IN the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual Inclusive Internet Index report, measuring internet inclusion in terms of availability, affordability, relevance and readiness, Pakistan’s overall ranking has dropped to 90th place among 120 nations; the second lowest ranking country in Asia and the lowest in South Asia. In the midst of a global pandemic that has made the need for internet access even more evident, the report warns that failure to improve conditions may widen inequalities between on- and offline populations. Though there are several improvements that Pakistan has made to improve internet access — chiefly in affordability due to market competition and lowering mobile phone costs — one of the most troubling figures is that of the digital gender parity.

Despite an improvement of six percentage points since the previous year, the report highlights that Pakistan still ranks the highest in the world when it comes to the gender gap. The gap in internet access between men and women is 65pc, and 51pc in access to mobile phones. This massive disparity has been noted in several other reports over the years, including the recent Mobile Gender Gap Report 2020 measuring mobile ownership and data usage in 15 low- and middle-income countries. In a study released in January, the non-profit Media Matters for Democracy found that six out of 10 women it surveyed faced restrictions at home when using the internet. Inequalities across income, geography and gender must be addressed holistically in Pakistan. Access to information is a fundamental right, yet the fact that there are still areas in this country without internet services despite the government’s promises lays bare our commitment to this constitutional guarantee. Digital policies seem to lack ownership; rather, successive governments as well as state institutions have been more intent on policing the internet than enabling access and promoting its use to improve human development. The cost of this failure to imagine the economic possibilities and social empowerment that the internet opens up is ultimately being paid by the most disenfranchised among us.

Published in Dawn, April 21st, 2021

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