A woman in Nigeria teaches young girls to blog so they can “share their thoughts to the whole world.” Thousands of miles away in California, a teenage girl uses the internet to raise funds for United Nations programs that benefit marginalized adolescent girls in developing countries.
These examples show how information and communications technologies (ICTs) enable girls and women to share their voices and connect with their communities, with policymakers, and with each other.
This is a positive development for girls and women. It is also a positive development for the world: When girls and women are empowered, they lift up their families, communities, and countries.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day, let’s also focus on how we can advance the rights and well being of girls and women worldwide. Technology must be part of this discussion.
In addition to providing a platform to share their voices, technology makes information easily available so girls and women can learn and make informed decisions.
For example, in many communities, pregnant women and new mothers do not have easy access to health clinics. Programs like the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA) use mobile phones to deliver vital and culturally sensitive health information to mothers. These messages are built around key ways to improve health outcomes for both the mother and baby, including antenatal care, nutrition, and postpartum family planning.
Beyond providing information, ICTs provide economic opportunities, connecting girls and women to markets, helping them search for jobs, fostering entrepreneurship, providing ways to save money, and improving education.
Given the widespread use of mobile phones—this year it is expected that there will be more mobile subscriptions in the world than people—they hold particular potential to help women. A recent report from the UN Foundation and the ExxonMobil Foundation, A Roadmap for Promoting Women’s Economic Empowerment, highlighted how mobile phones not only allow women to take advantage of financial services, but they provide privacy to do so, increasing autonomy. In fact, a report from the Cherie Blair Foundation and the GSMA Development Fund found that 85 percent of women surveyed felt more independent because of their phone.
The benefits of ICTs are clear, but for too many women they are out of reach. In low- and middle-income countries, 300 million fewer women have mobile phone subscriptions than men, and globally, an estimated 200 million fewer women are online. According to a report from the UN’s Broadband Commission for Digital Development, only 29 percent of women in the developing world are online.
Closing the gender gap in technology is fundamentally an issue of fairness, but it is also a smart development strategy. Intel found that doubling the number of women in the developing world who are online would increase Gross Domestic Product across 144 developing countries by an estimated $13 billion to $18 billion annually.
This is one example of how making technology more accessible to girls and women can drive progress on a number of Millennium Development Goals. It would help reduce poverty by growing personal incomes and national economies, improve the health of women and families, strengthen education for all, and promote gender equality by increasing participation in government and communities.
So how do we shrink the technology gender gap?
While there is no one solution, leaders from the public and private sectors can take a number of steps: make ICTs more affordable; generate more content directed at women; integrate technology and gender into broader development plans; and encourage and enable more girls to study and enter ICT fields.
The last point is especially important. As the role of technology in the global economy continues to grow, we must make sure today’s generation of girls is not left behind and locked out from the jobs and leadership opportunities of the future. Through our Girl Up campaign, the UN Foundation has seen firsthand how powerful girls can be when they have a platform to be heard. Thousands of girls across the country have mobilized in unprecedented ways—texting and tweeting and changing the way we collaborate on social issues.
While technology can lead to significant progress for girls and women, investing in technology alone is not sufficient. With less than 700 days left until the expiration of the Millennium Development Goals, the international community needs to rally progress on all of the goals and invest in comprehensive services—from education to family planning—to support girls and women.
Technology is part of the solution though, which is why the UN has made expanding access a priority. We are supporting the UN’s efforts and hope others join the cause.
Using technology, we can give more girls and women the tools they need to build a brighter future for themselves and the world.
Kathy Calvin is President and Chief Executive Officer of the United Nations Foundation and a member of the Broadband Commission for Digital Development.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier’s March/April 2014 print edition.