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By Chizurum Michael Anabaraonye

On International Day of the Girl Child (11 October) 2018, themed “With Her: A Skilled Girl Force” is an opportunity for us to reflect on the adversities 1.1 billion girls in the world face that hinder their education, training and entry into the workforce.They have less access to information, communication technology and resources, such as the internet where the global gender gap is growing. A quarter of young people, most of them girls, are neither employed nor getting an education or training.This year alone, 12 million girls under 18 will be married, and 21 million girls aged 15 to 19 years will become pregnant in developing regions.

Today’s generation of girls,like boys, would enter a world of work that is being transformed by innovation and automation. Educated and skilled workers are in great demand, but roughly a quarter of young people – most of them female – are currently neither employed nor in education nor training. Right now, many girls are not developing the skills they will need to secure decent work later in life. Ten per cent of primary-aged girls are out of school. Many more are not able to progress to secondary school and need support developing basic skills in reading and math. Many girls do not have access to mentors, career guidance or the technological skills they need to transition from school to work. This dilemma was occasioned by what I rightly called the “Connectivity Gap”

Many women and girls have been left behind in the digital society, especially in the developing counties. Women living in least developed countries are 31% less likely than men to be connected. In its most recent survey of Internet usage, the ITU found that the global Internet user gender gap widened between 2013 and 2016. According to One, current trends in least developed countries(LDCs) suggest that 350 million women and girls will remain unconnected by 2020.

The digital gender divide has many dimensions – a lack of women in the tech sector, a lack of women leaders in the tech sector, a lack of women creating content in the tech sector, a lack of women and girls studying STEM (science, technology, engineering or mathematics), and fewer women and girls with access to mobile phones and the Internet. Lack of female role models to attract and support more women in the technology sector has been a big challenge.

It has been proven that the internet is a tool for economic, social, and cultural empowerment; therefore information and communications technology (ICT) is key to achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. With the internet, people can access, conveniently and at low cost, a wide range of vital services, including telemedicine, education and the latest scientific information. If women and girls can’t have equal access to the internet to enjoy these fortune ICT has brought to us, we will not achieve SDG 5 (Gender Equality), nor any of the other goals.

The connectivity gap becomes a terrible disaster when it comes to being poor and female in a developing country. Women in the poorest countries are almost a third less likely to have access to the Internet than men, and the gap increased by 2% between 2013 and 2016. Analysis by ONE suggests that, given current trends of Internet penetration, over 71% of Africa’s girls and women will still not be online by 2020, pushing the connectivity gap between men and women to over 26%.

The Internet, has been proven to be a vital tool for fighting poverty but the lack of access in Africa and particularly in developing countries significantly limits the opportunity for women and girls there to share in this fortune. Even where there is access to the Internet, whether through fixed broadband or mobile, many women are reluctant to get online which suggests improvements in relevant content.

The world needs an ambitious plan to identify and connect the unconnected and ensure that everyone, including women and girls, has the skills and literacy to use the Internet to their advantage which is to achieve their potentials. Internet for everyone is a universal goal which brings with it opportunities that will lift  people and the community out of poverty. Not being able to access the internet disadvantages not just women, but their families, communities and countries. If we don’t take action to close the gender connectivity gap now, the next generation of women in developing countries will also miss out on the many potential opportunities for empowerment, education and inclusion offered by the Internet.

A World Wide Web Foundation study found that women in poor urban areas, described as “offline and silent,” were half as likely to use the Internet as men, half as likely to voice their opinions online, and a third less likely to use the Internet to find work. Women and girls don’t go online for myriad reasons, many of which reflect existing gender disparities. Affordability is a significant barrier. Unconnected women in developing countries often cite high costs as a major reason why they are not using the Internet. Despite falling broadband prices in the poorest countries, the high number of people who live in absolute or extreme poverty means that a basic mobile broadband plan can cost around 15% of average income and up to 30% for a computer based fixed line connection which makes it still expensive for women who are hit harder by poverty. Given gender pay disparities around the world, obtaining basic Internet is a higher financial burden for women: in subSaharan Africa, for example, women earn on average 48% less than men. Other obstacles include the lack of relevant content – the dominant languages of the web are English and Chinese, and Africa’s many and diverse languages are vastly underrepresented online.

