Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Digital Divide Looms Large for Women and Girls in Developing Countries

January 14, 2013

For women globally, the Internet has become a lifeline to information, opportunities, and new-found power. New data in a report called ‘Women and the Web,’ reveals how we can bridge the digital divide for women and unlock a massive wave of human potential.

Every week, Ruun makes a dangerous night trek to an Internet café amidst sounds of sporadic gunfire in Somalia’s streets, braving harassment to access information for her business. In Burma, NiNi dodges online censors to post citizen reports and read world news to share with her students. She faces whole afternoons of electricity black outs and waits 10 minutes for a page to load. Meanwhile, Rosita in Mexico waits until her husband is asleep to quietly open the computer he has forbidden her and network in women’s forums. Her online friends give her the courage needed to leave her abusive relationship and take charge of her life.

When I ask grassroots women leaders the world over, they say that access to the Internet is not a luxury but a lifeline. Time and time again women tell me that online access gives them a voice and an outlet to communicate with the rest of the world. Once they have overcome significant cultural and economic barriers to gain access, they find there is a world of opportunity out there, and they want to participate. They want to lead.

I get passionate answers from women like Busayo, a community organizer and health worker from Nigeria who exclaims, “Information is power—it helps us to learn how to change our conditions ourselves!” It has also helped her make change in her community. “In just the two years that I have been online, I have gotten support to start my vision for a women’s empowerment center and cybercafé, training over 150 women. We have even stopped cases of child rape. The Internet has opened the sky for us.”

 When I ask grassroots women leaders the world over, they say that access to the Internet is not a luxury but a lifeline.

But new data in a report commissioned by Intel with consultation from the U.S. State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, UNWomen, and World Pulse reminds us that the digital divide looms large for women. Globally, women have nearly 25% less access to the Internet than men. This figure soars to 40% in sub-Saharan Africa. These are dangerous statistics as without access, women are at great risk of being left behind as agents of change and leaders in a rapidly changing global society.

Yet we have the power to turn the tide.

According to the Women and the Web report “bridging the Internet gap represents an opportunity of immense proportions—for women and girls, their families and nations, and the global community.” It asserts a bold goal: a concerted effort between government, technology providers, development agents, and women leaders themselves that could double Internet access from 600 million to 1.2 billion in three years. This alone could expand opportunities for over half-a-billion women, enabling them to improve their ability to generate income, improve their education, and experience greater freedom of expression. The economic benefits aren’t too shabby either—this increase also opens up a market opportunity of around 50 to 70 billion dollars.

The potential of increasing access for women and girls is exponential. Once one woman experiences the transformative benefits of the Internet, she often becomes a “transmitter” introducing others in her community to the Web and creating a ripple effect of change.

I think of Stella who trains sex workers and trash pickers in India on how to use mobile phones and social networking to improve their conditions and even escape trafficking. I think of Leah in Kenya who uses a laptop to train women at her kitchen table in a rural village. She has a line of women winding around her house every day waiting to check their email.

Women are starting to build movements and demand a seat at the table. I think of Neema from the Democratic Republic of Congo who has started a movement of “Hero Women.” Hundreds of grassroots women are blogging from a homegrown Internet café, reaching media and even leaders in the White House in an effort to end violence in their country. Or Leina from Cameroon who had her blog about breast ironing picked up by CNN and is now training over 10,000 women to disavow the practice. Look at the massive protests in India surrounding the gang rape of a 23-year-old girl, or how women drove the Arab Spring.

The power of connectivity is undeniable, and some even argue that it is a human right. The UN agrees. In July, they passed a resolution making Internet access a human right. But this lifeline is still out of reach of too many, as women around the world loudly inform me.

“We girls are not privileged enough to get gains from the Internet,” says Sherry from rural Kenya. “We are missing out on gaining expertise. My community will remain in the dark if a way is not found to bring [access] to the people so we can develop like everybody else.”

If we can heed the recommendations of the Women and the Web report—ranging from the expansion of digital literacy training for women to the support of “safe” online communities and friendly access points like women-only internet cafes—and combine the best of the global technology industry with the ingenuity and resourcefulness of women on the ground to solve the digital divide challenge, we can unlock a colossal wave of human potential and freedom for future generations.

I challenge top development experts, technology leaders, philanthropists, and policy-makers to partner with grassroots women the world over and rise to the task. The women I work with every day are ready. With support, these local grassroots women leaders can lead the charge and bring “new life” and expand horizons for billions of people in their communities.

 
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