Ending gender digital divide: What more can we do for girls?

Digital technologies have advanced more rapidly than any innovation in our history; reaching around 50 per cent of the developing world’s population in only two decades and transforming societies. In 2021, we are surrounded by evidence of the transformative power of digital technology. Through our digital gadgets, we enjoy more connectivity, better access to information, and increased access to services in every industry.  

While many communities are prospering and advancing towards sustainable livelihoods, through technology, the communities that have no access to digital technologies are falling even further behind. 

This difference between the haves and have nots in terms of access to digital services is referred to as the “The digital divide.” The categories of people who are being left behind in the digital revolution are the poor, women and the disabled. 

Global landscape 

On the gender front, The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in 2019 reported that the gender digital gap in mobile ownership is much larger in South Asia (23 per cent) and sub-Saharan Africa (13 per cent) than on other continents. The findings also show that more than 50 per cent of the world’s women are offline with this being more pronounced in developing countries where the internet penetration rate for adult women is 41 per cent, compared to 53 per cent for men. 

When it comes to mobile phone access, Global System for Mobile Communications 2020 report indicates that women are more likely than men to borrow or share mobile phones and are rarely the primary owners of mobile phones. 

While few studies have been done about girls’ access to digital technology, the limited data available shows that the pattern for girls is similar for women. More than half (52 per cent) of girls borrow mobile phones if they want digital access, compared to 28 per cent of boys. This study was done by Girl Effect and the Vodafone Foundation in 2018. 

Uganda 

In 2020, The Wide Web Foundation(WWF) reported that among four countries included in the survey of women’s online experiences, Uganda had the largest gender digital divide. With an internet penetration standing at Uganda 26.2 per cent as of January 2021, WWF notes that 43 per cent of men are more likely to be online than Ugandan women. 

The low internet usage in the country can be attributed to the high internet costs, the low internet connectivity, poverty that hinders access to mobile phones and data, illiteracy and lack of exposure to internet resources. While these factors apply generally to Uganda, they are further compounded for women. 

Impact of the Digital Gender Divide 

As the other half of the human population, neglecting girls in the digital revolution has serious implications.  A report from the United Nations in 2018 shows that already 90 per cent of the current jobs have a digital component. Maintaining this digital divide along the gender line means that girls will not be able to access information as well as acquire the relevant skills that will enable them to participate in the job market. This will result in their further marginalization as emphasized by The Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, “The gender digital divide is threatening to become the new face of inequality. It is reinforcing the social and economic disadvantages suffered by women and girls, people with disabilities and minorities of all kinds.” 

Partner efforts 

Taking up the challenge to do this work is Educating The Children (ETC) founded by Sonal Kadchha. ETC aims to empower young women in East Africa through education and training. “What motivates me to do this work is the gratitude I have for my education, and how it has enabled me to have options in my life. Also, if you look at key research, it shows that educating a girl is the quickest route to economic prosperity for a community. Young women are more likely to invest 90 per cent of their income back into their families.” 

Set up in 2010, ETC started focusing on digital skills in 2019, following the realization that these skills were required by existing employers, and are essential for the future of work.  

Kadchha says the equality they have worked hard to promote threatens to be undone by the pandemic, particularly when it comes to jobs such as computer programming.  

“Even though the demand for digital skills in jobs is going up, the gender digital divide is actually accreasing and getting worse,” she says. 

Regardless of this setback, ETC has helped over 1000 girls in Kenya while in Uganda they have run several job-readiness boot camps that focus on digital skills and coding . The boot camp called Code Queen has brought in 150 young women into the program over two years. The demand, Sonal says, is still huge as they have 400 applications to date. “These young women want to learn – there is so much passion and potential talent,” she says. 

Code Queen serves the neediest girls yet the challenge of empowering girls who have no access to laptops and data stands in the way. Private sector players are now on the lookout for internship partnerships with companies and organisations. This not only benefits the graduate with the largest hurdle on their curriculum vitae- real work experience, but also the business partner too.  

“Most of our partners have been impressed with the quality of the work that has been delivered to them,” she says. 

Girls Speak Out 

Vanessa Kenzie is 15-year-old secondary school student who is enrolled in programming classes with Mindset Coders. Founded by Val Masicha, Mindset Coders is an academy that provides coding courses for children. 

Kenzie is participating in the three months program which she says that she enjoys. “I like that the lessons are easy to learn and the exercises are really fun to do.” 

Programming is introducing her to many parts of the technical world. “My intellectual understanding of the internet is growing from the exercises that require us to make research on google.” 

Commenting on the digital gender divide, she says programming seems like something only boys do. Given her newfound knowledge now, she urges girls to dedicate their time to acquiring the different tech skills.  

While she is looking at a future career in architecture, Kenzie feels that her skills are going to come in handy when she needs to do build websites and applications for companies. 

 Why we must bridge the gender digital divide 

The agenda of empowering girls through digital skilling has been at the front line of The Innovation Village’s efforts. In a partnership with The Mastercard Foundation, The Innovation Village through its programs and various partnerships aims to enable 300,000 Ugandan youths to find dignified work by 2030. At the core of its work is the interest to bridge the gender inequality gap, by having 70 per cent of women benefiting from each program geared towards youth capacity building. 

To this end, The Innovation Village has provided thousands of young women with digital skills like programming and social media marketing through its skilling academy UPSKILL and the Tech and Data Department. In fact, in July this year, several young women graduated from the Code Queen Boot camp organized in partnership with The Innovation Village. These efforts have resulted in young women unlocking new careers or starting their businesses. 

It took a bit of research to understand some of the barriers towards women taking up digital skilling. The Tech and Community Manager at The Innovation Village says while calls were open for young men and women to take up training in programming, the classes always had a smattering of women. When the team carried out research, they found that women held back from unisex spaces because of intimidation.  They changed their strategy to running women-only spaces, and the efforts have paid off since then. 

On Monday, Uganda joined the world in commemorating the International Day of The Child under the theme, “Digital generation, Our generation.” Representing United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) at the celebrations, Munir Safieldin said when COVID-19 necessitated unprecedented public health measures such as frequent lockdowns and closure of schools and businesses, societies with advanced digital technology were able to ensure the continuity of learning and economic productivity. He called on every stakeholder to work towards ensuring that girls, especially in developing countries, can reap the benefits of the technological revolution that has reshaped the life of every human being.  

Minister of Gender, Labor and Social Transformation Betty Amongi emphasizes the importance of technology in the life of the girl child.  “If we are to raise a generation of girls who are change-makers, technology is a crucial tool to support their work, their activism and their leadership,” she says.  

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