Speech: “We need to close the digital gap”—Executive Director

Remarks by Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, at the event ‘All on Board – Closing the Digital Gap for Women and Girls in Developing Countries’ at the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium. The event was co-hosted by the Executive Director, the European Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development, Mr. Neven Mimica and the Chair of the Development Committee of the European Parliament, Ms. Linda McAvan.


UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka (centre) speaks at the event ‘All on Board – Closing the Digital Gap for Women and Girls in Developing Countries’ in Brussels, Belgium on 11 April. Photo: © European Union/Lukasz Kobus
UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka (centre) speaks at the event ‘All on Board – Closing the Digital Gap for Women and Girls in Developing Countries’ in Brussels, Belgium on 11 April. Photo: © European Union/Lukasz Kobus

[As delivered]

It is not easy to imagine development in the 21st century without the effective use of technology in our everyday lives. If girls and women do not have access to, control over and full use of technology, they will simply be left behind. That is the reason for the discussion that we are having today: we need to close the gap. If the gap widens, it pushes girls and women further and further behind.

It is important for policymakers to know what people are thinking. For example, this year, for International Women’s Day, Google released statistics that showed a 700 per cent increase in the world’s searches for the term ”women’s rights” during the month of January. What does that tell us? This is important information because it tells us that there is increased interest in this subject and we applaud that. How can we use this increased interest to invest in a more coordinated way on something that goes beyond people searching the internet?

We know that ICTs are critical for us to learn—to learn everywhere, anytime, wherever we are and whoever we are. Knowing the importance of education for women makes the topic of closing the digital gap critical. Where they have access, women can use the internet for health-related subjects. We can turn this into an important platform to address primary healthcare and the prevention of diseases, by providing information. Part of this is encouraging women to see a health practitioner in person, but a lot of information can also be provided by the appropriate providers on the internet.

Technology is important for women’s economic wellbeing, given that women are overrepresented among the poor. They are also underrepresented as entrepreneurs. Many women in many countries, such as war zones, etcetera, have problems with mobility. Technology provides an opportunity for them to be economically active without having to deal with the challenges of mobility.

We know that women are underrepresented at the decision-making level in the professional and broader labour force in the area of technology. This therefore means that we also need a dedicated strategy to increase the representation of women in the talent pipeline.

What is even more worrying, is that in the last few years we have seen a widening of the gap between women and men in terms of their use of the internet. This ‘user gender gap’ grew from 11 per cent in 2013 to 12 per cent in 2016, so that has to concern us.

In many countries, developing and poor countries in particular, women’s largest source of connectivity and use of technology is the mobile phone. That provides us with a particular way of engaging with women which should address some of women’s important needs, such as financial inclusion and to access communication. It means that, of the 1 billion people that GSMA projects will connect in the next year or two to the internet, we have to target women as the largest number in order to begin to close the gap. This is something that we have been discussing, with GSMA, with ITU and with different private sector companies, in order to provide the programmes that will make women want to connect.

We know that women need a reason to be connected, because connecting costs them something. It is the choice between buying a packet or rice and buying data. If the data is not going to be useful for their real needs, then they will go and buy rice. This has also been confirmed in a study done last year looking at the reasons why women are not as connected and as active online as men. For both men and women the conclusion was an issue of cost. In Southeast Asia, where there was the largest number of women with a budget but who were not connected, cost was an issue. The fact that they already had a budget tells us that this is where we can quickly connect the women, because they have taken the first step.

We are not trying to get women to use 5G. Even 3G is already a step in the right direction. Again, data helps us make targeted and useful decisions about how we are changing the lives of women.

In UN Women’s Strategic Plan we have prioritized innovation and technology as a driver of change. We would like by 2021 to see significant change: an increase of women who are connected; an increase of women who are learning naturally and are able to access education at home; a number of people producing content that is relevant for women; and the number of women in the labour force providing services, but also being able to provide expertise and making a difference in the industry.

The emphasis on STEM subjects is important, but we would also like to make a big shout-out for STEAM – including the arts. Because artists also use technology. People in the social sciences use technology. This is a large group to ignore and not create a pathway for them to also be digital natives. We should curate them into the technology professions. We are urging that media managers and policymakers put forth this proposition.

For many countries where higher education in particular is expensive and it will take a long time to build classrooms, hire teachers, etcetera, virtual learning has to be a choice and we have to introduce it. This includes countries like South Africa, where free education was introduced overnight without a significant plan for how to achieve this. With virtual education, we can do much more than we are doing now.

UN Women has established significant partnerships in the private sector. We have been running communities for students in Kenya and in South Africa where we are introducing them to technology. In our HeForShe movement we have a partnership with Vodafone, also to do with mobile education, and we are in a partnership called EQUALS with some of the sister agencies of the UN including ITU, where we also work with the private sector. We also started an initiative on ‘Girls who Code’, where we are trying to reach out to girls in poor communities around the world in order to introduce them to coding.

We decided that we need to employ new blockchain technology for delivery of services to girls and women in conflict settings, and we use that technology for cash transfers to women.

We have a Virtual Skills School that is in the making, through which we are going to be providing education and services. This includes education for our partners in the Women’s Empowerment Principles, which the EU is supporting us to roll out in different parts of the world in a much more robust way than if we were working alone. That partnership will ensure that we work with the private sector in different settings and in particular with tech companies.

We see the need for partnering with communities, with women and with the private sector, and with partners like the EU. We are confident that if we strengthen this partnership we should be able to prepare women for the 21st century and for the digital revolution, moving women from the economic sector of the industrial revolution to the reality of this century.

Thank you.