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Over half of global female population still unconnected

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Doreen Bogdan-Martin, director of ITU's Telecommunication Development Bureau.
Doreen Bogdan-Martin, director of ITU's Telecommunication Development Bureau.

The digital gender gap is growing in Africa compared to other parts of the world where the divide has been shrinking.

This is according to new data released by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

This gap on the continent continues to grow despite ITU saying 4.1 billion people are now online.

While the rest of the world is closing the divide, in developing countries women’s Internet use is falling behind, says the UN specialised agency.

It notes that while the digital gender gap has been shrinking in the Commonwealth of Independent States and Europe, it is growing in Africa, the Arab states and the Asia-Pacific region.

The study reveals that in most of these countries, women are still trailing men in benefiting from the transformational power of digital technologies.

“Measuring digital development: Facts and figures 2019”, the first publication in ITU’s new measuring digital development series, estimates that over half the total global female population (52%) is still not using the Internet, compared to 42% of all men.

It shows the proportion of all women using the Internet globally is 48%, against 58% of all men.

“More men than women use the Internet in every region of the world except the Americas, which has near-parity,” it says.

ITU says the digital gender gap is widest in developing countries, especially the least developed countries.

Houlin Zhao, ITU secretary general, says: “ITU’s measuring digital development reports are a powerful tool to better understand connectivity issues, including the growing digital gender divide, at a time when over half of the world's population is using the Internet.

“ITU statistics help policy-makers and regulators make informed policy decisions to connect the unconnected and track progress at the global level.”

The latest ITU data will be viewed as disappointing in some quarters considering last year the same body predicted massive growth in Africa.

At the time, the Geneva-based organisation said of all ITU regions, the strongest growth was reported in Africa, where the percentage of people using the Internet increased from just 2.1% in 2005 to 24.4% in 2018.

Barriers to Internet use

ITU data shows affordability and lack of digital skills remain some of the key barriers to the uptake and effective use of the Internet, especially in the world's least-developed countries.

The report says in 40 out of 84 countries for which data is available, less than half the population has basic computer skills, such as copying a file or sending an e-mail with an attachment.

Although more data is needed, initial findings indicate a strong and pressing need for governments to focus on measures to develop digital skills, particularly in the developing world.

Doreen Bogdan-Martin, director of ITU's Telecommunication Development Bureau, says: “Even where connectivity exists, we need to be more creative in addressing critical issues like affordability of service, cost of handsets, and lack of digital skills and literacy to enable more people – and especially women – to participate and flourish in the digital economy.”

Mobile phone gender gap

ITU data shows 96% of the world population now lives within reach of a mobile cellular signal and 93% within reach of a 3G (or higher) network.

It says in the Americas, the Asia-Pacific region and Europe, over 95% of the population is covered by a 3G or higher mobile broadband network. In the Arab States, the figure stands at 91%, the Commonwealth of Independent States at 88%, and Africa at 79%.

Additionally, it says of the 85 countries that provided data on mobile phone ownership, 61 have a higher proportion of men with mobile phones than women. Of the 24 remaining countries where there is gender parity in mobile phone ownership, or where more women have mobile phones than men, Chile has the highest digital gender gap in favour of women at 12%.

According to ITU, this data confirms a correlation between the mobile phone ownership gender gap and the Internet gender gap: countries where the mobile phone ownership gender gap is large also have a high number of women not using the Internet.

“Given that mobile phones are the most-often used means of accessing the Internet, addressing the issue of women's mobile phone ownership could help reduce the Internet gender divide,” it says.

3.6 billion offline

ITU says despite Internet use continuing to grow globally, over three billion people are still not connected.

“Connecting the 3.6 billion people still offline to the power of digital technologies must become one of our most urgent development priorities," says Bogdan-Martin.

“Multi-stakeholder collaboration will be key to making universal and meaningful connectivity a reality for all. It will require targeted efforts to lower the cost of broadband and innovative policies to finance network rollout to unconnected populations."

Further, ITU says Internet use in developed countries is nearing saturation levels, with close to 87% of individuals online. Europe is the region with the highest Internet use (82.5%), while Africa is the lowest (28.2%).

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