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The internet today has been recognized as one of the key enablers to bridge the gap between the "haves" and the "have nots"; empowering women, indigenous population and ethnic minorities. While the number of internet users has been growing significantly, yet significant discrepancies on who can actually access and benefit from it has been observed. In fact, there is a significant difference in the internet penetration between males and females and the gender digital gap is increasing. The existing gender disparities, discrimination and inequalities, especially of people living in the global South including least developed countries, has considerable impact on the gender digital divide and leading to their digital exclusion. Understanding the advantages what the internet can provide, the current move in many countries of the global South is to digitize all services including citizen centric services, financial services and facilities, to empower the citizens and bring a level playing field.
However, since the people who can benefit most, still cannot avail the benefits, the challenge today is to connect people, especially women and create policies to improve the social environment where women can freely access the internet, in their mother tongue or preferred language, watch content which they want, express themselves online without fear of being trolled, get equal opportunities in the technical fields and encouragement to become social entrepreneurs through the generation of business and digital content.
This preliminary study was undertaken to identify the main challenges towards improving the gender access and rights online especially in the global South; and the best practices which nations or regions have adopted to overcome those challenges; identify the different strains of thoughts, along with their convergence and divergence, review the central issues from the global South perspective, and then attempt to share the areas of public policy or social aspects that need to be addressed along with suggestions, to redefine the rights to nurture an environment for faster development, where women can network freely to help each other.
Apart from studying the secondary sources, in depth opinion of 19 experts belonging to 15 Developing and Least Developed Countries of Asia Pacific (APAC) and Middle East and North Africa (MENA) were sought, based on a detailed subjective questionnaire. The responses received were used to create a fine-tuned questionnaire, that was validated by an external reviewer. Opinion of stakeholders from a targeted network of people exposed to policies across the globe, based on the fine-tuned questionnaire was taken. 162 participants from 54 countries participated in the process.
For further validation, the findings were shared with speakers and participants at the IGF 2017 workshop “Redefining Rights for a Gender Inclusive Connected Future" (WS 102), which was attended by around 40 participants in person and 5 remotely. Our study revealed that more than 67% people feel that their country is not completely gender inclusive, where every citizen has equal rights and opportunities irrespective of their genders. They felt most developing nations are halfway there. The top challenges across the global South hampering the creation of a gender inclusive digital world include existing social and cultural norms in the society about the role of women; low literacy rates due to lack of access and opportunities to education, digital skills and ICT; lack of access to infrastructure, resources, devices and relevant content; lack of comprehensive approach towards women empowerment, including understanding of gender equality and issues and inadequate policy implementation; issues of trust and privacy online; limited access to financial support and opportunities; workplace limitations, few role models and limited platforms to interact and network.
Additionally the lack of systemic database and evidence on barriers and enablers to technology, especially related to gender is limiting decision makers from taking a comprehensive view on issues related to gender rights online. For ensuring gender equality online, especially in the global South, policy reforms, promoting literacy and ICT skills amongst women, and encouraging digital literacy is important.
Simultaneously, policy reforms for ensuring gender inclusive access to internet; building trust online, including better legislation and enforcement of laws against online harassment; economic incentives to encourage diversity in the workforce, encouraging more engagement amongst women networks, will go a long way in ensuring the global South nations can realize their aspirations to create a gender inclusive and networked future online. Government-led initiatives and reforms are considered most important for improving gender rights online.
Moreover, since under SDG goal 17 all the government policy makers are mandated to include policy related to reduce the gender gap, it is the government‟s responsibility to create an enabling environment where the gender gap is reduced. However, the correct implementation and execution of these policy reforms was felt to be more critical. Proactive Initiatives by business; awareness and capacity building by civil society; technical Innovation by the technical community are also considered important.
Therefore, for achieving a gender inclusive digital global South, it is imperative that all stakeholders work together. Further there has to be a comprehensive approach and initiatives to solve issues related to gender and encourage their participation both offline and online. Policies should be inclusive of all: women, minorities, ethnic communities, people with disabilities, etc.