Due to gender disparity that keeps many women and girls away from accessing the internet, many of them may not be aware of valuable online services and information that can help them and their families. Women and girls also say they do not know how to use the Internet or perceive that it is of little use or relevance. This directly suggests that more thought must be given to locally relevant content and apps to ensure digital tools help in a woman’s daily life. Cultural barriers are also significant deterrents. Girls are expected to perform disproportionate household chores that stop them from having free time to learn to use the computer. In some cultures, gender relations mean the husband often controls the phone, and some women do not want to appear smart or “techy” in other not to arouse suspicion in the man. Some women can only access the Internet in cyber cafes where they can face sexual harassment and intimidation – and that harassment may also happen online. In fact a major study highlighted security and harassment emerged as one of the top five barriers to mobile phone ownership and use for women.

Though there are many and varied reasons for women and girls’ absence online, perhaps the dominant barrier is access to education. Literacy and awareness of the benefits of the Internet lie at the heart of getting women and girls online – and out of poverty. Without literacy and digital skills women cannot use the Internet to search for information about healthcare and educational tools for themselves and their children, expand and grow their businesses, or access financial services. In rural areas isolated by a lack of infrastructure and distance from other communities, the challenges for women and girls are even greater.

In terms of connectivity, we need to ensure both handsets and services are affordable, content is relevant and in local languages, the digital environment is safe, and that women and girls have the digital skills they need to benefit from the opportunities that connectivity offers.

Girls’ and also women’s full participation in the future workforce requires tackling gender stereotypes across educational institutions and professions that discourage women and girls from choosing to study and work in a STEM-based field, and addressing the many systemic barriers to decent work they face.If we can give girls the right guidance, they will have the courage and determination to choose a STEM career. This requires bridging the connectivity gap.

According to UNICEF, to develop A Skilled GirlForce, the global community should:

  • Rapidly expand access to inclusive education and training.
  • Improve the quality and gender-responsiveness of teaching and learning to enable girls to develop foundational, transferable and job-specific skills for life and work.
  • Create inclusive and accessible schools, training and learning opportunities to empower girls with disabilities.
  • Change gender stereotypes, social norms and unconscious bias to provide girls with the same learning and career opportunities as boys.
  • Increase girls’ participation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) learning.
  • Create initiatives to support girls’ school-to-work transition, such as career guidance, apprenticeships, internships and entrepreneurship.
  • Deliver large-scale public and private sector programming for girls’ skills and market-adapted training.
  • Enable access to finance and enterprise development for female entrepreneurs.
  • Form strategic partnerships with governments and private companies which can act as thought leaders and financiers, helping to train girls and bring them into the workforce.

Ensuring Internet access for everyone means investing in the necessary infrastructure to provide high quality and reliable connectivity. No stakeholder group can do this alone. The public and private sectors must work together to close this gap. But it also requires an investment in digital skills and relevant content, as well as new regulations that reduce costs and expand access. The private sector should invest in women and girls, from start-ups to skills training, and it should employ more women at all levels. Companies can engage school age girls to help attract them to STEM studies and eventually tech careers. Underpinning all of these is an investment in open data so that governments, businesses and civil society understand who is connected, who isn’t, and why – and finally what must be done to achieve internet for all by 2020, just two years from now.

Happy International Day of the Girl Child

Chizurum Michael Anabaraonye is the founder and executive director of the Integrated Student and Youth Initiative (ISYI) for Health and Sustainable Development.He is a fierce advocate for gender equality, the rights of women and girls, and social justice. His works has been recognised by various organisations around the world.

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