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Women hardest hit by digital divide during COVID-19

Samuel Mungadze
By Samuel Mungadze, Africa editor
Johannesburg, 07 Aug 2020
Doreen Bogdan-Martin, director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau.
Doreen Bogdan-Martin, director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau.

A new report by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) says the digital gender divide is placing women and girls at risk as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

Released this week, the “Women, ICT and emergency telecommunications: Opportunities and constraints” report says equal access to information and communication technology (ICT) can save lives in emergencies, including during pandemics.

This report assesses whether ICTs used to reduce disaster risk are benefiting women and men equally. It does so by considering vulnerability alone as it examines women’s circumstances in relation to men’s in the same geographies and with the same ICT infrastructure.

Additionally, it examines gendered disaster vulnerability as well as the gender digital divide and looks at a range of ICT initiatives currently used to “reduce gendered asymmetries, inform recommendations for ICT-enabled disaster risk reduction (DRR) for the most vulnerable”.

DRR refers to the systematic approach to identifying, assessing and reducing the risks of disaster.

Prepared by the ITU and the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC), the report highlights the importance of advancing gender equality in disaster risk management, and leveraging context-appropriate ICTs, which it says are critical to deliver essential information to the most vulnerable of communities in a timely manner.

It also shows that access to these technologies has a major impact on women's ability to prepare for, survive and recover from disasters.

According to the report, in such times of crises, access to accurate information is life-saving and life-changing for women, their families and their communities.

“In the wake of disaster, women are more vulnerable and more likely to die than men. The COVID-19 pandemic has devastating social and economic consequences for women and girls because they comprise the majority of healthcare workers, are over-represented in the informal economy and take on most domestic work – significantly compounding pre-existing inequalities,” says the ITU.

According to the report, women are still 17% less likely to use the Internet than men, with an even wider gap in least developed countries.

It says women in low- and middle-income countries are also 10% less likely to own a mobile phone than men.

Enrica Porcari, chief information officer and director of technology for the United Nations World Food Programme and ETC chairperson, says: “Access to communication technologies plays a central role in managing disasters and emergencies. It's vital for people to receive early warnings, accurate information and humanitarian assistance or even just to contact loved ones.

“Leaving women and girls out of that communication loop has a huge knock-on effect that puts millions of lives at risk."

Further, the report examines the impact of ICTs for men and women in the same environments and with the same infrastructure.

“Gender-based inequality shows up in the use of information and communication technology as well as in their design, development and launch – and crucially, in how they are used in disaster risk management," says Doreen Bogdan-Martin, director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau.

“Yet, putting these technologies in the right hands can transform the way women and their communities prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters."