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Published in May-Jun 2021

Pakistan’s Widening Digital Gender Divide

The underlying causes that have put Pakistan at the bottom of the pile in terms of worldwide Internet inclusivity.

According to the recent Inclusive Internet Index (III) Report (2020) published by The Economist’s Intelligence Unit, Pakistan was ranked 90 out of 120 countries in the world – the lowest ranking in South Asia and the second lowest in Asia. The Index measures countries on the basis of the availability, affordability, relevance and readiness of internet services.

This should be a cause of concern for the government in light of its Digital Pakistan programme. It is also concerning in the context of the pandemic, where reliance on technology has become all the more important, with education and health services going increasingly online.

Pakistan ranks the lowest out of the 120 countries in two categories – gender gap in internet access and gender gap in mobile phone access. Gender gap in internet access measures the gap between male and female access to the internet, which in Pakistan stands at 65%; the gender divide in mobile phone access stands at 51%. For context, according to a 2020 GSMA report, only 37% of Pakistani men have access to mobile internet followed by a dismal 19% Pakistani women.

The report acknowledges a few developments that have sought to improve women’s access to the internet and mobile phones. It notes that Pakistan has a comprehensive female e-inclusion plan under the Digital Pakistan Policy 2018, whereby it plans to initiate “specific ICT for girls’ programmes, having special facilities for women at Software Technology Parks throughout the country and designing and developing customised programmes for girls and women.”

As for female digital skills, the report notes that the “Digital Pakistan Policy, published in May 2018, contains several strategies to address the e-inclusion of women. For example, the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecom aims to set up 150 labs at women empowerment centres across the country in order to increase women’s employability, in partnership with Universal Service Fund (USF) and Microsoft. As a result, thousands of girls are learning computing science and coding skills. The programme is expected to train over 110,000 girls per year at 245 schools in Islamabad.” However, the report notes that the government does not have a policy to promote science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education for women. Furthermore, apart from a few initiatives by the government, it is clear that women’s lack of access to public spaces in Pakistan is true for the internet as well. Behind this data is a culture that polices women’s activities and tries its best to restrict their access to the outside world. This is linked to the fact that Pakistan has the second highest number of out of school girls in the world.

Another issue is the fact that the cyber harassment of women and gender minorities is rife in Pakistan. The Digital Rights Foundation’s (DRF) cyber harassment helpline has reported that the majority of complaints received are made by women regarding blackmail and extortion. Although the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016, outlaws cyber harassment under Section 24, the complaint, investigation and prosecution of these crimes is cumbersome and not always women-friendly. This includes a lax attitude by officials of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), allegations of bias against women, and victim blaming when it comes to cyber harassment complaints. Furthermore, Section 20 of PECA, which deals with criminal defamation, has been weaponised against survivors of harassment who use the internet for expression, solidarity and to talk about their experiences. All this brings into question what, if any, kind of protection women can have on the internet in Pakistan – a state of affairs that discourages women from accessing the internet comfortably.

There are other critical intersectional factors that disproportionately impact women’s access to the internet and mobile phones. Firstly, geographical location is a major determinant of accessibility to the internet. Several districts of Balochistan, most of the newly merged districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the entirety of Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir have unreliable internet and mobile connectivity and although the USF, which is made up of annual contributions from all telecom and internet service providers, is being used to expand internet and telecom access in underserved regions, progress is slow. Secondly, socio-economic factors impact access to mobile phones and the internet, especially when it comes to women. Although Pakistan does relatively better when it comes to affordability, the price of mobile phones is often a barrier, especially for women. Typically, men’s expenses get preference over women’s and their mobility is also restricted in instances when they have to leave their homes in order to catch internet signals in underserved areas. Thirdly, social attitudes towards the internet are based on suspicion and this is further encouraged by state and media narratives. For example, so far, TikTok has been blocked twice because of ‘immoral’ content and it appears that the use of the app by young people to express themselves is seen as a threat rather than an outlet for entertainment. Fourthly, surveillance acts as an additional barrier. Targeted hacking attempts, state as well as corporate surveillance and leaking of private information make internet access for women difficult.

Digital progress is essential if Pakistan is to move forward and for this to happen the inclusion of women must be prioritised. This requires a mix of policy interventions, digital literacy programmes and consistent efforts to change cultural attitudes towards women and recognising their role in furthering Pakistan’s information and communication technology potential.

Usama Khilji is Director, Bolo Bhi. usama@bolobhi.org