Our digital liberty

Published June 15, 2024
The writer is an independent development professional and impact adviser with over 25 years of experience on designing and managing programmesto improve people’s lives.
The writer is an independent development professional and impact adviser with over 25 years of experience on designing and managing programmesto improve people’s lives.

THE latest GSMA Mobile Gender Gap report (using 2023 data) shows some positive global developments with regards to women’s access to mobile phones and internet usage through these phones. According to the survey (conducted annually) 66 per cent of women from low and middle-income countries now use mobile internet compared to 78pc of men. However, it is key to note that mobile internet users do not necessarily own a phone — any person who has used mobile internet (on their own or someone else’s mobile) within the past three months is included. In Pakistan, 86pc of men own a mobile phone compared to 53pc of women, while with regard to mobile internet adoption 53pc of men as compared to 33pc of women have such access. In both cases, the differential between male and female access comes to 38pc (refer to GSMA’s report for details on methodology).

A total of 12 low- and middle-income countries were surveyed for this report — six from Sub-Saharan Africa, four from South Asia and two from Latin America. Pakistan ranks the lowest with regard to the gender divide in mobile phone ownership; 88pc of women own a mobile phone in Nigeria, 75pc in India, and 87pc in Mexico. Ethiopia comes closest to, but still beats Pakistan, with 57pc of women there owning mobiles. Gender gaps in smartphone ownership also vary across survey countries and once again Pakistan’s gender gap is the widest at 49pc. But possibly, the most worrying part of the survey is the response to a question based on perception. Respondents were asked whether mobile internet is more important for men or women. In 11 out of 12 countries, a majority (70pc or more) believed it to be of equal importance. In Pakistan, however, 42pc of men and 28pc of women believed it is more important for men.

The digital divide in gender is a reflection of the society we live in. While there appear to be many voices calling for gender inclusion, as a society, we seem to be keeping the brakes on. Recently, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority unveiled its digital gender inclusion strategy. Developed with the support of Unesco and private sector actors, the strategy which should have been cutting edge in its approach fumbled badly. Problem identification was not an issue — it referred to the Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement survey, which reveals that women from marginalised communities face severe barriers to digital technology access, stemming from factors such as limited education, financial constraints, cultural and social restrictions, and a lack of awareness about the advantages of digital technology. It also referred to earlier GSMA surveys which identify the top barriers for women in Pakistan to be difficulties in reading and writing, family disapproval, perception that the internet is not relevant for women, handset cost, safety and security concerns.

The digital divide in gender is a reflection of the society we live in.

Where the strategy revealed a disconnect with reality was in its responses to the said challenges. The approach to and process of resolving the issues are alarmingly blinkered. While the rhetoric speaks of enhancing digital literacy, improving affordability, investing in relevant content and services, ensuring online safety, improving access, and challenging prevailing social norms, the ways of doing so reflect entrenched patriarchal beliefs. How can one tell? Proposed solutions entail forming a number of committees that are linked to and managed by government ministries, to address challenges. It speaks of getting civil society organisations to communicate messages at the grassroots level to change social norms.

This told me the authors of these solutions were mired in the pre-digital top-down and siloed way of thinking which still governs 99pc of Pakistan. Solutions and approaches referred to have been around for 30 years, and have yet to show impact. Transferring these same old solutions to address the gender digital divide means that we continue with business as usual. Women’s digital access and digital freedom remain under attack, on par with their physical freedom.

Most readers will have seen the recent news where the DG of Immigration and Passports had the audacity to state that divorced women need to have their ex-husband’s names on their passports to prove parentage. That blew me away. I am a citizen of this country and an adult — but heaven forbid — because I am a woman I still need to be told how to think, what to think, what to do, how to act and how to dress. As long as the mentality of controlling women guides everything we do (and in Pakistan I have realised that the single-most important priority remains the control of women), then such strategies are in themselves anathema to the values they espouse of inclusion and equality.

So where do we go from here. We have to persevere and there are silver linings. The first being that we have a woman as IT minister, who is young and a potential powerhouse, and who can surround herself with the right kinds of minds that can break the mould. A variety of industry experts and think tanks have already given some guiding thoughts on what needs to be done. This includes mapping the digital ecosystem to understand where other policies or practices are harming women and as a first step to remove these stumbling blocks. It also includes developing programmes for women who may already have some access to mobiles but are hesitant to use them — so digital literacy skills and online safety and security advisory services are critical.

But how to change family disapproval, male control and perceptions of lack of relevance? This requires evolved leadership that can build alliances between public and private sectors, and between men and women to address the male mindset. Whether it is the creation of the Pakistan Single Window, or the Pakistan Digital Stack, one thing is for certain — those responsible for designing and managing such platforms, and use cases, will set the tone for women’s digital liberties in the future.

The writer is an independent development professional and impact adviser with over 25 years of experience on designing and managing programmesto improve people’s lives.
samialakhan21@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, June 15th, 2024

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