Mind the digital gender gap: Empowering women online

By — March 28, 2014

Did you know that 200 million more men than women have access to the Internet worldwide? In developing countries, the gender divide is particularly broad. In parts of West Africa and South Asia, women make up 25 percent or less of the online population, according to statistics compiled by World Pulse, a global media network.

Women face a variety of barriers to full and equal access, including cost, lack of digital literacy, lack of awareness of the Internet’s potential, and entrenched cultural and gender norms that limit them from forming independent connections outside their home or community. These obstacles are worth overcoming. In one international survey, 85 percent of women with Internet access said it provides “more freedom.” Equal access is also in the broader public interest: Bringing 600 million more women online could boost annual GDPs across 144 developing countries by an estimated $13 to $18 billion, the survey concluded.

Girls in an Afghanistan school are taught how to use computers. (Todd Huffman)

Yet access alone doesn’t equal digital empowerment; it is, rather, one of many conditions required to reduce gender inequalities online. For Freedom on the Net, the Internet freedom index to which I contribute, analysts in more than 60 countries assess Net freedom according to a three-pillar methodology that, as well as access, covers content and user rights. In these areas, too, women and girls face challenges that limit their participation in the online space.

In a range of countries, censorship disproportionately affects women. Some is targeted: In the United Arab Emirates last year, Freedom on the Net documented feminist and lesbian literature blocked online. Other content falls victim to anti-pornography measures, which vary globally in their effectiveness and legitimacy and are easily triggered by websites that discuss women’s health or LGBT rights, among other forms of expression. While traveling in Jakarta in February, digital rights activist Nighat Dad was prevented from accessing an op-ed she’d published in The Express Tribune in her native Pakistan. The private Nawal Project, a service that blocks offensive websites in Indonesia, returned error messages flagging the article as pornographic content, although the only image published with the piece—an analysis of Pakistan’s draft cybercrime law—was Dad’s own headshot.

Such arbitrary restrictions distract from the very real problems posed by offensive online content. Women around the world report being bombarded with aggressive, often sexualized hate speech online, which exacerbates self-censorship. Establishing reasonable limits and protections in the online space is no easy matter. In January 2013, French Minister for Woman’s Rights Najat Vallaud-Belkacem faced a backlash when she called for Twitter to restrict hate speech. Her detractors said this would threaten freedom of expression and make intermediary companies unfairly responsible for user-generated content, arguing that police should pursue those responsible for abuse instead.

Law enforcement professionals all too frequently lack the tools and the training to respond. In India, police have temporarily detained more than a dozen people in the past two years under a law that punishes a poorly defined range of social media activities—authorities in 2012 notoriously held a woman who criticized the local government on Facebook, as well as her friend who “liked” the post. However, Indian women say police are reluctant to use the same law to combat social media harassment, even explicit death threats. This attitude is particularly troubling in a country with an advanced surveillance apparatus that was abused, in one reported 2012 case, by a police officer monitoring his girlfriend. Digital technologies are advancing all the time. Protections for the women who use them risk falling by the wayside. 

Mechanisms to help authorities and individuals assess these risks are urgently needed. In Japan, a woman was killed by her stalker in 2012 after police failed to investigate emailed threats against her, in part because outdated stalking legislation didn’t cover digital harassment. 

Fortunately, information and communication technologies offer tools to document violence against women and other rights abuses, and to fight for change. Freedom on the Net has documented significant online activism around women’s rights issues in countries as diverse as Germany, Lebanon, Libya, and Sudan.

The most compelling movements start or gain momentum online, but produce real-world results. AIMI, a lactation network in Indonesia, has leveraged 7,000 low- and middle-income online supporters to successfully advocate for private breastfeeding rooms in 90 percent of private company offices in Jakarta. The Indian government strengthened the legal penalties for sexualized violence in 2013 in the wake of on- and off-line campaigns inspired by the shocking 2012 rape and murder in New Delhi. In January 2013—after online protests spurred by the suicide of a 16-year-old rape survivor the previous year—the government of Morocco proposed overturning an article in the penal code that let rape crimes go unprosecuted if the assailant married the victim. Inequality and gender-based violence persist, but these stories offer hope. Global groups like the Association for Progressive Communications offer resources.  

Even achievements, however, can come with a price. In the most disturbing cases, access and online mobilization actually expose women to violence or serve as a tool to strengthen oppression and control. In 2012, immigration authorities in Saudi Arabia were reported to be alerting male “guardians” via SMS to ensure women travelers had obtained their permission to cross international borders. Some religious figures in Egypt have issued fatwas against women who use the Internet without a male chaperone. Local and international news outlets reported that at least four women were killed in rural areas of Pakistan in June 2013, one for possessing a cellphone who was stoned to death, and three for appearing in an online video of a wedding that circulated via mobile phones. Women who advocate for online freedom are also vulnerable. A blogger in Vietnam said police stripped and sexually assaulted her in December 2012 when she tried to attend the trial of a fellow blogger jailed for his writing.

How do we maximize the empowering potential of the Internet while limiting the vulnerability of activists and individuals? Improving access for women is the first step:

  • Governments with national plans for improving broadband availability and affordability should include subsidies, women-only community access points, and other strategies to overcome specific access barriers facing women.
  • Education programs for women and girls should promote digital literacy—including privacy and online security.
  • In rural areas with low literacy, information technology projects should offer practical solutions for the local community. The government in Rwanda, for example, paired a digital literacy program for women with the development of a portable solar energy system for charging devices in areas with unreliable electricity.

Yet these measures must be sustained by engagement on other fronts:

  • Government restrictions on content should be transparent, proportionate, targeted toward clearly defined criminal activity, and subject to judicial oversight—as should penalties for violating the restrictions.
  • Governments should consult women, human rights experts, and other community stakeholders to prevent the passage of regulations that actively restrict or can be abused to restrict women online.
  • Lawmakers and law enforcers alike need training to apply information technology laws without discrimination on gender grounds.

These efforts will help to foster equal and secure Internet access for women around the world—and also empower them to use it. 

Madeline Earp gave a version of these remarks as part of a panel event, “ICT and the Internet as Powerful Means in Advancing the Rights and Empowerment of Women and Girls,” a side event at the 58th Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women organized by the Estonian mission to the UN.