The UN’s doomed battle to make the internet safe for women

Never let a crisis go to waste – even the Covid-19 crisis. It has caused untold suffering and economic hardship. However, it has also spurred developments in science and technology.

Never has humankind ever been forced to live in such isolation. But the past year also demonstrated the important role of digital connectivity and cooperation, not just for companies and employees working from home, but also for children attending online classes, and friends and families.

Following the Covid-19 crisis, businesses have rapidly scaled up their digitization efforts. The future of work is rapidly changing with a shift away from low-skill activities towards more technology-driven roles. According to a global survey by McKinsey, a consulting firm, companies have hastened digitization more quickly than they had thought possible before the pandemic, and are making substantial investments to sustain this process. It is estimated that in the coming decade 50 percent of jobs will be shaped by automation, with 9 out of 10 jobs demanding digital skills.

Gender disparity

But between those who have ready access to technological tools and those with limited means, lies a gender disparity in access to the digital world. Even in developed economies where women comprise a major part of the workforce, a report from the World Economic Forum estimates that by 2026, 57 percent of the jobs that are set to be displaced by technology will belong to women. Digital literacy is an essential skill for employability that has been linked to higher earning potential and new economic opportunities in the near future.

This digital divide is becoming the new face of inequality, discrimination, and socio-economic marginality. The UN reports that gender disparity in digital adoption is growing, and the Covid-19 has aggravated it, with a large gap in women and girls' use of technology when compared to men and boys. For instance, as global internet access grew, the gender gap among users grew from 11 percent in 2013 to 17 percent in 2019. The widest gap of 43 percent is seen in the world's least developed countries. About 2.2 billion people below the age of 25 have no access to the internet at home -- and most of those are girls.

On the International Day of the Girl Child last month, the UN called for an end to gender disparities in the digital world. The year-long initiative, "Digital generation. Our generation,” seeks to build equal access to the internet and digital devices for girls.

An OECD report titled Bridging the Digital Gender Divide, points out that the use of digital technology can help women to hurdle over obstacles which they face in the physical world. It can help expand their knowledge, improve employability, enhance self-awareness and sense of worth, and increase their civic and political participation.

Fundamental challenges

But digital parity is a double-edge sword. There are opportunities, but also risks of abuse in the digital space which mirror those which exist in the physical world.

According to data by UN Women, even before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, globally, 1 in 3 women experienced some form of physical or sexual violence, including cultural practices such as sex-selective abortions, child marriages and female genital mutilation (FGM). Some 650 million girls and women around the world have been married as children, and over 200 million have been subjected to FGM. The hardships brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic have only made matters worse.

With the outbreak of Covid-19 and given the absence of a vaccine and effective treatment mechanisms, governments around the world imposed quarantine regulations and lockdown restrictions. In what experts call the "quarantine paradox," lockdowns helped to curb the virus, but they disrupted communities, devastated families, promoted domestic violence and battered the global economy.

Predictably, women suffered more. Lockdowns made many extremely vulnerable and completely dependent on male members of their families. Since the pandemic began, calls to domestic violence helplines in several countries have increased. However, governments failed because they were forced to divert resources to tackle the immediate needs of Covid-19 relief.

A shadow pandemic of domestic violence and extremist intensified due to financial dependency, extreme living conditions, living in isolation with abusers, movement restrictions, lack of access to schools and help-groups, and deserted public spaces. It exposed women and girls to "elevated levels of sexual and physical domestic violence while the restrictions on mobility limited their access to protection and treatment services, and justice for survivors.”

The pandemic also launched sexism into cyberspace. An survey conducted by the World Wide Web Foundation found that 52 percent of young women have experienced online abuse, which includes threatening messages, sexual harassment, sharing of personal images without consent and fake content. More alarming is that 87 percent of the girls surveyed think that the problem is getting worse.

Another survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit found that the internet is “increasingly a vector for abusers targeting women”. For instance, a now-defunct website called “Sulli Deals” sought to target prominent Indian Muslim women by using their social media images and putting them up “for auction.”

Lack of support from government and law enforcement agencies is a global challenge. The Web Foundation, which measures the Web's contribution to social, economic and political progress in countries across the world, found that “in 74% of Web Index countries, including many high-income nations, law enforcement agencies and the courts are failing to take appropriate actions in situations where Web-enabled ICTs are used to commit acts of gender-based violence.”

Recently, more than 200 prominent personalities from around the world wrote an open letter to the CEOs of Facebook, Google, TikTok and Twitter calling upon them to make women’s safety “a priority”. Terming the internet a “town square of the 21st century” where debate takes place, communities are built, products are sold and reputations are made, the signatories pointed out that the “scale of online abuse means that, for too many women, these digital town squares are unsafe” and called it a “threat to progress on gender equality”.

Government inaction strengthens the argument of self-proclaimed socio-cultural guardians and gatekeepers who want to restrict the access of women and girls to the digital space. In traditional societies, access to digital devices and the internet is often considered unsafe for women and girls due to its “corrupting influence“ and is therefore restricted or controlled by elder male members of a family or the community.

The UN’s determination to raise the status of women is admirable but bedevilled by an unacknowledged inconsistency. One the one hand, it campaigns against FGM and other despicable practices, while treating abortion as a non-negotiable right. As a result statisticians estimate that there are 126 million missing girls in the world. They died before birth after their mothers had a sex-selective abortion. It’s another example of how technological innovation is being used to diminish and erase women.

If women have so little prestige before being born, no wonder they lack it after they’re born. If the UN wants to close the gender gap after birth, why doesn’t it campaign to close it before birth?


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