|Authors:||With inputs from:|
|Syed Munir Khasru
Chairman, The Institute for Policy,
Advocacy, and Governance (IPAG)Abdullah Ar Rafee
Deputy Manager (Programs & Projects),
The Institute for Policy, Advocacy,
and Governance (IPAG)
Daniel Kardefelt Winther
UNICEF Office of Global Insights and PolicyMarta Carnelli
UNICEF Office of Research
Jean Luc Yameogo
Mitigating equity, safety and ethical risks linked to digital transformation
FRAMING THE PROBLEM
The COVID-19 pandemic has been as much a health crisis as it has been a social and economic crisis, upending the fabric and norms of social structures in developed and developing countries alike. Among its many impacts spanning all layers and sectors of society, the impact on women and children is expected to be the highest, as these groups have historically disproportionately suffered from inequality and disparity.
» The global nature of internet connectivity means that data privacy and safety measures, as well as policies related to ethical obligations need to be implemented and enforced by all nations.«
The pandemic undoing progress towards gender equality
Before the pandemic struck, the World Economic Forum’s 2020 report on the Global Gender Gap 1 identified the greatest progress in mitigating gender inequality in recent decades. Between 2018 and 2020, 101 of 149 countries reduced the gender gap, but still had a long way to go for full elimination – for example, 163 years in East Asia and the Pacific based on current trends.
Globally, women are tackling the crisis head-on, as women make up 70% of all global healthcare and social workers. As seen in case of the Ebola and Zika viruses, the reallocation of health resources can have adverse effects on sexual and reproductive health services for women. In developing countries, women are overrepresented in the informal sector, which usually translates to lower earnings, job security and savings, all of which are being adversely impacted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Over 70% of women in developing economies are engaged in informal employment, and the uncertain nature of this work disproportionately exposes them to abrupt dismissals, abuses of worker rights, and violations of other rights. For low-income countries, the total share (women+men) of informal employment is even higher – over 80-90% in many countries and in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, and there are significantly more women workers in informal jobs than men.
Beyond employment, past evidence has also shown a rise in sexual abuse and teenage pregnancy due to school closures. On one hand, working women have seen an increase in responsibility in the household, while on the other, the pandemic may limit their decision-making power in the households for many women who have lost their jobs, ultimately widening the gender gap.
In some countries, there is also a significant gender gap in relation to digital skills, which is associated with gender norms and a lower parental acceptance to let daughters access computers and the internet when they are available at home. A UNICEF study covering eight Sub-Saharan African countries found that, on average, only 6% of adolescent girls have basic digital skills compared to 9% of adolescent boys. In Ghana, only 7% of adolescent girls have basic digital skills compared to 16% of adolescent boys.6 Evidence from past pandemics and epidemics also show that young girls and women disproportionately suffer during such crisis. Among many others, factors impacting adolescent girls include being orphaned, stigmatization and discrimination, early or adolescent pregnancy, abuse and maltreatment, and intimate partner violence.
Impact of the pandemic on children
For children, the impact of the pandemic has been acute, as school closures have significantly disrupted the progress of their education by more than a year in most developing countries. And even before the pandemic, the world was already facing a learning crisis, with 48% of all children considered to be “learning poor” – unable to read and understand a simple text by the age of 10, with a significantly higher learning poverty rate in low-income countries (90%). Globally, it is estimated that the pandemic will add an additional 10% to the world’s children in learning poverty.
In addition, children’s mental health and development has suffered in many places, as they were confined to their homes for months, while they would have benefited from access to sports, outdoor and social activities in person. With increased responsibilities and uncertainties, in many households parents have been unable to provide due attention to their children.
Digital technology is impeding inequality risks
In the wealthiest countries and households with internet connectivity, technology has been a boon during the pandemic, with digital platforms providing various online learning mediums and work-from-home facilities for women. For global stakeholders, these platforms have opened the possibilities for potential support even in a post-pandemic world, if the digital divide is resolved. However, many inherent barriers must still be overcome before we can rely on digital technologies for the most vulnerable populations.
The most vulnerable countries and households are significantly lacking in terms of electricity, connectivity and accessibility to digital devices. In fact, in lowincome countries, only 42% of the population has access to electricity. Among children and young people aged 25 years or less, only 6% in low-income countries have fixed internet access at home, compared to 87% in high-income countries. During lockdowns, less than one third of children had the connectivity necessary for potentially being reached by digital learning solutions.
These hard barriers are compounded by soft barriers, as many parents and teachers lack the required digital skills to support children as they go online, and there is still reluctance from many parents to let their children, in particular girls, access the internet. In addition, diminished privacy, increased collection of personal data, and risks of encountering online violence and abuse, bullying, or inappropriate content, are some of the key risks that children face as they get greater exposure to the digital world.
