No equality for women without equal access to Internet

Entrepreneurs in Malaysia use their 3G-ready mobile tablet to access technology training at a women mentoring initiative run by the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women. Photo courtesy of Malaysia project partner, Qualcomm Wireless Reach™.

Gender equality is moving up the world’s agenda, as its vital importance is recognized.

Opening the 2014 session of the Commission on the Status of Women earlier this month, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: “We cannot achieve a world of dignity for all until we end gender inequality in all its forms.”

There is a long road ahead. Across the world, women still make up nearly 70 percent of the world's poor and two-thirds of its illiterate. Women work two-thirds of the world’s working hours and produce half its food, yet earn 10 percent of its income.

Fresh, more modern inequalities are emerging. New research by Ooredoo in the Middle East and North Africa region reveals that two in three Internet users in the region are men — mainly because men are able to use Internet cafés or can access the Internet at work, while women typically only have access at home.

Equal access to the Internet may not sound as significant as inequality of poverty or illiteracy. But it’s an increasing barrier to progress. And it can be the key to addressing those age-old inequalities on a significant scale.

Access to the wider world

The Internet is an essential tool that provides a way for women to get access to the wider world — the world of networks, communities, health and education information, financial advice and business skills training. It’s a platform for women to seek help where they need it, so helping to redress the gender imbalance and foster the empowerment of women.

Ooredoo’s research showed that the Internet in the MENA region can enable women to “enter the business world on their terms.” More than 90 percent of youths surveyed, for example, said the Internet encouraged them to be more entrepreneurial. A similar percentage agreed that the Internet was important for keeping up-to-date with their relevant industry and marketplace.

Other research reaches similar conclusions. Intel’s 2013 Women and the Web Report found that Internet access boosted women’s income and income potential. Nearly half of the respondents in its survey had used the Internet to look for and apply for jobs and 30 percent had used it to generate income. They also felt themselves to be empowered by the Internet, with 85 percent of respondents saying it provides more freedom. Intel found that nearly 25 percent fewer women than men on average have access to the Internet in developing countries — and the gender gap is as high as 45 percent in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa.

But this gap in access also represents an enormous opportunity.

The World Bank estimates that every 10 percent increase in access to broadband results in 1.38 percent growth in gross domestic product for developing countries.

If 600 million women and girls were able to access the Internet over the next three years, the Intel report predicts that GDP could be boosted across 144 developing countries by up to $18 billion. Meanwhile, 180 million women and girls would be able to generate more income and nearly 500 million would improve their education level.

New technology, existing solutions

For those women who already have Internet access, it’s important to make full use of it — combining new technology with existing solutions. My foundation, for example, has developed a program that connects mentors to women entrepreneurs in developing and emerging markets and uses their Internet access for mentoring.

Mentoring is not a new idea, of course — it’s a tried and tested development tool that achieves impact. But the innovation of my foundation’s program is to use existing technology such as freely available Google applications to facilitate mentoring in a way that is scalable and simple to roll out more widely.

New technological developments are all the time making it easier than ever for women to access the Internet — and increasingly, the mobile phone is the Internet access point for those without broadband. It is now, for example, the primary way many Africans access the Internet, with 84 million Internet-enabled mobile devices now in circulation.

But without sustainable and scalable interventions, rural women in particular are in danger of falling further behind those with Internet access, which disadvantages not just the women but also their families, their communities and countries.

Championing online access

How do we attract more of the world’s attention to this vital issue? We certainly need more ICT leaders — men and women — to serve as advocates for the benefits of Internet access. His Excellency Sheikh Abdullah Bin Mohammed Bin Saud Al Thani, chairman of Ooredoo, for example, has recently been appointed to the World Bank Group Advisory Council on Gender and Development, a major global body dedicated to promoting gender equality around the world.

We also need to work together to bring down the cost of broadband, a cause that organizations such as the Alliance for Affordable Internet have already taken up.

But making a real dent in this inequality will take cooperation across every sector — public, private and non-profit. Through the power of modern technology we can make bold new inroads into women’s traditional inequalities of poverty and illiteracy, increase their empowerment and drive growth around the world. The reward would be incalculable.  

Want to learn more? Check out She Builds and tweet us using #SheBuilds.

She Builds is a month-long conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Creative Associates, JBS International as well as the Millennium Challenge Corp., United Nations Office for Project Services and U.K. Department for International Development.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Cherie Blair

    Cherie Blair is a lawyer, a committed campaigner for women’s rights and the wife of former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair. She set up the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women in 2008 to help women build small and growing businesses in developing and emerging markets so that they can contribute to their economies and have a stronger voice in their societies. For more information about the work of the foundation, visit: