The figures suggest that it is possible. The Internet Society’s Global Internet Report 2015, launched this week, found that 94% of the world’s population is covered by a mobile network, and 48% have mobile broadband available to them. Asia-Pacific is leading this trend, topping the mobile broadband uptake chart by ITU estimates.
But thus far, these numbers have failed to bring large-scale change to women’s lives. Only one in five females in the region have Internet access, and GSMA’s Bridging the Gender Gap study reports that nearly two-thirds of unconnected women live in Asia-Pacific.
The main obstacles lie not with the demographic but in the environment—socio-cultural, institutional, and economic—in which women often find themselves. Entrenched income gaps and attitudes about the role of women in society, coupled with educational and employment constraints as well as possible restrictions to movement, limit opportunities for exposure to the Internet—whether at home, in school, at work or in public access kiosks. In South Asia, for instance, women are 38% less likely to own a mobile phone than men for a variety of reasons, including lack of control over finances and decision-making, and less earning capacity to purchase Internet-enabled tools. Most low-income households tend to have only one mobile device, if any, and it is often male members who carry it around. The lack of confidence in ICT use among women is a byproduct of this landscape. This includes discomfort or feeling unwelcome when interacting with men who sell SIM cards or man common access points.
Several organisations, including the Internet Society, have begun to address these issues, mainly by getting women into the value chain. The APAC Bureau’s Wireless Women for Entrepreneurship and Empowerment programme builds digital literacy skills to enable women in remote locations not just to go online but to set up and run their own businesses, including e-services shops. A similar project by Uninor in India saw mobile top-ups to women increase by 300% over a year in 2013, while also resulting in a 10-fold rise in women entrepreneurs’ income. At a more basic level, Google’s Helping Women Get Online program has mounted Internet devices, along with information on how to use the Web, on rickshaws in Madhya Pradesh, to encourage women to go online while doing their daily chores.
Research and industry groups attest that women do see value in the Internet for a variety of reasons. In a survey of 800 women in the Philippines, for instance, Google found that their main motivation for going online was to stay in touch with family members working abroad. In focus groups organised by the Foundation for Alternative Media (FMA), women cited lack of time as a barrier to using the Internet, but with all these constraints in place, FMA posits that this may be because women, especially those in rural areas, often need to travel long distances for reliable and affordable access. It certainly does not help that Internet rates, especially in developing countries in the region, remain prohibitive for the general population—panelists at the workshop we held on the subject at the 2015 Asia-Pacific Regional IGF (APrIGF) in Macau last week noted that even women who have smartphones do not automatically avail of data plans.
Part of the challenge in addressing women’s needs stems from the lack of gender-disaggregated data, which makes it difficult to determine and draw conclusions on specific usage trends. Poor attention by policymakers in the ICT sector contributes to this dearth. Specifically, GSMA stressed that of the 119 national broadband plans in place in 2012, only 30 included a gender component.
When information is available, the ongoing focus on quantitative, over qualitative, data can also be a hindrance to developing more localised interventions, or tailored and relevant content and applications for women—a crucial factor to getting more women online, according to the UN. In the Philippines, where 51% of Internet users are women—the World Economic Forum has ranked the country the 9th most gender-equal in the world–FMA found that the women who outnumber men in social media use tend to be female students in urban areas who can afford to buy personal gadgets.
But can mobile Internet really bridge the gender digital gap? Workshop participants agreed that it can help, but it is not enough. Groups like the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) pointed out that Internet connectivity must be made available to women regardless of the device they are using, and recommends not closing the door on other modes of access, including more autonomous options like mesh networking using wireless technologies, TV white space or unlicensed spectrum. A more fundamental goal was converting Internet access into meaningful participation, ensuring that women maximise the value of connectivity not only as users but by becoming innovators, developers and creators through the Internet.