ICT for development: Why Sri Lanka needs to address gender digital divide


By Anarkalee Perera

Nearly three decades since the adoption and ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), women’s economic empowerment is gaining increasing policy priority as a fundamental strategy to achieve inclusive growth. In contrast to previous schools of thought, development policy today is informed by the idea that women constitute the largest untapped potential for economic development and harnessing that potential is the single most impactful step to reach all other development goals.

While the nexus between women’s empowerment and development is well established, there has been little focus on understanding the tools for empowerment; particularly, the potential for Information and Communications Technology (ICT) to facilitate women’s economic empowerment and stimulate broader growth. Despite extensive empirical evidence of the propensity for ICT to advance development, women’s access to technology remains significantly low with 25% fewer women having access to internet when compared to men in the developing world. These trends hold true in the Sri Lankan context as well, with women’s participation in the information economy lagging significantly behind that of men. As Sri Lanka continues to make ICT a policy priority in its development agenda, it must consider the consequences of excluding women and girls from the information revolution, and work to bridge fundamental disparities in access to technology.

Sri Lanka’s Gender Digital Divide: Why Don’t Women Have Access to ICT?

Social and cultural factors contribute significantly towards shaping women’s participation in the information economy. Even policy interventions designed to promote inclusiveness among all socio-economic groups tend to underestimate the gender dimensions of information gatekeeping. While evidence suggests that internet usage by women is higher in countries that are more gender equal and rank higher on the Human Development Indicators (HDI), Sri Lanka’s progressive ranking has done little to promote women’s access to ICT. A study conducted by Kottegoda et.al (2012) reveals that girls’ use of and participation in rural telecommunication centers is deterred by concerns over safety as well as stigmas attached to ‘mixing with boys’. Despite the seeming inconsequentiality of these factors, these examples highlight the propensity for culture to define women’s relationship to technology.

Moreover, poverty is another significant constraint to ICT access. While it is true that this limitation affects both genders, statistics (Figure 1) show how women bear a disproportionate percentage of the burden of global poverty as a direct result of the lack of income, social protections, gender bias and social and cultural influences. The UNDP report on gender dimensions of the MDG’s in Sri Lanka also reveals a higher incidence of women in new poverty groups.

Figure 1: Women Bear an Asymmetric Burden of Poverty

Source: Women’s Refugee Commission

The feminization of poverty around the world and in Sri Lanka has significant consequences for women because it regulates access to ICT and limits the ability to break the cycle of poverty: If women are more likely to be victims of poverty, they are less likely to own and utilize technologies, which in turn limit their ability to graduate from poverty.

Why ICT Matters for Women and Economic Development

Supporting women’s participation in the information economy has direct positive impacts on gender equality as well as economic development in a country. Outlined below are some of the ways in which ICT facilitates the economic empowerment of women and stimulates development.

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