Bridging the digital divide empowers girls. If we get it right

Technological innovations have been a source of hope and security for many girls and young women, enabling them to continue learning and seek help if they are at risk of child marriage or gender-based violence. 

by Björn Andersson and George Laryea-Adjei

When Vithika Yadav returned to India in 2008 after living in the United States, she saw that many young people - especially girls - didn’t have a space to openly talk about the difficult issues they faced. Gender-based violence, child marriage and other harmful social practices remain commonplace - and are hardly ever discussed.

So she rolled up her sleeves and co-founded Love Matters India, a digital community for young people to learn about their rights, seek services, share stories and help their peers.

Love Matters India meets young people where many of them already are - online - opening conversations on tough subjects related to gender inequality and sexual and reproductive health and rights. The platform, with a significant audience, is helping to address patriarchal behaviour within India’s younger generations.

Increasingly across Asia and the Pacific, innovative initiatives like these are opening up new opportunities to empower women and girls with knowledge, support and services and help them lead safe, productive, fulfilling lives. 

This is timelier than ever, since the COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on services that help protect girls against child marriage and gender-based violence. This is alarming for regions like South Asia, where over half of girls are married before the age of 18 - robbing them of their childhood, curbing their education, and putting their health and safety at risk. Projections warning of a significant pandemic-related spike in these human rights violations are increasingly corroborated by anecdotal evidence and data from service providers.

Technological innovations have been a source of hope and security for many girls and young women, enabling them to continue learning and seek help if they are at risk of child marriage or gender-based violence.

But not all girls and young women have access to digital technology and the opportunities it offers to improve their lives. Making sure no girl is left behind because she is poor, illiterate or too young requires deliberate planning and action on the part of governments and a range of partners including the private sector.

Disparities in access to technology are actually rising - widening the chasms both between boys’ and girls’ ability to thrive, and between privileged and disadvantaged communities.

As governments and the private sector ramp up investments in digital technology to better reach young people, we must make concerted efforts to bridge gender and socio-economic digital divides.

Ms. Yadav does just that. She reaches out to girls from some of the most disadvantaged communities through Love Matters India’s youth networks. Critical information on girls’ rights and services is disseminated through community radio and mobile phones preloaded with content to avoid Internet access issues.

Inspiring examples of how this can be done abound. In Sri Lanka, UNICEF and the Government have set up a virtual and telephone-based support system for at-risk children amid COVID-19 lockdowns. Frontline social workers trained in psychosocial support use Zoom to report cases of girls and boys in need of protection.

In Bangladesh, as part of the national Alapon helpline, UNFPA and Concerned Women for Family Development have set up a Rohingya line to provide sexual and reproductive health information and psychosocial support in Cox’s Bazar refugee camps. Community health workers and designated safe spaces across the camps are equipped with mobile phones so girls can call the helpline. Facebook Live sessions are broadcast on local radio, and radios containing an SD card preloaded with past Alapon Live sessions are given to adolescents.

What more can we do to harness the potential of technology to protect the rights and wellbeing of all girls, everywhere?

Governments and partners, including the private sector, must strengthen digital literacy and infrastructure across the region, with a focus on adolescent girls and underserved communities.

This means ensuring that all adolescent girls can learn even when physically attending schools is not possible - by making sure they have the devices, platforms, materials and support they need. This is especially important in places with high rates of child marriage, as keeping girls in school substantially reduces the likelihood they will marry early.

In online school settings, authorities need to monitor attendance records and implement strategies to ensure that both boys and girls, including those from disadvantaged families, have equal access to education. And, alternative safe modes of learning should be offered where online access is unavailable.

Donors, the private sector, governments, UN agencies and civil society should invest more in digital innovations to create online spaces for adolescents, especially girls, to share their experiences and concerns with peers and professionals and receive information and support in a safe virtual space.

But as more evidence from the Asia-Pacific region emerges on what has worked amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become clear that investing in technology alone is not enough. Approaches that combine in-person interactions, traditional media like radio, and diverse digital platforms are needed to fully engage girls and young people, especially in remote or disadvantaged communities.

For example, virtual health and psychosocial support consultations, including support for adolescents facing abuse or child marriage, must be made available through helplines, radio and mobile phones. 

On this International Day of the Girl Child, as we contemplate a post-COVID region and  world, we have the opportunity to build on what we’ve learned during the pandemic about the value of digital technology - while also addressing the gaps that divide us even further.

We must not only commit, but also take concrete actions to bridge gender and socio-economic digital divides so technology advances rights, choices and opportunities for all.

Björn Andersson is the Regional Director for the Asia-Pacific Regional Office of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency. UNFPA’s mission is to deliver a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person's potential is fulfilled.

George Laryea-Adjei is the Regional Director for UNICEF South Asia, based in Kathmandu, Nepal. UNICEF is dedicated to advancing the rights and wellbeing of all children, especially the most marginalized and disadvantaged.