With access to a good phone and the internet, women all over the world have the opportunity to reduce poverty, argues VisionFund’s Global Director of Impact, Johanna Ryan.
How many Zoom or Microsoft Teams calls will you have today; how many of those will share video or PowerPoint slides? How many of these meetings will be for the purpose of learning something, solving a problem, or for the simple purpose of friendship and family check-ins? How many times today will your mobile notify you of a news alert, a tweet, a Facebook post, or a WhatsApp? How many ways will a digital service – ordering groceries, texting neighbours, an online workout – make life easier for you today, whatever your freedom of movement?
International Women’s Day serves as a reminder that as our day-to-day lives and livelihoods have, over the last year, become almost entirely dependent on our access to digital communications and the internet, in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) it is a very different story. In LMICs, 390 million women do not have a mobile phone; and when it comes to accessing the internet, 300 million fewer women than men use the internet on a mobile.
The biggest gender gaps are in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, and while the gaps in all regions of the world are generally reducing, this is not the case in Sub-Saharan Africa where the mobile ownership gap has remained at 13% since 2017, and the mobile internet gap at 37%. In Southeast Asia the respective gaps are much bigger but are, at least, improving: 21% (27% in 2017) and 51% (67% in 2017).
The type of mobile phone that women and men own is the biggest reason behind the difference in access to mobile internet: in LMICs, women are 20% less likely than men to own a smartphone, with the primary reasons being affordability – both the device and data – and lack of literacy and technical skills, often linked to self-confidence or social norms that prevent women from trying out new technologies.
The factors that have driven many of us to conduct our lives on-line in the last 12 months may, however, be the same factors that increase the number of women in LMICs who are not able to use digital technology. With livelihoods curtailed and destroyed by lockdown restrictions the world over, the World Bank estimates that as many as 150 million people will be pushed into extreme poverty by the end of 2021. People working in the informal sector – casual workers, cleaners, street-traders – who have no safety net, will be the most vulnerable. And in this sector, women predominate.
With schools closed and hospitals and medical clinics inaccessible, women will have to do more unpaid work caring for children and other dependents. With food markets closed and little or no income, women will bear the stress of finding and paying for food. This is not scare mongering; this is what is happening around the world to women who live in poverty. What chance do these women have to adapt to virtual ways of working and of communicating, much less even to find the money to buy a clever phone and the data to go with it?
So, while we have been ramping up our broadband speeds and taking deliveries of food, books, clothes, and games that we ordered over the internet, women who already were less likely than their male counterparts to have either a phone or an internet connection to develop their businesses and stay connected with their families, are now likely to be more, not less, isolated.
These are very important considerations for financial inclusion programmes. The spread of mobile money and the increasing sophistication of products and services that arise from the marriage of finance with technology has given vast numbers of hard-to-reach people a way to access the formal financial services upon which sustainable economic development depends. Moreover, the world has become and will continue to be increasingly dependent on the internet.
So, what of those left behind because they have had to focus on the rudimentary needs of communities: women who provide water and food, and wash the clothes; who care for children, old people, those with disabilities? What of those women prevented by social rules from achieving their God-given potential?
For VisionFund, life in all its fullness for children is our prayer and our mantra. This is why we work with women, why we seek out remote communities where women have the primary responsibility for caring for children; and, therefore, why the empowerment of women is a core goal of our work.
VisionFund works in remote communities where women have little opportunity to develop productive livelihoods to realise their goals and to gain empowerment; livelihoods that would also enable them to feed and educate and nurture the next generation, breaking the cycle of poverty. Henceforward, opportunity for all of us will come through digital channels, and VisionFund is committed to ensuring that women are not excluded from the things that so many in the world now take for granted.
Today on International Women’s Day, we pause, and, in our Christian way, we pray for the 700,000 women who are our clients, and for the 3.5 million children they care for. We pray also for all vulnerable women everywhere, and for guidance about how best to use the resources God has given us.