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Addressing the digital gender gap among displaced communities in Yemen
  • Kristy Crabtree and Rana Obadi
  • May 2024
Participants of the digital literacy training in Yemen celebrate graduation. Credit: Rana Obadi

Technology can be a great enabler in humanitarian settings, extending access to information and services to affected populations. However, gendered barriers to accessing internet-enabled devices should be addressed as part of the response.

In a world in which 95% of the global population lives “within the footprint of a mobile broadband network,” and the majority own a smartphone, technology has an important role to play in the humanitarian response to large-scale crises. Through internet and mobile networks humanitarian responders can provide life-saving information and virtual services for affected populations. The recent proliferation of aid-related digital products and platforms is a testament to this fact.

As aid programmes increasingly harness the advantages of technology for broader reach and impact, some humanitarians may mistakenly assume that equitable access to virtual services is universally guaranteed. In their Mobile Gender Gap Report 2023, GSMA points out that “women in low and middle-income countries are 19% less likely than men to use [the Internet].”

Digital gender gap in humanitarian settings

International Rescue Committee (IRC) conducted research in 2017 and 2019 in Lebanon and Uganda[i] to better understand the digital gender gap in humanitarian settings. The data uncovered several key barriers that women and girls face in relation to digital spaces. These include:

  • Prohibitive costs: The number one barrier reported was the unaffordable cost of mobile devices and data.
  • Public space restrictions: Women and girls are often restricted from public spaces that are largely inhabited by men (e.g. school, work, markets or other public gathering places), which weakens their natural exposure to mobile technology and the internet.
  • Lack of technical confidence: Limited access to internet-enabled devices means that women and girls may lack technical confidence and desire for access.
  • Social disapproval: Negative attitudes toward women and girls’ use of phones and the internet affects their ability to build digital literacy organically, safely, and without intervention. Male figures in the household and community are quick to assert the hazards for women (many of which are related to the potential for maintaining romantic relationships which male family members deem unacceptable).

The barriers listed above for humanitarian settings are comparable to those reported in low and middle-income countries. USAID similarly found affordability, availability, ability and appropriateness were the primary factors negatively affecting women and girls’ access to internet-enabled devices.

Among all these obstacles, the barrier of social disapproval is unique to the experience of women and girls, restricting women and girl’s desire, access or confidence in the use of information and communications technology. The threat of generalised harassment from other community members adds yet another layer of fear.

Promoting inclusive digital programmes through device provision and training

The onus is on humanitarian response practitioners to develop inclusive ways for women and girls to equitably access digital or digitally-enabled programmes and services.

In 2020, spurred on by the rapid shift to virtual services (necessitated by Covid-19), IRC developed a gender-sensitive and safety-prioritising digital literacy curriculum for women and girls, called Safe Space to Learn. IRC posited that if a programme loaned out mobile devices and provided access to the internet, along with digital skills training, there would be improvements in equitable uptake of technology.

The Safe Space to Learn curriculum includes several modules: 1) an introduction to digital spaces, 2) digital accounts and apps, 3) finding information online, 4) staying safe online, 5) social media, and 6) digital employment and education skills. To eliminate barriers to access, this curriculum was designed to be implemented in Women and Girls’ Safe Spaces: physical female only spaces where women and adolescent girls can gain knowledge and skills, access gender-based violence response services or other available services, and foster opportunities for mutual support and collective action in their community. The provision of mobile devices for loan countered issues around affordability.

The Safe Space to Learn digital literacy programme in Yemen and lessons learned

Yemen is one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises, with 21.6 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. The dire situation in the country, affecting 65% of the population, stems from an nine-year long conflict, which has caused high levels of unemployment and poverty, and limited access to basic necessities like food, water and healthcare, resulting in a majority of the population being on the brink of famine.

Three-quarters of the 4.5 million displaced people are women and children. In this setting, as in many other situations of forced displacement, access to information and communication through social networks can be life-saving. The communication features of phones alone not only aid in connectedness but “enhance professional, educational and livelihood opportunities” GSMA. In Yemen, this holds particularly true because participants can now access recently launched community-led information services, such as Dalilak (a Signpost instance). These services empower clients during crises by providing actionable information to make critical decisions on the issues most relevant to them.

The Yemen Women and Girls’ Safe Space, in the Khanfar district in the Abyan governorate, was chosen as a site to introduce the digital literacy curriculum because of proactive interest by the women and girls accessing the space. Khanfar, the largest district in Abyan Governorate, deals with sporadic conflict and hosts a significant number of displaced persons, estimated by staff to be around 20% of the population. While residents have mobile internet access, its speed is often inadequate, and interruptions in connectivity occur periodically. Fifty adult women from both rural and urban areas took part in the programme, with a slightly greater proportion of women from urban areas. Around half of the participants were women who bear the responsibility of supporting their families. The sessions were held twice a week for two hours each, and participants were provided with a smartphone to use in the centre during the sessions.

