By Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi
I have just returned from this year’s United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York. CSW is an annual gathering at the UN where Member States and civil society organisations review progress made on implementing the 1995 UN Beijing Platform for Action. I started attending CSW in 1993, as a young women’s rights activist based in London working for a Pan-African women’s organisation.
Over the past thirty years I have only missed CSW roughly eight times. As I moved around the various sessions at CSW, I was pleased to note the large numbers of young women who have taken leadership in the women’s movement, trying to move the agenda forward.
The theme for the 2023 commemoration of March 8th International Women’s Day (IWD) is DigitAll: Innovation and technology for gender equality. Even though it can be said that every IWD celebration comes with the obligatory noise, jamborees and rhetorical speeches, it is useful to beam the spotlight on issues that are usually left under the radar. In an age when communities are growing further apart in terms of their access to information, knowledge, wealth and health, one of the quickest ways to bridge the gap is the effective use of technology and digital tools.
On March 8th I was in the UN General Assembly Hall for the formal commemoration of International Women’s Day organised by UN Women as part of the CSW activities. As I sat there listening to the speeches and performances, I noted the hundreds of mobile phones raised up by participants to record the proceedings. How times have changed. We did not have cell phones when I first started attending such programs in 1993.I sent my first ever email in March 1995, 28 years ago. I was in London at the time and we were preparing for the UN Women’s Conference in August-September 1995 in Beijing. It was the only way we could register for the NGO Forum in Huairou and Official UN Conference in Beijing. There was only one women’s organisation in the UK at the time who knew what the digital space was all about, a small group called Green Net. They went around opening accounts for us and getting us registered. It opened up a whole new world for us. Even with all the advances that have been made since then, women and girls might still be left behind, as we often see with male dominated structures and technologies. For every mobile phone raised to take a photograph at the UN Hall that day, there are still millions of women and girls who will not have the opportunity.
New digital tools are empowering, and can serve to support inclusive global economic growth. To seize this opportunity, it is essential that no one, especially women, is held back in trying to achieve their aspirations. Now is the time to step up efforts and take advantage of the digital age to ensure that it represents opportunities for women and a chance to build a more inclusive digital world.
Like with all male dominated structures and systems, a gender gap will continue in the digital space if we do not make a concerted effort to address the challenges. There are however a number of opportunities for women and girls that have emerged and that need to be explored and scaled up, examples include:
Skills acquisition: The digital economy presents an opportunity for women to acquire skills that can make them marketable and in high demand across the private, public and social sectors. Ranging from coding to software design to digital project management, data analytics, multimedia production, cyber-security, website development to online learning, online marketing, there are many opportunities for career development and growth that can aid women.It is also hoped that formal and informal learning opportunities can speed up access in all these areas.
Entrepreneurship development:In these days of living with the fall out of COVID19, entrepreneurs are heavily reliant on the use of ICTs. Women will be able to scale up their enterprises if given access and training in appropriate digital tools. There are currently many women in Nigeria running thriving businesses online in fashion, food, make-up and agri-business on platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. Women entrepreneurs in grassroots local communities have also been able to take advantage of digital applications to stay engaged with their customers.As governments at Federal and State level attempt to address the massive youth unemployment challenge, this is an area of priority focus.
Access to resources: Digital applications have been made accessible to many women for them to receive resources such as Conditional Cash Transfers (CCT), business grants, elderly people’s grants, maternal healthcare and other opportunities. These are tools governments should continue to take advantage of as a way of delivering social investment programs in a transparent and accountable manner.
Amplifying voices: The digital age has facilitated the amplification of women’s voices in significant ways. Social movements around women’s rights, sexual and gender-based violence, youth movements, peace networks, good governance, are all ways in which women have exercised agency and mobilized for social change, using digital tools.
Community Building: Digital tools have played a key role in community building. With the rise in social networking sites (Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and applications such as WhatsApp, Telegram and Tik Tok, people find common interests and women are able to take advantage of this to share views and concerns. It also facilitates the creation of networks that can provide the basis for community development such as alumni associations, Town Associations, family gatherings and so on. There is a limitless amount of social and political capital that can be earned from the use of these opportunities, if one is able to look beyond all the unnecessary drama and ‘clout chasing’.
Going forward,national and State policies on Media and ICTS should be as gender inclusive as possible in order to bridge knowledge and opportunity gaps.Digital tools (mobile devices, applications, laptops, tablets, blue-tooth devices, smart watches) also need to be more affordable, functional and accessible. It is also important that Telecommunications companiesbe encouraged to keep their services as accessible as possible.The ongoing efforts to send girls to school and keep them in school for as long as possible need to be complemented with encouraging Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in schools for girls. Discouraging girls from studying STEM subjects should now be a thing of the past. There should also be an ICTs lab or its equivalent in every school where young people can learn and explore the world they live in, and every Local Government Areain the country should have an ICT hub where young people can use and learn relevant tools. More investments are also needed to enable women take advantage of the use of ICTs for enterprise development. Some common threads running through all these strategies include partnerships of all sectors, mentoring, showcasing best practices and peer learning.
We cannot talk about empowering women and girls in the digital space without a mention of those things that might disempower them. We need more awareness raising on the dangers of some of these technologies and how it is creating huge security risks for women and girls in particular -kidnapping, pornography, sexual violence, cyber stalking, toxic online conversations and so on. All these have serious implications for well-being, self-esteem, confidence and mental health. In my opinion, DigitAll is about consciously creating and sustaining a world of limitless opportunities for women and girls, grounded in values of equality, fairness, justice and peace. We have come a long way. There is however still a long way to go, we just need to figure out how to get there quicker.
•Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at [email protected]
Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of Vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.