The March 2020 onslaught of the novel coronavirus forever changed the way the world engages emotionally, personally, professionally, economically, politically, and well, in every way. Perhaps most notably, worldwide digital reliance has increase astronomically with internet services experiencing rises in usage from 40% to 100% as compared to pre-COVID rates. Video conferencing services like Zoom have become household names, and have enjoyed upwards of 10X usage rates and soaring stock prices. Cities across the world, take Bangalore for example, have seen close to one hundred percent increases in internet usage, an unparalleled growth rate unequivocally impossible pre-pandemic.
While the pandemic’s impact on global health—both physical and mental—and newfound economic turmoil are agonizing, the argument that increased digital reliance and connectedness has societal benefits has been widespread. Superficially, this may resonate. Information is more rapidly spread (let’s stay away from the disturbing pervasiveness of misinformation that has dominated the last few years), public health campaigns can reach new audiences, families have been able to connect with loved ones virtually, many (mostly white collar) businesses have stayed afloat thanks to online engagement, and millions of students throughout the world have been able to continue to learn (though this is not without its challenges, as we at Fletcher well know). Great, given the realities of a pandemic inflicted world, right?
Not so fast. COVID-19 has exponentially increased global poverty (World Bank, for example, estimates that the world is facing its first increase in extreme poverty since 1998, with between 71 million and 100 million people set to fall below the global poverty line depending on the course of the virus) with most of those impoverished identifying as women. Poverty rates are directly correlated to lack of digital engagement; and vice versa, as it is seemingly impossible to pull oneself out of poverty in today’s world without digital engagement. Perhaps most notably, though, in a world more and more reliant on the internet, COVID-19 is fueling the gender specific digital divide in unprecedented ways.
In a world where digital connectedness is paramount, UN Women estimates that in low- and middle-income countries, 433 million women remain internet and tech free, and 165 million fewer women own a mobile phone compared with men. Overall, the global internet user gap is 17%, and women are understood to engage online 43% less than their male counterparts. With such disparity in online engagement rates, women are, particularly in this new global paradigm of tech reliance, significantly more disadvantaged. Without access to technology, disconnected women will be unable to engage with the digital economy, unable to converse with their friends and family from whom they are separated, unable, perhaps, to get the information they need about this life-threatening virus. It is important to mention, too, that under the strain of COVID-19 rates of gender-based violence have spiked and the internet, if women had access at equal rates to men, could serve as a mechanism for seeking help.
There is no easy answer here; no quick
fix. International organizations are trying (take USAID’s new “Digital Strategy”,
for example), but the reality is that it will take years to close this digital
divide, and gender specific, gender sensitive, and gender inclusive approaches
to doing so are key.
Written by: Juliana Rordorf F22
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