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Closing The Gap

Growing internet uptake could risk widening gender inequality

As internet rollout continues to gain pace in developing countries, experts have warned that it could risk perpetuating and even exacerbating existing gender inequalities.

New research from the International Telecommunication Union, which is a United Nations specialized agency, found that despite rising global internet penetration, a subsequent digital gender gap could potentially hinder women's access to education, healthcare and other government services.

The digital gender gap is defined as the gap between men and women's access to technology.

Today, some 4.1 billion people globally — or 53.6% of the population — have access to the internet. Yet, according to the ITU, that accessibility is significantly skewed in favor of men. Globally, 58% of all men have access to the internet, versus less than half (48%) of woman.

That gap is especially visible in Asia Pacific, Africa and the Arab States, where, according to the report, it is growing.

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The issue is not internet availability: 97% of the global population now lives within reach of a mobile cellular signal, while 93% are within reach of a 3G or higher network.

Rather, the ITU said, it's the result of systemic issues that continue to see women with lower access than men to the financial and educational capabilities required to adopt technology.

Referring to women in developing countries, ITU's Susan Teltscher told the BBC World Service said: "They don't have access any of the information that is available on the internet. They don't have access to the many, many applications that are available now through smartphones that can help them in communication, access to education, to health, to government services."

"This has, of course, major consequences because they are excluded from an increasingly digital world," said Teltscher, head of ITU's human capacity building division.

With some 3.6 billion people globally still offline, the ITU called on governments not only to make internet rollout an "urgent development priority," but also to ensure that appropriate investment is made in digital skills training and affordable mobile technology, such as smartphones, so that it is equally accessible to all.

"Even where connectivity exists, we need to be more creative in addressing critical issues like affordability of service, cost of handsets, and lack of digital skills and literacy to enable more people – and especially women – to participate and flourish in the digital economy," Doreen Bogdan-Martin, director of ITU's telecommunication development bureau, said in the report.

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