Beyond the Numbers: Gender and Access to the Internet

19 August 2016

Images sourced from Asia Pacific Internet Governance Forum 2016 Gallery

Access is a right. In June this year, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution that condemns "measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online" and affirmed that "the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online." It called on governments to "promote digital literacy and to facilitate access to information on the Internet." The UN also calls all States to "bridge the gender digital divide and enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of all women and girls."

But what does access really mean? How important is it to women, especially to marginalized women?

These were some of the questions that women tried to respond to during the workshop on 'Gender and Access' that was organized by Empower Malaysia and the Foundation for Media Alternatives, Philippines at the recently concluded Asia Pacific Regional Internet Governance Forum (APrIGF) that was held in Taipei, Taiwan.

Access to the the Internet and other means of communications is significant. It enables people to exercise their rights -- to information, expression, participation and association. As former UN Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue said in his Report, "the right to freedom of opinion and expression is as much a fundamental right on its own accord as it is an enabler of other rights, including economic, social and cultural rights..." and access is likewise the same.

Access to the the Internet and other means of communications is significant. It enables people to exercise their rights -- to information, expression, participation and association.

But according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), by the end of 2016 53% of the world's population or 3.9 billion will remain offline. In Asia-Pacific, 41.9 percent of the population are using the Internet while a majority (58.1 percent) will still not be connected. These numbers tell us that billions are still not connected and thus not benefitting from the Internet. And many among those who are not connected are women.

But simply having access to the Internet does not solve our problems. It just scratches the surface. There is a need to go beyond the numbers and achieve access for the next billion towards their empowerment.

Building on the 2015 Best Practice Forum (BPF) on Countering Online Abuse against Women, Gender and Access will be one of the next Best Practice Forum (BPF) themes in the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) 2016, acccording to Jac sm Kee of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC). The discussions in the workshop would therefore contribute to the BPF for a richer and broader understanding of the issue.

Ritu Srivastava of the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) of India, Jelen Paclarin of theWomen's Legal and Human Rights Bureau (WLB) from the Philippines, and Nighat Dad of Digital Rights Foundation Pakistan were the other session speakers who helped shed light and unpacked further the issue of access in their own country contexts, using a gender lens.

In India, Ritu said that while the use of mobile internet is increasing, there are still many barriers to accessing the internet and these include lack of awareness on the importance of using the internet, affordability, religious barriers, and use of the internet as taboo for women. It is also interesting to note that because of the high cost of using mobile phones, women have devised codes to reach out and communicate to their families. For instance, one missed call would mean that a woman wants her family member to get in touch with her.

women have devised codes to reach out and communicate to their families. For instance, one missed call would mean that a woman wants her family member to get in touch with her.

The lack of infrastructure, familiarity with cellular phones rather than the internet, affordability, and lack of support from the government are some of the barriers that exclude women, especially marginalized women, from access, according to Jelen of WLB.

"Women are not homogenous," said Jelen. "Government looks at access as gender-neutral. The lack of sex disaggregated data is what prevents government from seeing the different needs of different women."

The lack of sex disaggregated data is what prevents government from seeing the different needs of different women.

She said access should be inclusive and this means capacitating women and teaching them how to use and appreciate technology, providing them with digital skills, teaching women what information they can access from the internet, and providing assistive technology to women with disabilities. Jelen also said access to the Internet can provide individuals with information that can liberate them, help them explore their bodies and sexuality.

Nighat talked about the role of government in promoting access and also the role of law enforcement, especially in dealing with cybercrimes involving women. She also cited the role of civil society organizations (CSOs), specifically the Hamara Internet in Pakistan and the work it does in teaching women how to fight back when they are harassed and in creating safe spaces for women.

Indeed, women are key users of the Internet. However, women, even if they come from different countries, share common barriers and challenges in accessing the Internet. These include patriarchal challenges, socio-cultural barriers, and digital exclusion.

Based on the presentations of the speakers and sharings from the floor, the following conclusions and recommendations were reached:

  • Internet is being taught in many schools. Part of the curriculum should be on a secure and safe Internet

  • Women should be included. We should realise that different sectors of women have different needs and requirements and these have to be addressed

  • Need for digital literacy and skills which women can use, for instance to advance their economic development

  • Governments should also help address the issue of access to the Internet.

The workshop on Gender and Access is one of the thirty listed workshops in the three-day forum. There were only two workshops that focused solely on gender issues, and this workshop was one of them. The facilitator and four speakers in the workshop were all women, while majority of those who attended were also women.

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