Women on the sidelines

Is digital Pakistan leaving women behind?

Women on the   sidelines

The globalised world we live in today is fascinating. The technological revolution has fundamentally altered the way people, organisations and institutions connect. Technology has also transformed the world of work, ushering in the fourth industrial revolution (IR 4.0), characterised by a range of new technologies that fuse the physical and digital world, impacting every aspect of our lives today. This stage of industrial development is meant to connect people, goods and services to increase productivity, alleviate hardship and lead to an overall improvement in the human condition.

Although parts of the world are experiencing the 4th stage of the industrial revolution across various economic sectors, Pakistan is simultaneously dealing with the first, second, third, and fourth stages. While agriculture, the largest contributor to the GDP is still in the first stage of industrial revolution; e-commerce and financial services have reached the fourth. Pakistan is going through its digital revolution faster than expected and predicted because the world has been forced to shift to digital spaces for literally everything due to the Covid-19 pandemic. New employment and entrepreneurship opportunities can be created via digital platforms that provide flexibility and circumvent physical mobility and domestic commitments.

However, the results are not showing an increase in women’s businesses that currently stand at only three per cent, a regional low. A technology sector study in Pakistan has revealed that women comprise only 14 per cent of the work force and that the sector is dominated by male technology entrepreneurs and men in executive positions.

Moreover, the digital revolution does not seem to have reached all segments of the population. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) Inclusive Internet Index, Pakistan has consistently ranked last for internet inclusivity in South Asia. It has been in the bottom three places for all of Asia over the past four years. There are growing digital gaps and divides across regions urban-rural and between socioeconomic groups gender/ income/ age. Women and girls lag 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 and 313 million fewer women than men use mobile internet. The gap in internet access between men and women is 65 per cent. It is 51 per cent in access to mobile phones. Lack of affordability, awareness, education, technical literacy, socio-cultural norms and biases lead to this gender-based digital exclusion, limiting women’s access to technology and connectivity. Safety-related issues, such as the risk of cyber harassment, are also a concern when it comes to women’s access to internet or ownership of mobile phones.

Researches show that women are more likely to be subjected to cyber harassment and are more exposed to digital privacy issues. This digital divide can increasingly prevent women from accessing life-enhancing services for education, health and financial inclusion in a world that has become virtual overnight.

Extract: The gap in internet access between men and women is 65 per cent. It is 51 per cent in access to mobile phones. Lack of affordability, awareness, education, technical literacy, socio-cultural norms and biases lead to gender-based digital exclusion, limiting women’s access to technology and connectivity.

Not just that, women face disadvantages in accessing financial technologies as well, compromising the potential overall growth of e-commerce and financial services. According to a 2013 World Bank report, only three per cent of women entrepreneurs avail themselves of bank loans; while across all MFBs (micro-finance banks), women account for 18 per cent of borrowers and 24 per cent of total clients. Last year, the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) increased its concessional financing limit for women entrepreneurs from Rs 1.5 million to Rs 5 million under its Redefine and Credit Guarantee Scheme for Women Entrepreneurs. At the end of May of this year, Prime Minister Imran Khan inaugurated the Ehsaas Saving Wallets initiative in Islamabad, bringing women into the financial inclusion net by allowing female beneficiaries to use digital wallets for savings and cash withdrawals. Given that only 18 per cent of women in Pakistan are account holders, this initiative aims to widen the financial net for women. However, access to mobile money wallets requires access to mobile phones and internet services, and that remains an issue.

In an attempt to bridge the digital gap, an organisation empowered by the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunications, the Universal Service Fund (USF), focuses on connecting underprivileged communities like women and the disabled. In 2017, the Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB) launched, Herself, a programme to empower women entrepreneurship. Under the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication, Ignite functions as a body that funds innovation and entrepreneurship.

Freelancing and digital remote working are on the rise in response to Covid-19, and the MOITT has formulated a national digital policy and drafted a national freelancing facilitation policy. To support that, the federal government has established a national programme, called DigiSkills, that aims to impart digital knowledge and improve digital skills. While all these are positive developments on the government’s part, more needs to be done to include women in the digital revolution.

The national digital policy will not yield the full potential of the digital revolution if appropriate measures are not taken to include women and other marginalised communities. Suitable measures include providing holistic access to affordable and stable internet connections and cheap mobile phones to all, including women. On a legislative level, inclusive access to the internet should be deemed as a fundamental level.

Another need is to ensure creating awareness on a national level to change women’s social perception of women’s digital presence. That can be done by educating the masses through media campaigns. A part of this is the assurance of digital safety. People will change their perception of women’s digital presence once they feel that it is a safe environment.

In order to include women in the financial set, the government needs to take a lead role in the skilling, re-skilling and upskilling of women to offset technology-induced inequality and job losses. Flexibility in working hours and work-from-home review of commerce-related policies to remove roadblocks for e-commerce and tax-based incentives for start-ups are ways to encourage women’s participation in technology-based work. It will require a review of government plans for technical and technological skills development to ensure their relevance and alignment with the future of work. For greater inclusion, a closer nexus among the government, the NGO’s, communities and businesses is required. Only then can it be a successful digital revolution.

The writer is a public policy and governance scholar at Forman Christian College, Lahore, and is interested in human development and economic policy. She can be reached at shahwarasif@gmail.com

Women on the sidelines