Guest blog post by Erica Gendell, USAID, U.S. Global Development Lab & Catherine Highet, FHI 360, mSTAR Project
When it comes to women’s economic and social empowerment, information communication technology (ICT) is often considered a great equalizer. It is true that ICTs can provide women and underrepresented populations access to financial services, new market opportunities, life-enhancing services and greater security. However, technology is ultimately just a tool that magnifies and mirrors the world we live in-the good, the bad and the ugly. The 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence Campaign, provides us with a time to reflect on how technology may mitigate, exacerbate, or reveal gender-based violence.
While data are limited, some startling figures have emerged:
- In Kampala, Uganda, 45 percent of female internet users reported experiencing online threats.1
- Research in Argentina shows that a woman’s mobile phone is one of the first items to be destroyed by a violent partner.2
- In 74 percent of countries included in the World Wide Web Foundation’s Web Index3, law enforcement agencies and legal systems are failing to take appropriate action on cases which reported ICTs were used to commit acts of gender-based violence.4
Despite the relative lack of data, we are beginning to understand common, shared risks facing women using ICTs:
- Mobile phones are valuable—carrying a phone in public spaces can increase a woman’s likelihood of being a target for theft and bodily harm.
- Whether accessing the internet through a mobile phone or computer, women are often more vulnerable to online threats and harassment.
- In patriarchal societies, where women’s mobile phone ownership is associated with assumptions about a woman’s freedom to make her own choices—in particular, to enter romantic relationships—the presence of a mobile phone may threaten traditional household power dynamics and expectations, leading to domestic violence.
- Women are often encouraged by well-meaning service providers or NGO staff to keep their digital financial services accounts ‘discreet’ by not telling their husband or other family members about them, or sharing their PIN number. While this discretion might mean the woman can maintain independent financial resources, it may come at a high cost if they are discovered, such as increased instances of gender-based violence.
In all technological interventions, it is best practice to first understand the market and cultural context. USAID’s Gender & ICT Survey Toolkit helps development professionals better understand the dynamics surrounding technology and gender-based violence. This toolkit covers behavioral themes such as control, ownership and perceptions, and can help facilitate an in-depth examination of the relationship women and girls have with ICTs. It is the development community’s responsibility to understand how women may be positively or negatively impacted by ICT interventions before implementation. We must first do no harm.
At USAID, we are working to help women fulfill their full potential by removing barriers that deny women access to the internet. Just last month, USAID announced the WomenConnect Challenge, which beginning early 2018, will accept innovative, comprehensive proposals to help close the digital gender divide.
The Gender & ICT Survey Toolkit is brought to you by the Digital Inclusion team at USAID and the mSTAR project at FHI 360.
1 Women’s Rights and the Internet in Uganda, 2015
2 Association for Progressive Communications
4 Women’s Rights Online: Translating Access into Empowerment, 2015
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