Time for change: COVID-19, connectivity and equality

6 MAY 2020

As societies go into lockdown, girls and women are more vulnerable than ever to damaging exclusion. Connectivity is a right and a vital lifeline for millions.

Phone connectivity and internet access should be fundamental rights for all, but today, despite progress, they remain privileges. Almost half the world’s population is still offline; with girls, women and marginalised groups least likely to have access to technology. This was already a dire disadvantage. Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic has moved so many aspects of daily life online, this lack of connectivity has become even more alarming.

Digital disparities

The internet has evolved from being a luxury asset to a key utility and public good, yet 3.6 billion people remain offline. Digital disparities reflect the inequality and discrimination that exists in wider society, with access lowest for the least privileged. In low and middle-income countries, 433 million women are unconnected and 165 million fewer women than men own a mobile phone. Boys are 1.5 times more likely to own a phone than girls and of those that do own phones, boys are more likely than girls to own smartphones. The global Internet user gap is 17% and the digital gender gap exists in every country and continues to grow. No society is immune. 

We know from previous epidemics like Ebola that they magnify existing inequalities. 91% of the world’s student population is currently impacted by nationwide school closures in 191 countries and without online access to substitute methods of schooling, girls and young women face ever greater exclusion.

Financial exclusion affects women in crisis

Online commerce and mobile money is now a growing phenomenon, with over one billion registered accounts and close to US$2 billion in daily transactions. Digital products are reaching the screens of increasing numbers of low-income users, including young people. Yet 1.7 billion people remain financially excluded from the digital economy, with women accounting for 56% of those financially excluded. This can mean that essential cash transfer programmes do not reach women in times of crisis.

Technology can be a life-saving line of defence

‘Lockdown’ restrictions have left millions of girls, women and people of all genders vulnerable to a growing shadow pandemic of violence, including cyberviolence and exploitative grooming of children and with limited access to help. For these people, technology can be a life-saving line of defence, whether instant messaging services with a geolocation function, free calls to domestic abuse helplines, or discreet apps that provide disguised support and information to survivors in case of surveillance by abusers. 

But for those without access to a phone, these services might as well not exist. We must ensure that solutions do not only focus on high-end tech, further marginalising girls and women without those resources. A two-pronged approach is needed: to assure full connectivity for everyone and to cater for those who are not online.

We must strive for universal connectivity

Internet access should be a human right and we must be radical and ambitious in our thinking, striving for universal connectivity. Since most people access the internet through mobile devices, in low-income countries, especially, mobile network operators and internet service providers play a central role in enabling access. Governments and civil society can demand free or cheap access to the internet for those who can’t afford it, whether in the form of lower data bundle costs; the waiving of caps and additional fees on data usage; or zero-rating important websites, such as those with key educational content. Service providers, too, need governments to provide a supportive regulatory environment to help maintain connectivity as demand surges.

And assuring connectivity is only the first of many steps. To achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and leave no one behind, we need digital literacy that does not discriminate. Giving girls and women not only access to digital resources, but also the knowledge, training and confidence to design and use them, will ensure that they are not further marginalised in an increasingly digital world.

COVID-19 has been the most disruptive global force in a generation and where there is disruption, there is the potential to rebuild, reimagine and create a radically better world. We stand at a crossroads: we can allow the COVID-19 crisis to reinforce the worst impacts of the digital gender divide; or we can use the crisis to accelerate change, expand horizons and get millions of girls and women online. The time to act is now.

(This article was first published on Devex)