them on the internet such as jobs, education programmes and even simple solutions to their chores such as online shopping. Developing the necessary skills to use the internet to improve their lives and those of their family members is a dire need for women.

Digital inclusion is not a choice anymore because the more women are off the internet, the higher the opportunity cost in the context of economic growth. Closing the gender gap will translate into more revenue for commercial ventures and an upliftment of living standards across society.

It is widely accepted that the internet is a key driver of economic growth around the world; it’s also recognised as being an accelerator to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as well as the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. So ensuring that females and males enjoy the same rights, as well as access to the internet, is not only a gender game to be won but also a crucial component of global progress.

From another angle, ensuring protection for women in male dominated cyberspace is also of utmost importance, the lack of which is the reason some females resist the temptation of being active online. While trolling and cyberbullying are prevalent for all genders, women face a disproportionate degree of harassment – both of a sexual nature and otherwise.

Be it tighter security, better thought out policies or simply awareness and self-defence online, there’s much to be done to ensure that there is gender equality both offline and online.