Digital Gender Divide: Internet is essential for women to access important information

When her father, Muhammad Ajmal who is 65 years old, became seriously ill with severe shortness of breath, Fatima, 44, a widow who lives and cares for him, had no idea what to do. She tried the traditional remedies of ginger tea and Joshanda, but saw no improvement in his condition. This was the time when people had not yet heard about the symptoms of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, that were beginning to appear in Pakistan days before her father fell sick. Fatima, who is educated only up to primary school, did not have the literacy skills to access information through multiple mediums, and had no access to the Internet. 

After hearing about COVID-19 on television, she spoke to some neighbours who suggested cures such as mixing neem leaves with boiling water and feeding the resulting mixture to her father; this did not help at all, and his condition continued to deteriorate. Fatima did eventually take him to the hospital and in some weeks her father made a recovery, but the lack of knowledge and absence of avenues  to access information available over the internet became a hurdle for her to get necessary awareness regarding her father’s health. This barrier in information on Fatima, which could have been obtained by others simply by calling an online doctor, meant his life could easily have been lost.

According to the GSMA’s “Mobile Gender Gap Report 2019”, only 50 percent of Pakistani women owned a mobile phone as compared to 81 percent of men in the country. This was recorded as the widest mobile ownership gender gap amongst the countries surveyed. Even fewer had access to 3G/4G internet on their mobile phone. There are economic factors linked to this, with women having less spending power and families more reluctant to spend on women. But there are also other social realities at work. Shakila Aslam, 55, a mother of four children, said, “Families are quite happy to give phones and tablets or computers to their sons, arguing that they need them for study or work.” She explained that even when the boys spent all their time watching movies, entertainment channels or other material over their devices, families insist that girls would misuse internet access and often also say that our girls spend all their time at home. Why would they need a phone?

The COVID-19 epidemic has highlighted why access to the Internet is essential – and the desperate need to create a more accessible, equitable digital landscape. In the first place, the proliferation of online classes by schools and universities began. Girls who lacked access to the internet or had to share a device with other family members at home suffered because they could not always follow these lessons. Abida, 14, a student who tops her class at a government school in Lahore, said, “My brother owns a tablet and a phone. I do not have either and we do not have WiFi in the house either. He would only lend me his tablet occasionally, and I was left behind in many of my classes, like some of the other girls in my group.”

In this time of a pandemic, the world has moved to a more digital existence. Work and study from home has become virtually the norm – and may continue to be for the foreseeable future, with Pakistan planning to re-introduce a lockdown. For women and girls with limited access to the Internet, this means they are likely to suffer in terms of both employment and study. Aleeha Salman, who works as a secretary at a bank in Lahore, said she was asked to leave work as she did not have the facilities to log on from her home in a low-income residential area of the city. “My parents refuse to give me the money to buy a cheap phone or tablet and did not really believe it was essential to keep my job,” she said. Aleeha does not know when she will find employment again.

Similarly, LGBT members of the community are being disproportionately affected by the pandemic. According to the Human Rights Campaign, they are more likely to become unemployed during the crisis, have pre-existing medical conditions and tend to be less economically stable. With university hostels and other public spaces closed, LGBT youth may be forced to live in homes where there is little acceptance of their identity. Improving their internet connectivity would allow them to prevent anxiety and other mental health issues through supportive online groups or even meetings with therapists over Zoom or Skype.

Internet as access to support system

In addition to practical reasons, internet access is also important in finding a means to report domestic violence or abuse within households. While websites and helplines do exist where this can be reported, women are helpless if they cannot reach out to these helplines through their own phone. In a lot of households, where women might not have access to a smartphone or internet, and rely on a common landline phone for communication, seeking help and reporting domestic violence becomes a challenge, especially during the lockdown when everyone is confined to their homes. Borrowing a husband’s phone, or one belonging to another family member who potentially is also the abuser, makes it impractical for them to report matters of domestic violence or discuss their emotional wellbeing with a therapist.

A UN Women analysis of the gendered impacts of COVID-19 reveal that around the world, domestic abuse has increased substantially during periods of lockdown and quarantine. The lockdowns also mean women are cut off from physical channels where they can seek help, such as family members, their parents, friends or other relatives who may be able to intervene in a violent situation. While this is not the best solution in the first place, for many women like Aasia, 22, it is better than nothing. “My husband is my cousin. Previously, when he became verbally or sometimes physically abusive, our grandparents and parents would step in and help diffuse the situation at least for some time. He does not allow me to have a phone, in case I talk to other men,” she said, smiling slightly, “so now I have no means to even tell them what is happening since we are avoiding leaving our house in Karachi’s Orangi area due to the virus situation.”

Internet as means of business

It is sometimes difficult to keep in mind just how effective the Internet has become in today’s world. Women such as Raabia, a university student in Lahore, have begun an entire business, using it to market the food she prepares and sells at relatively low rates to buyers who can see her products on her Instagram page. Other women have set up clothing and tailoring businesses and other means to earn money in a similar fashion. When they have no access to the Internet, this of course becomes impossible. But so do other more basic things.

Internet as means of access to healthcare

The millions of women in our country who cannot access the Internet are also unable to access accurate information on reproductive health, childcare, child welfare or other facts which could help them lead better and more productive lives. Instead, they must survive in an environment where myths and misreported news still prevail. Girls through their teen years for example often know very little about the reproductive process or how their menstrual cycle works; this acts to disempower them and hold them back both at that age and later in life.

In today’s age, the Internet is a basic human right. Other countries have set up WiFi hotspots, Internet cafes accessible to women, and cheaper internet packages in order to help ensure this vital means of communication and information is not snatched away from less advantaged members of our patriarchal society. Pakistan too urgently needs to ensure access to quality, affordable internet for every individual.

Mishael is a summer intern at MMfD. She is a student and national swimmer from Lahore, is interested in humanitarian issues, and has been involved in causes for human rights, women's rights and climate change.

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