Participants in the programme reported a four-fold increase in knowledge and higher confidence levels in practical elements of digital citizenship (the ability to effectively, safely and respectfully use the internet) such as online navigation, responsible account management, password management, and various strategies to support online safety. Participants viewed their access to information and opportunities as a great transformative benefit, citing newfound skills such as CV writing, access to new job platforms, and further skill building through certificate programmes.

Participants remarked on a significant shift in their digital confidence and online engagement. The programme fostered a supportive community amongst participants, promoting cooperation and knowledge sharing. This collaborative spirit extended beyond the programme, as evidenced by participants assisting family and friends with their digital navigation. One participant noted:

“I was able to support my sister. I helped her download apps, create a Google account, and navigate online safety practices. Witnessing her growing confidence in using technology safely has been incredibly rewarding for me.”

Another participant, a mother, conquered her initial hesitation regarding phone usage, and her involvement in the programme played a pivotal role in shifting her husband and son’s cultural and religious views on women and girls using phones, leading to the normalisation of mobile phone usage within their family. This transformation culminated in the decision to purchase a smartphone for her daughter, and the mother and her adult son starting a business selling mobile phone data cards.

An unexpected outcome of the programme was participants asking for training in phone repair. The women who took part explained that typically, if a device breaks (a screen cracks or the charging port is damaged), they would be forced to get a new phone (often cost prohibitive) or ask permission to get help from a man at the market and give him full access to their devices. This raised concerns about photos of participants without a niqab (kept on their personal phone) potentially being used for blackmail. Their request: train us on how to fix the hardware, which will improve safety outcomes and provide a livelihood opportunity. The IRC has been exploring partnerships with local technical institutes as well as opportunities to connect digital literacy training with small business training.

While the digital literacy programme resulted in the strengthening of participant’s practical and technical capabilities and broader empowerment, there were also challenges: unreliable connectivity, power outages and lack of personal device ownership. The absence of personal mobile devices for a subset of participants presents a potential obstacle to sustained engagement and independent application of acquired skills beyond the programme’s duration. This could limit their ability to access online resources, maintain connections with the programme network and fully leverage their learning. However, loaned devices remain available at the Safe Space.

Based on insights from the implementation in Yemen, we can offer several recommendations to address the digital gender gap in contexts of forced displacement.

  1. Ensure equitable access to digital tools

Humanitarian agencies implementing virtual programmes should consider barriers to equitable access. Women, girls, the elderly, and rural populations are less likely to have access to internet-enabled devices and technical confidence. Explore ways to address this through gender-sensitive digital up skilling. Online safety must be an essential component of any training and women-only spaces for training show positive results.

  1. Provide or loan smartphones

Loaning smartphones to participants or hosting a computer lab allows organisations to reach a larger number of participants without exhausting resources on gifted devices. This enables them to serve more communities and incentivises participants to actively engage in the training. Agreements on responsible device use can be discussed with participants to ensure shared expectations on usage. Consider gender-sensitive ways to facilitate this access.

  1. Incorporate messaging on social norms into training

Digital upskilling for women and girls is an important step towards digital equity; however, social and cultural barriers may persist. Programmes could consider including targeted social norms messaging on the use of technology. One example of this approach is Tech4Families, an Equal Access International initiative launched in 2019, which aims to bridge the digital gender gap in Northern Nigeria through mass media, skills training and family-based learning.

  1. Make connections between digital literacy and psychosocial or livelihoods activities

Digital literacy can be a launching pad for many other services and interventions. For example, participants in the Yemen digital literacy programme requested additional training on mobile phone repair.

  1. Explore ways to be more inclusive for participants with low or no-literacy

Digital literacy programmes are commonly built with an assumption that users have basic literacy and numeracy skills. This excludes portions of the population without these skills. Yet, there are products that could be brought into digital literacy training to help overcome these barriers. For example, Google’s Action Blocks makes routine actions easier for users with customisable buttons that appear on the home screen. Icons on the screen can trigger pre-programmed actions.

When paired with a gender-sensitive and safety-prioritising approach, digital literacy training can protect women and girls’ ability to exercise their human rights; extend their access to information; increase feelings of agency, and lead to more informed decision making. Digital literacy serves as a pathway to enhance digital inclusion and contributes significantly to society’s progress toward gender equality by bridging the digital divide, enabling women and girls to actively engage in the digital age.

 

Kristy Crabtree
Senior Digital Innovation Advisor, International Rescue Committee
kristy.crabtree@rescue.org X: @kristycrabtree

Rana Obadi
Gender-Based Violence Information Management System Officer, International Rescue Committee
rana.obadi@rescue.org

READ THE FULL ISSUE

[i] Crabtree, K. (2020). Where are the women? How to design information and communication technology to be inclusive of women and girls in humanitarian settings. In M. N. Islam (Ed.), Information and communication technologies for humanitarian services (pp. 7-24). Institution of Engineering and Technology. (not available online)

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