Can the EU’s ambitious gender targets in development cooperation bring more women and girls in developing countries to be a part of the global digital transformation?
Mahrang Baloch, a female medical student and an activist, was one of seventy students arrested in the province of Balochistan in Pakistan for protesting against online classes organised by schools and universities due to the COVID-19 lockdown. She and her fellow students were raising their voices against their lack of access to reliable and affordable internet services needed to participate in online learning. They were not alone: at the peak of the pandemic in April 2020, close to 450 million students across the world did not have access to online learning options, with girls and women being most disadvantaged.
The COVID-19 pandemic fueled a digital transformation across the globe. Industries from education to health to commerce have moved into digital spaces. However, in most developing countries like Pakistan, the digital economy is not benefiting everyone equally. There are growing digital gaps and divides across regions (urban/rural) and between socioeconomic groups (gender/income/age), with women and girls lagging behind men in their access to connectivity and digital technologies. The GSMA’s Mobile Gender Gap Report 2019, for instance, showed that women in low and middle income countries are 10 per cent less likely than men to own a mobile phone, while 313 million fewer women than men use mobile internet. Without immediate action, this new digital divide will make existing gender inequalities even worse.
EU’s Digital4Development agenda
The European Union (EU) has embarked on a Digital4Development (D4D) strategy to mainstream digital technologies and services into its development policies. December 2020 marked two important milestones for the EU to support the digital transformation of the Global South. The first one is the approval of the NDICI Regulation—the Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument, which will be used to provide funding to the EU’s partner countries for poverty reduction and sustainable development, and to financially support the European Commission’s priorities, one of which is digitalisation. The second one is the launch of the Digital4Development (D4D) Hub as a global multi-stakeholder platform (currently focusing on Africa and soon expanding to Latin America and Caribbean and Asia and Pacific) for digital partnerships and investments, sending a clear signal that the future of development cooperation is digital. The question for the EU now is: how can it ensure that digital transformation is also gender-inclusive?
Before answering that question, the EU faces a major challenge in that some developing countries might not consider digitalisation and gender equality to be priorities. The EU still has a lot of work to do during the programming process of the NDICI to persuade developing countries that Digital4Development should be their priority for cooperation over the next seven years. Moreover, the EU recently released its Gender Action Plan III (GAP 3), as per which 85 per cent of all new external actions will contribute to gender equality and women’s and girls’ empowerment as a significant objective or as a principal objective by 2025. Developing countries might perceive both of these priorities as being imposed on them. The EU would need to engage in soft diplomacy with the partner countries to get them on board for a gender-equal digital transformation.
Towards a feminist digital future
A feminist and intersectional perspective in EU’s D4D policies can safeguard the rights and opportunities for women and girls (and minority groups) across the partner countries. The ambitious gender targets for the NDICI are already a good start. These should also be applied to development cooperation for digital transformation. The EU should take a two-dimensional approach to digital transformation in its development cooperation and investments in partner countries: as mainstreamed, but also as a single priority with an influence and opportunity to pair digital development and human rights, and more specifically rights for women and girls. The following key aspects should be taken into account to ensure that women and girls don’t get left behind in the digital transformation.
Women and girls as users
A number of root causes, including the lack of affordability, awareness, education, and technical literacy, and in some regions, socio-cultural norms and biases that lead to gender-based digital exclusion, limit women’s access to technology and connectivity in developing countries. Safety-based issues, such as the risk of cyber harassment, are also an important concern when it comes to women’s access to the internet or ownership of mobile phones. Many of these gaps can be attributed to a lack of gender-focused approach in national and global internet policies. The EU can work with the partner countries to ensure that the internet is open, free and secure for everyone, and complement it with targeted skills development programmes for women and girls. At the same time, partner countries should ensure that they have policies and frameworks in place for women’s and girls’ online safety.
Women and girls as economic agents
Digital transformation results in new kinds of jobs that require new sets of skills, creating different opportunities and challenges for everyone. We should assess the impact of digitalisation on labour markets in developing countries through a gendered perspective, to better question and analyse who these jobs benefit and who they put at risk. If women and girls are the more vulnerable group, safeguards must be put in place to ensure gender equality. The EU can support its partner countries in designing and implementing economic and regulatory policies for the digital economy and digital work. Moreover, the D4D Hub can also provide opportunities for the EU to draw and share the lessons learnt in digital transformation for its own member states and partner countries.
Women and girls at the heart of data-driven society
Digital transformation enables countries to shift to data-driven societies, with the implication that the data will be used more efficiently by governments, the private sector and civil society for designing, implementing and evaluating the policies. However, in the absence of gender-disaggregated data and statistics, the digital economy will fail to address the opportunities and challenges of more than half of the population. Every policy needs to be based on data that can provide insights on the gender impact of the digital economy and thus contribute to bridging the gender gap. This has to go hand in hand with the personal data protection regulation. The EU, through the D4D Hub, can share its best practices and lessons learned from data protection in line with the EU standards (e.g. the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which harmonizes data privacy laws across Europe).
‘If not now, when?’
The digital transformation is happening now, and we all need to ensure that its benefits are equally available to everyone. While COVID-19 deepened the digital gender divide across developing countries, the EU can bring these countries back on the surge of inclusive and fair digital transformation by embedding gender equality in its Digital4Development agenda. Mahrang Baloch as well as other 450 million students across the world cannot wait another decade to have proper internet connection, digital skills, and equal opportunities to access the digital economy.
The time is now!
Sumbal Bashir is a Policy Leader Fellow at the EUI’s School of Transnational Governance. She is a development practitioner and a former Fulbright scholar with over five years of experience working on social innovation and development projects.
Zuzana Sladkova is a Policy Leader Fellow at the EUI’s School of Transnational Governance. She is an expert on development related policies and has worked on policy and advocacy both on national and EU levels for more than ten years.
This article was originally published by EUIdeas of the European University Institute