Bridging the Digital Gender Divide
Despite the government's ambitious Digital Bangladesh agenda, a significant digital gender divide persists in the country, leaving women at a disadvantage in accessing and using ICT tools compared to men. This not only limits their participation in the digital economy but also hinders their overall socio-economic progress. Age, region, and income disparities exacerbate this divide, making it crucial to implement targeted interventions to bridge the gap and ensure equitable access to digital opportunities for all citizens.
Take the example of Rashida Akter, a third-year management student at Jagannath University, who faced challenges attending online classes during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the digital gender divide. She had to attend her online classes using her brother's smartphone during the pandemic as she did not have any.
"When I first enrolled in university, I didn't have a smartphone, and my parents were hesitant about me having one. They were concerned that it could impede my studies or distract me with romantic relationships, especially since I started living alone in Dhaka," Rashida said.
"When I returned to my village home during the pandemic, I had to rely on my younger brother's phone, who had been using my parents' only smartphones since his school years," she added. "However, as I had no fixed class schedule, my brother would often be outside with the phone, causing me to miss several classes, even though my attendance was mandatory. In addition, I had to use the phone in a nearby field to get a good signal, and my family members were not supportive, which left me feeling discouraged. As a result, my grades suffered during that semester."
"My younger sister, Juli, who was in fifth grade, had a similar experience as she was unable to attend her Zoom classes regularly. Unfortunately, our family could not afford to buy a new smartphone for us due to financial concerns," said Rashida. Rashida's story illustrates that in many households, smartphones are predominantly used by men, which can create obstacles for women and girls who need access to them for their education and other essential activities.
According to the Groupe Speciale Mobile Association's (GSMA) 2020 report, there is a significant gender disparity in the ownership and usage of mobile phones in Bangladesh. Women were 29 percent less likely than men to possess a mobile phone, and they were also 52 percent less likely than men to use mobile internet.
The latest Population and Housing Census 2022 also revealed the gender gap in connectivity, as 66.53 percent of men and 45.53 percent of women use mobile phones. The number of internet users stands at 38.02 percent of men and 23.52 percent of women, respectively.
On the other hand, a 2021 Brac Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) study titled "Understanding the Digital Gender Divide in Rural Bangladesh: How Wide It Is and Why" found that there is a striking gender gap among the most digitally-abled members of households - 63 percent of households identified a man as the most digitally-abled person, almost twice as many as women.
The digital gender divide has not only been restricting women's access to educational opportunities, leading to a knowledge gap and skill disparities between men and women, but also further contributing to lower levels of female participation in the labor force and hindering the country's economic growth.
Women's limited access to ICT has also been leading to income disparities between men and women.
For example, Shirin Sultana, a 29-year-old from Melandoho, Jamalpur, has been stitching Nakshi Kanthas for the past five years and earning Tk 5,000 per month by selling those to a local vendor in her area.
The man resells them online throughout the country using a Facebook page. While Shirin only earns Tk 1,000 for each Kantha she stitches, the vendor sells them for around Tk 5,000 each to his customers.
Despite other female workers like Shirin being aware of this, they are unable to take advantage of the online market, as according to Shirin, "None of us know how to operate a smartphone, let alone do business online."
Inequality in digital access between genders also has a profound effect on women's health and well-being, leading to adverse health outcomes for them and their families.
Women who are unable to utilise digital technology are less likely to obtain vital health-related information, such as maternal health, family planning, or disease prevention. Additionally, the absence of digital tools can negatively affect women's mental health, making them feel isolated from their support systems and social networks, increasing the possibility of depression and anxiety.
The BIGD study indicated that social and cultural beliefs play a significant role in preventing women from using technology. For instance, women who have limited education are often seen as incapable of using technology, while men with similar education levels are not judged the same way.
It also found that women with higher education and in leadership positions are more likely to use technology, resulting in a greater percentage of women who are educated and heads of households being found to be technology users.
The study suggested that as improving women's digital literacy is closely related to their level of education, the government must continue investing in women's education, and also raise awareness among rural citizens about the significance of digital literacy for both men and women.
Besides, although changing societal norms can be difficult, it's essential to identify and pursue feasible solutions.
On the other hand, Dhaka University Economics Professor Dr Sayema Haque Bidisha, who is also the research director at the South Asian Network of Economic Modeling (Sanem) emphasised that parents must change their mindsets and be aware of the advantages of digital literacy for children and allow them to use the device with proper guidance so that they make the best use of it.
"The adolescent club established by the Department of Women's Affairs can raise awareness of digital literacy and its importance, while the government should increase the budget of the women and child affairs ministry, to bridge this parity," she said.
She also suggested that banks and financial institutions in upazila can significantly contribute to reducing the digital gender divide by hiring female officers who can assist women at the grassroots level in accessing the necessary information.