Bridging the gender digital divide from a human rights perspective

By Krisztina Huszti-Orban & Amy Dickens

This week, the United Nations Human Rights Council will discuss a report prepared by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on ways to bridge the gender digital divide from a human rights perspective.

The Human Rights, Big Data, and Technology Project submitted information to the OHCHR outlining the conditions contributing to the development of the gender digital divide, its negative impact on women’s human rights, and how human rights can contribute to addressing this divide. This post summarises the key components of our submission, focusing on impediments to access and effective use of technology by women.

Factors contributing to the development of the gender digital divide

Access to and use of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) has become essential to government and business  operations, and to individuals’ day-to-day lives. While these technologies offer the possibility of unprecedented progress in many areas of society, they also reflect, and, at times reinforce, social, economic, and other disparities. Existing inequalities shape access to and use of ICTs, thereby transposing the gender divide into the digital space. The gender digital divide, described by OHCHR as ‘the measurable gap between women and men in their access to, use of and ability to influence, contribute to and benefit from ICTs’, may in turn lead to further negative impact on women’s rights and to perpetuating, and even exacerbating, gender inequality.

Impediments to access to ICTs

Socio-economic disadvantages faced by women make the Internet less affordable for women and female-headed households, particularly in low- and middle-income countries where such costs are relatively high. Factors such as geographical isolation and poor technological infrastructure combined with power inequalities and socio-cultural norms that shape women’s day-to-day lives can prevent them from accessing ICTs in public or at home. In some countries, men largely control women’s access to ICTs in the private domain. Moreover, their access to public digital resources, such as libraries and Internet cafes, is restricted in societies where women have limited public visibility.

Impediments to the effective use of ICTs

In addition to equitable access to ICTs, women need to have the knowledge and resources to be able to effectively use these technologies. However,  a series of obstacles, such as the the education gap (which results in a digital literacy gap), act as barriers to ICT use.

Even where women have affordable access to the Internet and the skills to make use of it, they often encounter additional obstacles. Women are frequently confronted with a lack of online content relevant to their experience, context and language, including due to filtering policies adopted by governments and businesses. They may also face a hostile and unsafe online environment, marked by negative sterotypes, attitudinal biases, harassment, and hate speech. These hurdles are likely to discourage women from using certain websites, services, or features or may deter them from investing time and money in accessing and using the Internet altogether.

These factors indicate that the gender digital divide is caused by, and further exacerbates, gender inequality. As such, it acts as a barrier to the emergence of an equitable information society, with the potential to undermine opportunities for realising human rights and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Impact on women’s human rights

As ICTs may function as a gateway to the realization of human rights, limitations on access and use have been shown to interfere with a series of rights, including the right to access to information and to freedom of expression. This may further impinge upon individuals’ righ to participate in discussions of public interest and limit their freedom of association and religion. Restricting access to goods and services, to employment and business opportunities interferes with women’s right to work and to an adequate standard of living. Blocking health and sexuality information affects women’s health and reproductive rights, particularly in contexts where such online material may constitute their only source of information. Such limitations may further obstruct the realization of the right to education and to take part in cultural life, both of which can be facilitated through the exchange of online information.

At the same time, the immense potential for furthering women’s human rights through ICTs and big data is under-explored. For example, big data analytics can assist in the identification of otherwise invisible forms of marginalisation and discrimination and help tackle the gender divide both online and offline by facilitating the development of efficient policies.

A human rights approach to addressing the gender digital divide

Ensuring equal access to the benefits provided by ICTs is vital for States in fulfilling their obligations under international human rights law and advancing the SDGs. To achieve these objectives, States must identify and tackle obstacles to equal access to the benefits of ICTs, and duly consider any correlations between violations and abuses of women’s human rights and the gender digital divide. Gender considerations must be integrated in the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation phases of all relevant policies and programmes, with clear and specific benchmarks set for measuring progress.

States must also take reasonable and adequate legislative and other measures to combat practices that directly or indirectly discriminate against protected characteristics. It includes taking action towards establishing and safeguarding an online environment that is safe and conducive for engagement for all, with special focus on the needs of groups facing systemic inequalities, such as women or LGBTI persons.

Determining the precise means and modalities of such action requires further research so as to enable evidence-based policymaking resulting in measures successfully tackling the online dimension of gender inequality.

The gender digital divide cannot be adequately addressed without considering the pivotal role played by private actors, particularly businesses in the ICT sector. The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) affirm the responsibility of businesses to respect internationally recognized human rights. In this sense, the UNGPs encourage businesses to adopt explicit and public policy commitments, reflected in operational policies, that address issues of gender, vulnerability, and marginalisation.

To efficiently tackle the gender digital divide, human rights must serve as a foundational principle, as well as a key goal, of Internet governance, with the development and utilization of ICTs guided and regulated by international human rights law in order to avoid negative rights consequences, whether intentional or unintentional. Such an approach should include respect for equality and non-discrimination, and the tripartite obligation to respect, protect and fulfil human rights.


Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are the author(s) alone.

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