Empowering Women by Shaping a Brave – and Safe – New World Online
March 23, 2016
The 60th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) kicked off last week, and the streets of New York City near Turtle Bay have been packed with government officials, NGO and multilateral representatives, activists, and academics. If anyone doubted whether the cause of gender equality is front and center on the development agenda, those doubts were surely allayed by the substantive, detailed discussions taking place on how to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and hold member states accountable for the gender equality and women’s empowerment commitments embedded throughout the goals.
Gender-based violence and cybersecurity emerged as hot button issues for discussion in both formal sessions and side events, as the CSW set ending violence against women and girls as its main theme for the session. I spoke on a panel organized by Facebook and the Centre for Social Research that discussed how to make the cyber-revolution safe for women. I shared efforts by The Asia Foundation to encourage women to utilize tech tools to start and expand their businesses, arguing that technology is opening new windows to the outside world that can allow women to overcome seemingly insurmountable barriers like socio-cultural restrictions on their movement. These tools can allow women to network and find connections and business advice, and to build markets, well beyond their geographic limitations.
The Foundation’s research in four APEC developing economies – Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Malaysia – has underscored just how powerful strong networks and access to information can be for budding women entrepreneurs, who disproportionately experience lack of access to business networks, finance, and appropriate information communication technology (ICT) tools, all of which hampers their business development. This finding is in line with SDG 5, the stand-alone goal on gender equality and women’s empowerment, which includes the target of promoting enabling technology that empowers women. We know that women have the capacity and interest to use technology effectively, and to build well-paying, dynamic careers in the tech sector. They need support to blaze new trails and break gender barriers in a sector that remains male-dominated. For example, Asia Foundation partner Ms. Luna Shamsuddoha, founder of Bangladesh Women in Technology, is dedicated to reducing barriers that discourage women from starting successful careers in ICT, through mentoring, networking, and skills development workshops.
Yet as other panel discussions at the CSW highlighted, the online world often mirrors the same problematic gender norms as the real world, and these discourage women from getting online and fully utilizing technology. Women are subject to more limited access to online spaces, due to more limited resources to own or control smartphones, more limited internet access, and so on; and online spaces are also often less welcoming to women. A 2015 UN Broadband Commission report found that roughly 75 percent of women online have been exposed to some form of cyber violence. This is unacceptable, and requires us to be proactive, both in terms of educating women to be smart users of online tools, and to shape the online environment so that it fully welcomes women’s participation and influence. Online forms of violence against women and girls, such as cyberstalking and hate speech, represent serious acts of violence that perpetuate the digital gender gap and the perception that online spaces are not safe for women and girls.
The Asia Foundation’s long-time partners Dr. Ranjana Kumari and the Centre for Social Research have embarked on a campaign in India to encourage more women and girls to go online, and to protect themselves while doing so. In its 2013 report “Women and the Web,” Intel found that only 8 percent of women in India had internet access. During our panel, Kumari emphasized the importance of feminizing online spaces so that women not only have access, but can also influence the online environment so that it meets their needs and concerns. She warned that until this happens, parents will continue to raise concerns about girls being online due to the perceived dangers, and will discourage them from fully utilizing the opportunities that online connectivity offers.
Antigone Davis, Facebook’s head of Global Safety, highlighted the iterative nature of ensuring a safe space online, and encouraged partners to be involved in identifying abuse. It’s clear that technology increasingly offers relatively low-cost ways to reach many women and enhance their skills and opportunities, as well as their networks, but it’s critical to build in safeguards so that lack of safety online does not serve as a deterrent to women fully using these new technologies to expand their opportunities.
As a global community that is increasingly interconnected, we need to ensure that women, as they go online and as they seek technological solutions to the challenges they encounter, do not face the same gendered constraints, or even outright misogyny, online as they often do in person.
Eileen Pennington is associate director of The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.
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