AS the Covid-19 pandemic rages on, and shows few signs of dissipating, one of the many lessons policymakers should be noting is the importance of high-speed internet, particularly for educational purposes and remote work. Yet many parts of Pakistan continue to struggle with accessing the internet, or citizens are unable to afford its costs, or face connectivity issues, particularly in the peripheral regions of Gilgit-Baltistan, Balochistan and the tribal districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Furthermore, just as women face a constant stream of restrictions in the ‘real world’, their presence and access to the online world is filled with hurdles and setbacks.

Last week, the non-profit organisation Media Matters for Democracy published its most recent findings on women’s access to the internet in a report titled Women Disconnected: Feminist Case Studies on the Gender Digital Divide Amidst Covid-19. Interviewing 215 women across Pakistan, including in the newly merged tribal districts, it noted that six out of 10 women faced some form of restriction from their families when accessing the internet, including for carrying out simple tasks such as attending online classes — the standard method of teaching for many during the pandemic — or communicating with family members on WhatsApp. Besides the gender divide, the survey also looked at socioeconomic barriers. It found that only 40pc of respondents use the internet daily; of those women, half belong to families earning more than Rs60,000 each month. Among women who do not use the internet at all, seven out of 10 belong to families who earn less than Rs30,000 each month. More than 75pc of respondents said that the internet was expensive and out of their reach. Additionally, when it came to cultural attitudes, many Pakistanis continue to regard women’s access to the internet with suspicion, and more than half of the respondents mentioned concerns from family members. The survey offers a list of recommendations for the government, including the setting up of public Wi-Fi spaces that are accessible to women, keeping ‘cultural dynamics’ in mind.

Published in Dawn, January 18th, 2021

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