Growing the Internet Human Rights Women in Tech

National consultation highlights gender digital divide in the Philippines

Last month at the United Nations in New York, world leaders agreed on 17 Sustainable Development Goals which countries must strive to carry out in the next 15 years. Like its predecessor, the 3rd MDG, the 5th SGD aims to achieve gender equality worldwide through an extensive list of targets, and this time with an explicit pledge to harness ICT use to empower women.

The Philippines is well positioned to lead the charge towards a more gender-equal Internet in the Asia-Pacific region. It has long been one of the most gender-equal nations in the world, and the only one in Asia-Pacific to consistently rank among the top 10 countries with the least gender disparity, according to the World Economic Forum.  Significantly, it is one of the very few countries in the region where women have equal, or close to equal, participation in the technical and scientific fields, and where women outnumber men—albeit just marginally—in having access to the Internet.

But the Philippines is also home to a significant number of people for whom ICT adoption is not an immediate priority. A quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, with some 70% of women estimated to be in a state of survival. Last week, a national consultation held by the Foundation of Media Alternatives and supported by the Internet Society showed that just as the Internet promises to help uplift women’s lives, it may also exacerbate or even create new forms of socio-economic inequalities, even among women themselves.

While urban-based participants at the two-day workshop noted the barriers posed by the country’s slow and expensive Internet, those from Magindanao, a culture-rich but conflict-ridden area in southern Philippines, spoke of a complex array of restrictions standing in the way of increased ICT use. Lack of power in many villages mean that women need to walk for hours to the nearest town to charge their mobile phones, while periodic evacuations due to ongoing clashes have created communities that are always on the move, settling in makeshift structures, thus making it difficult to equip schools, for instance, with computers and Internet connectivity.

Where there is Internet access, some have observed a general discomfort with unfamiliar technology, especially among rural residents. One woman said that in her village, elderly midwives find it more challenging to transition to writing their reports online, and tend to revert back to using paper once the connectivity cuts off. Another shared that locals are hesitant to try a peculiar-looking device, even if it is meant for public use, without someone first teaching them how it works.

Such stories highlight the importance of integrating digital literacy training with Internet connectivity provision.  In low-income areas where women are more prone to sexual exploitation and trafficking, rights groups worry that women may be learning to use the Internet for purposes that make them more vulnerable to online and offline abuse. Digital skills training must thus not only be about how one can connect to the Internet, but also include ways by which women can use it productively for self-development.

In a study conducted by Google, women in the Philippines cited lack of time, skills and income as the biggest obstacles to Internet use. It also found the community as the most trusted source of Internet knowledge among women, with 74% preferring to receive instructions from friends and family, over say, a formal course in a group setting.  This means that not only must policies promote alternative and more affordable modes of Internet access but also flexible approaches to education and learning, such as train the trainer sessions for women owners of coin-operated Internet kiosks or mobile phone credit resellers, who could more easily pass the knowledge on to their customers and acquaintances.

The Philippine government’s Tech4Ed programme, to be deployed alongside its free Wi-Fi project, promises to provide practical digital skills training particularly to out of school youth, senior citizens, women and indigenous people across the country.  But while women in the country continue to advocate for gender mainstreaming in national policy, many of the solutions sought at the workshop were aimed at a more localised level, from new ordinances to curtail cyber prostitution to cultivating more technical knowledge in remote villages to enable them to build their own wireless networks. Others are pushing for a portion of the budget given to barangays, the smallest unit of governance in the Philippines, to be allotted to hands-on digital skills training for women and girls.

To bring more women online, it is crucial to first identify the groups and sectors who continue to be offline. And from last week’s consultation, it is becoming clearer that the next wave of initiatives to extend Internet access must be targeted to, as a Web Foundation executive put it, those without the status or power to claim it. For countries like the Philippines, this means women with disabilities, those in rural areas, informal sector workers, the urban poor, and members of indigenous communities.

Growing the Internet Women in Tech

Can mobile Internet bridge the gender digital divide? Lessons from our APrIGF workshop

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.