Revolutionizing STEM to bridge access gaps and uphold digital rights
Valentina Muñoz is a 20-year-old feminist activist and programmer from Chile. In 2021, she was selected by the UN Secretary-General to serve as an SDG Advocate—becoming the first Latin American women ever appointed to the role. She is the co-founder of the Association of Young Women for Ideas (AMUJI Chile), an organization that aims to empower the next generation of women in STEM. “Girls are leading STEM in Latin America,” she says. “The fight against the digital gender gap is happening here, the protagonists are here”—and they deserve a place on the global stage.
When human rights were enshrined in international law in 1948, digital technology was barely in its infancy. Now, three quarters of a century later, digitalization has touched nearly every aspect of human life—and our fundamentals rights are no exception.
Digital rights, says Valentina, are simply human rights—the right to privacy, for example, or to freedom of expression—applied to the digital world. But that world is generating new and ungoverned landscapes in which those rights are increasingly at risk. “As human rights move toward the digital space,” Valentina emphasizes, “our problems are doing so too.”
Material disparities, such as the growing poverty gap between men and women, are increasingly mirrored in—and indivisible from—the digital sphere. “When we talk about the feminization of poverty,” Valentina says, “we also need to acknowledge the digital gender gap.”
Other hierarchies are being digitized too. “The digital gap has a woman’s face,” says Valentina—but that doesn’t mean it’s the same for all women. Class, race, age, location and disability status all have enormous impacts on access, “so it is crucial that when we talk about the gap, it is through the lens of intersectionality,” she emphasizes.
In an age where access to education, employment, healthcare and other human rights is increasingly dependent on an internet connection, digital gaps mean women and other marginalized groups are being systematically deprived of them. “That is why digital rights have to be a priority,” says Valentina: “because otherwise, we will just be replicating the centuries old struggle for human rights.”
“Problems are not created in the digital world,” Valentina emphasizes—and their solutions won’t be either. Closing digital access gaps will take more than just universal Wi-Fi: “it’s not only about providing the tools but also about providing the skills,” she says. “It is important that across the world we incorporate STEM skills classes, which are ultimately the skills of the 21st century.”
But in the end it’s how people choose to use those skills that matters. Increasing women’s representation in STEM can drive crucial change—but only if those women are willing to fight for it. “Women in science and technology is not the same as feminists in science and technology,” Valentina says: “We must take a political stance.”
Technology can’t drive progress on its own, either: “It must be a tool for a purpose.” This, she says, is what she likes about the Sustainable Development Goals. “The Agenda has this vision that the issues are dynamic,” she says. “It is not that you can put gender problems in one box and education problems in another—they all interact with each other. And I love this vision that the solutions also have to interact.”
Such solutions, Valentina highlights, will require looser lines between STEM and the humanities. “I think the fact that soft skills are always separated from hard skills, the scientific from the humanistic, is what keeps us in this dichotomy that we are not sentient beings within technology, or that we create technology without meaning, or that we are people at the service of technology,” says Valentina. “I believe in a more inclusive digital future that recognizes and understands that we are humans in science and technology.”
Activism can be both mentally draining and physically dangerous, Valentina emphasizes. To cope, “It is vital to have these support networks with which one can talk about what we are experiencing,” she says. “It is also important to set limits because I believe no activism should undermine our physical and mental integrity. Support networks help us establish limits so we can endure this together.”
“I think having a support network is the primary survival factor,” she says. “It's as simple as that.”