In order to deliver on their potential, digital technologies, big data and Artificial Intelligence need to be applied cautiously with a focus on being inclusive, and designed from the start to benefit the most marginalized and not to further entrench inequities.
Against this backdrop, the following recommendations provide a pathway for policymakers to focus and prioritize actions to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on women and children and the inequity risks associated with the digital divide.
1. Develop infrastructure to make electricity and internet connectivity accessible and affordable
Lack of electricity and infrastructure is one of the largest inequality factors. An estimated 2.2 billion (two-thirds) children and young people lack access to a fixed internet connection at home.11 Even in highincome countries like Italy, one-third of families with internet access were unable to fully engage in digital learning due to a lack of sufficient connectivity or devices. And globally, the proportion of women using the internet is 12% lower than men, with 200 million fewer women than men owning a mobile phone.
At a very core level, policymakers and donors need to ramp up efforts to develop hard infrastructure like access to electricity, connectivity and good quality digital devices, in particular for the most vulnerable populations. This should be adequately complemented by online resources made available by technology companies. For example, educational materials should be made available in documents, sizes and formats that are easily and cheaply accessible through low-speed internet and integrated with existing devices. At the same time, these resources should also be accessible offline to ensure use in setting with low/no connectivity. Governments need also to work with telecommunication companies to subsidize costs of data, devices and digital platforms.
» Policies need to provide ›meaningful connectivity‹ through content ›that is safe, trusted, and serempowering ‹. «
2. Address online safety and data privacy measures
Ensuring privacy in the online sphere is also a challenge. For women and children, who are disproportionately likely to suffer from abuse due to prevailing social norms, this is a significant threat for both physical and mental well-being. COVID-19 has resulted in a significant surge in the use of digital platforms, with crimes committed
through the use of digital technology increasing in tandem. The pandemic saw a 400% rise in cyberattacks, compared to the pre-pandemic era, with approximately 4,000 attacks taking place every day. As predators and online offenders spent more
time on the internet, abuse against women and children also rose. The Philippine government saw a 260% rise in increase
in reports of online child abuse. In Indonesia, a group was recently discovered through a popular messaging app that
purported to offer live nude shows of minors. Developed economies such as Australia weren’t left behind either, with the country experiencing a significant rise in reports of child sex abuse in 2020.
The global nature of internet connectivity means that data privacy and safety measures, as well as policies related to ethical obligations need to be implemented and enforced by all nations. Banning or restricting access for children to websites showcasing child abuse materials in one single country is not always sufficient as Virtual Private Networks are in abundance today to provide easy access to the same websites from another country. Hence, policymakers need to combine their efforts to enact data safety and privacy policies that can be applied across borders.
For women and children, such measures need to be complemented with information about the safest ways to use the digital platforms, recognizing that they may be more likely to experience some forms of abuse online. Technology companies should do their utmost to make sure women (and children) are not subjected to abuse on their platforms. Guidelines should be available for parents and children alike to help them identify the early signs of sexual abuse and bullying through online platforms. In addition, children should be supported to find the right balance between screen-based and outdoor activities, especially when remote learning is done online and forces them to spend significant time with screens. This should not come at the expense of their digital entertainment and socializing however, as these are important and valuable activities for children.
3. Support increase of digital use by removing cultural barriers
Among the key barriers to increased digital use are cultural perceptions and gender and social norms that consider internet access a waste of time or unsafe. Even when the required infrastructure and connectivity is available, such cultural norms and perceptions have impacted internet access for women and children, how much time they spend on it, and when they do, whether they are using it for their own benefit. This calls for a need to design programs and policies that provide “meaningful connectivity” to women and children, including content “that is safe, trusted, user-empowering and leads to positive impact.”Policymakers need to conduct awareness campaigns that target information and education towards parents, teachers, community leaders, religious leaders and other influential figures in order to enhance meaningful and safe digital engagement. And digital learning content should be relevant to age, culture and societal contexts.
4. Conduct further research on the safe and effective use of digital that removes biases against women and children
Evidence has shown that digital use can be associated with risks of discrimination. For example, when it relates to Artificial
Intelligence applications, there are significant risks in terms of ethical, gender and social concerns due to the lack of standards for evaluation and international coordination, and the issues of data selection and curation for training of systems. It is then crucial for policymakers and other stakeholders to research and assess the gender and social impact of digital solutions from the onset, and to design or correct their course based on evidence gathered, with the goal of mitigating ethical and gender biases when implemented.
Global Solutions Journal – Issue 7, May 2021 (Page 176):https://www.global-solutions-initiative.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Global-Solutions-Journal-7-Summit-2021-Edition.pdf