ONLY 52 per cent of adult Pakistani women own a mobile phone and Pakistan has one of the widest mobile gender gaps in the region. Women are 49pc less likely than men to use mobile internet, and according to some studies, nearly six in 10 women face some sort of restrictions in using the internet. Clearly, there is a large gender digital divide, and it has been receiving increasing attention in the past few years. But why is this so? Why is it necessary to bridge the digital divide and what can we achieve on the back of greater digital inclusion of women?

The attention to gender gap in digital inclusion owes to the pervasiveness of digital technologies across a multitude of sectors: education, health, labour and financial markets to name just a few — a trend that has only accelerated post-Covid. Gaps in digital access, then, create new inequalities, while also amplifying existing ones. Lacking access to the digital space means reduced opportunities to network and connect, to learn new skills and hone existing ones, to branch out and realise new avenues of increased earnings; to obtain credit, save, and attract customers, domestic and abroad. In fact, the UN in 2016 recognised the internet and access to it as a catalyst for the enjoyment of human rights, including but not limited to the right to freedom of expression which is a fundamental right on its own but also an enabler of other rights like economic, social and educational rights. Indeed, when leveraged correctly, technology has great potential for economic and social empowerment.

When it comes to the labour market, we know that women fare significantly worse than men in terms of economic participation and opportunity: a fact underscored almost yearly through the WEF Global Gender Gap Report which consistently ranks Pakistan amongst the lowest on this sub-index. There are several factors at the institutional, societal and individual household levels that lead to Pakistan’s underperformance vis-à-vis women’s formal labour force participation levels. A main contributor is the high reproductive burden combined with mobility restrictions. So is the lack of safe transport and a hostile public space and workspace that links back to women’s defined roles as caretakers belonging in the household and not at work. In our cumulative two decades of gendered research in Pakistan, women from all manner of backgrounds have repeatedly highlighted both the close monitoring they face in terms of their mobility beyond the home and the very long hours they spend on housework as well as child and elderly care. They have also emphasised the hostility and harassment they face both en route to and at work. All of these factors severely limit their ability and even desire to work outside the home. Could digital technology help alleviate these constraints?

Improved digital connectivity will not only allow women to work remotely but to also gain access to international freelance jobs.

Improved digital connectivity would not only allow women to work remotely but to also gain access to international freelance jobs. We saw this unfold at a mass scale during Covid and we continue to see women upskilling themselves on platforms like Coursera and seeking work from home with international companies. There are dedicated Facebook groups like Women of Diversity whose mission is to ‘empower women’ through online workshops and connect them to remote employers. We find the same amongst low-income, low-literate women too: using technologies to set up and expand their home business, as well as an emphasis on their digital upskilling through community organisations and rights advocacy groups.

We find that women who have access to devices and the internet in Pakistan leverage the platforms available to them to carve out financial independence, seek social justice, explore their identities, form collectives to empower each other, and to have fun (a rare conversation in our context). Technologies like Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, and TikTok allow them to negotiate within and around social restrictions without openly challenging them and to carve out more autonomy and agency for themselves — as they have always done. We find in our work that when women have the motivation, and recognise the value of digital spaces and platforms, they are able to adopt, learn and maximise the benefit of these platforms, regardless of literacy or income levels. The most significant barriers are often those of technology designs. For example, most women in Pakistan have access to mobile devices as shared resources. However, most applications like WhatsApp or mobile wallets assume a ‘one user, one device’ model, raising serious privacy and adoption barriers for women.

Yet digital technologies are not a panacea, but a complex, nuanced landscape which requires action on multiple fronts to include women. We have interviewed some 200 low-literate, low-income women in a variety of occupations — factory, domestic, and home-based work. We have found a great deal of reluctance, even an active shunning, of using mobile phones amongst these working women when they step out of the home. They relayed that using the phone outside the home would cause problems for them with their families. In contrast, women who worked from home were much more active in their use of phones and the internet. In essence then, our work shows that women face a trade-off between physical and digital mobility, giving up one space in order to access the other.

This not only limits the type of upskilling that women in different types of work can do, but also how technologies can be leveraged for interventions. Relying on designs that assume all working women will have access to phones and the internet, will exclude often the most vulnerable. It also places much of the onus on the women themselves both in terms of their safety and in terms of coming up with innovative ways to increase their earning potential and capacities. As a society we need to do much more to support and enable our women to work, normalising women’s use of the internet and online spaces. Only then will the true potential of the economy be realised.

Hadia Majid is chair of economics and director GenTech at Lums. Maryam Mustafa is assistant professor, computer science and director Interactive Media Lab and GenTech.

Published in Dawn, March 25th, 2023

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