Fighting for women's rights in a digital age
The vast majority of the world’s community of nations have long acknowledged that every individual is guaranteed to enjoy a set of fundamental rights. On some occasions, though, these rights can be limited or even violated by certain social norms, rules, and even technology. Yes. Technology, which is supposed to advance the interests of humankind, can sometimes be a tool instead for committing or amplifying human rights violations.
This truth can be particularly harsh for women (and girls) in the context of cyberspace. Apart from the more traditional issues they’ve grown accustomed to addressing, they now also confront newer concerns like reasonable access to the internet, digital literacy, and the expansion (or maintenance) of online safe spaces. As a result, their efforts to assert their rights and freedoms— things that have historically been confined to the “real” world—have now, by necessity, also extended to the digital realm.
Let’s try to put things into perspective.
Data from the International Telecommunications Union show that 52% of women globally have no access to the internet, compared to just 42% for men. Part of the reason is the related issue of access to mobile devices, which are the primary means of connectivity in low- to middle-income countries. Many women simply don’t have them. This has kept them away from a lot of modern services like telemedicine, online education, remote work, socialization, and the like. All of them critical especially during major crises, like the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Financial capacity is a big factor. Women earn less than their male counterparts, despite spending more time on work. And then, when they do manage to buy mobile devices, it’s usually at the expense of their individual privacy and security. This is because they frequently go for the cheaper ones, which come with pre-installed apps notorious for sharing their users’ data with the manufacturers and third parties.
Then there is the issue with digital literacy, or the knowledge and capacity to use digital technologies and the internet. By 2030, it is estimated that 90% of jobs will already require digital skills. Here, women are also at a disadvantage because many of the factors crucial to digital literacy (e.g., language literacy, internet access, user-friendly devices, quality of education, etc.) come as privileges only few of them enjoy.
The majority of children who do not have access to primary education are girls. Their completion rates vis-à-vis primary to upper secondary education are also lower. The same applies to women living with disabilities, or in rural areas. And then, among those who do get to obtain higher education, very few choose STEM-related fields due to bias and gender stereotypes. The resulting gendered education, coupled with poverty, has led to gender disparity in the workforce. In the tech industry, in particular, 1 in 3 women have reported experiencing gender bias at work. Very few hold executive positions and, more often than not, they must exert more effort than their male colleagues in order to attain and maintain those positions.
Finally, there is glaring problem of online safety. Many women lucky enough to get online end up failing to appreciate such privilege out of fear for their online safety. This is because of the unfortunate reality that women are also more vulnerable even in the digital realm.
According to Plan International’s global research, 58% of girls and young women suffer from online harassment or abuse like threats of sexual or physical violence, racism, discrimination, stalking, and body-shaming. In the Philippines, the rate is higher at 68%. Women who identify as LGBTQI+, or belong to an ethnic minority, or are living with a disability have it worse.
Compounding the problem further is the fact that many are unfamiliar with the ways they can do to stay safe online. They don’t know where, or from whom, to seek help, should the need arise. And to think, reaching out to authorities won’t even guarantee a positive outcome. As per the Web Foundation’s Web Index, many courts across jurisdictions fail to properly sanction harmful violations, resulting in victims feeling helpless and perpetrators walking away unscathed.
These are just a sampling of the many issues hounding women in this era, every single one still rooted in intergenerational gender biases. It is clear that the value we ascribe to them remains disproportionate and quite dated. If anything, they tell us there is still so much work to do.
As a global community, we must rethink our values and how they impact everyone. We must consider the different needs of people who are themselves distinct from one another, based on a variety of qualities and factors—like gender. It’s a mindset we have to teach consistently, starting with our children.
Let’s leave patriarchal norms in the past. Women deserve their seats at the table. Involve them in discussions and decision-making. Domestic and caregiving activities must be a shared responsibility. This way, we allow everyone equal (or at least equitable) opportunities.
We need to recognize the potential of women and encourage them to explore STEM fields. Civil society efforts like the SWITCH SEA Project are a good start, but they have to be sustained, enhanced, and hopefully, expanded. In research and when addressing social issues, we should include gender-aggregated data for more comprehensive and well-rounded recommendations or solutions. And when creating spaces online, let’s not forget to make them gender-inclusive and sensitive, too.
To the women, you have your work cut out for you, as well. Believe that you are worthy of respect and of the space that you occupy, and fight for them. Control your narrative. Do not settle as an alternative because you are just as capable as anyone. Defeat the biases and forces that shape you into the kind of person that is not of your own choosing.
These things, keep in mind that they cannot be tied to a schedule—like a single month in a given year—or a mere theme to fleeting project or initiative. To effect real and lasting change, they must be done continuously, consistently, and with great passion.
This article first appeared on GMA News Online on March 16, 2023, 8:25 am.