Countries pay high price for excluding women from digital

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Governments around the world lose billions of dollars annually as women continue to be left offline, according to the latest “The Costs of Exclusion” report.

The report, compiled by the World Wide Web Foundation and its initiative the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), was launched at yesterday’s virtual 2021 Africa Summit on Women and Girls in Technology, and released to coincide with International Girl Child Day.

It calculated the economic consequences of digital inequality in 32 low- and middle-income countries where the digital gender gap is often greatest. Some of the countries include Nigeria, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Myanmar, Zimbabwe and Zambia.

The report shows that over the last decade, the countries lost an estimated $1 trillion in gross domestic product (GDP) as a result of women’s exclusionfrom accessing the internet and participating online. In 2020, the loss to GDP was $126 billion, it reveals.

In addition, the economic hit means billions in lost taxes that could be invested to improve education, health and housing, it says. “This lost productivity translates to a missing $24 billion in tax revenue annually for these governments, based on current tax-to-GDP ratios.”

The report also underlines the economic opportunity governments would have by including women in a fully-inclusive digital economy.

It states policymakers have a $524 billion economic opportunity that could be delivered by 2025, if they are to close the digital gender gap in their respective countries.

In a statement, Catherine Adeya, Web Foundation director of research, explains: “Closing the digital gender gap is not just a moral cause; it is also an economic imperative. As the internet becomes a more potent enabler for education, business and community mobilisation, a failure to deliver access for all means failing to realise everyone’s potential to contribute.

“Governments that enable women to fully participate in the digital revolution will unlock a wealth of creativity and productivity.”

Boutheina Guermazi, World Bank director of digital development, adds: “Investing in a more inclusive digital future gives leaders a tremendous opportunity to promote economic growth while creating healthier societies by addressing inequalities in education, political leadership and earning power.

“For governments looking to build a resilient economy as part of their COVID-19 recovery plans, closing the digital gender gap must be a top priority.”

No improvement

The report found the digital gender gap is not getting better, noting that in several parts of the world, the number of men online vastly outnumber the number of women online.

Referring to the International Telecommunication Union’s regional estimates for Africa, the report puts the gender ratio at nearly three-to-two in favour of men over women.

According to the GSM Association, around 234 million fewer women in low- and middle-income countries use the mobile internet than men. This divide is most stark in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where the gender gap persists over 55% more men than women.

In the 32 countries studied, just over a third of women were connected to the internet compared to almost half of men. Since 2011, the gender gap has only dropped half a percentage point, from 30.9% to 30.4%, it reveals.

The report points out there isn’t a single reason women are less likely to use the internet than men. However, a combination of individual and societal factors limits women’s use of the internet. These include − but are not limited to − affordability, device gaps, wage gaps, privacy and security, as well as literacy and skills.

Among the key takeaways of the 2021 Africa Summit on Women and Girls in Technology was the urgent need to tackle barriers to digital access, so that everyone is able to participate in the digital economy.

Additionally, to ensure the globe reaches the point where women are equal to men when it comes to internet access − not only accessing the internet to consume what is online, but to be innovators and creators in the technology space.

Delivering the opening remarks, Nnenna Nwakanma, Web Foundation chief web advocate, stressed that shaping technology and advancing digital equality is needed now more than ever.

“The technology that we have today is not being used for overall good and it’s not for everyone. It is not for 50% of the global population because half of us are still offline; it is not for many people in Africa because overall in Africa, we are still not connected.

“For those who are connected, not all of us have meaningful connectivity; in other words, we don’t get to connect every day, we don’t have the right devices, we don’t have the right speed and we don’t have affordability.

“And for those very few of us that have meaningful connectivity, it’s still not optimal for women. We don’t have enough access, use and capacity to create; we are not secure online and our rights are not being respected.”

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, former executive director of UN Women and founder of the Umlambo Foundation, noted the internet enables women to create businesses, foster connections, and build skills and knowledge.

Mlambo-Ngcuka pointed out that the $1 trillion that the 32 countries have lost out on is equivalent to almost two-thirds of the combined annual GDP of Sub-Saharan Africa.

“Countries are paying a huge economic price for women being left behind in the digital revolution. Every day we fail to close the gender gap, the cost grows.

“Every day that a woman is prevented from using the internet for education, access to health, to build her career or find opportunities, we are squeezing her into fewer and fewer opportunities, and limiting her prosperity.”

A4AI head of Africa Onica Makwakwa concluded: “We must work to dismantle the structures that have put us in a position of disadvantage online. We have to commit to challenging the systemic drivers that keep women offline.”

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