The G20 agenda for bridging the gender digital gap

13 Sep 2023
The G20 agenda for bridging the gender digital gap

Opinion: Anupma Mehta.

The lasting legacy of the G20 summit would be its attempt to mainstream a gender-responsive perspective.

The just concluded G20 summit in India and its reiteration of gender empowerment through the implementation of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provides an apposite backdrop for examining the pace and progress of this empowerment in the host country, India. The ‘G20 2023 Action Plan to Accelerate Progress on the SDGs’, released at the Varanasi Development Ministerial Meeting on 12 June 2023, stated, “…The G20 commits to promote collective, concrete and transformative actions on digital transformation; gender equality and empowerment of women…Further, the G20 should take actions to enhance gender equality and bridge the gender gap… and ensure the full, equal, meaningful and effective participation and leadership of women in decision making at all levels.”

The overall 2023 G20 Action Plan further accords primacy to the gender agenda and imparts digital financial literacy to all women and girls. Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasised the need for ‘women-led development’ when India took over the G20 presidency.

Let us rewind a bit to the Digital Economy Ministerial Meeting at the G20 meet in Salta, Argentina, in 2018. The highlight of this meeting was the presentation of the report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on “Bridging the Digital Gender Divide: Include, Upskill, Innovate”. This report stressed the need for digitisation strategies to enhance women’s skills and narrow down the gender gap, to fuel economic growth and well-being in all the G20 countries. The answer is not too encouraging. A recent UNICEF report reveals that a whopping 90 per cent of the jobs globally today have a digital component but most of them are captured by men, especially in developing countries, where only 41 per cent of women have access to the Internet vis-à-vis 53 per cent of men. The G20’s focus on bridging the gender digital divide, and the advent of Women20, the G20’s platform for prioritising gender equity, therefore, could not have come at a more opportune time for the host country, especially with its aspiration to become a $1 trillion digital economy by 2025. India is, in fact, already leading the international digital revolution, reportedly accounting for 40 per cent of the global digital space since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 49 billion digital transactions that took place in India in 2022 were largely driven by frontline workers using tablets and smartphones to feed data into management information systems and for the virtual implementation of public welfare schemes like the Janani Suraksha Yojana and Jan Dhan Yojana.

The red flags, however, cannot be ignored. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, for the first time, collected data on Internet usage and mobile phone ownership in various States in the National Family Health Survey-5 (NFHS-5), conducted during 2019-21. The NFHS-5 found that only one in three women in India had ever used the Internet as compared to more than half the men. The India Human Development Survey (IHDS), a panel study conducted by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) in collaboration with the University of Maryland, in its second round in 2011-12, also found that at ten years of age, only 20 per cent of girls use mobile phones vis-à-vis 27 per cent of boys. This gap keeps widening dramatically through adolescence and adulthood. Another 2021 study by an IHDS user, Chen Jingjing, showed an association between mobile phone ownership and higher female empowerment as well as greater women’s involvement in decision-making.

So, what are the takeaways from the gender agenda of the G20? Its focus on ushering in digital transformation and Sustainable Development through Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women needs to be mainstreamed across the cities and towns of the country, to ensure that nobody is left behind in the digital revolution. Meanwhile, small pockets of gender assertion offer limitless hope. A CSR initiative implemented by L&T Finance Holdings Limited in 2019-20, called the ‘Digital Sakhi project’, reached out to more than 4.75 lakh community members through door-to-door dissemination of financial literacy modules. But one of the major achievements of the project is being manifested at the grassroots level, in the villages of Madhya Pradesh, for instance, where the local ‘Digital Sakhis’ are actively countering digital discrimination by educating women to use smartphones in their daily lives.

Thus, when the official G20 summit in India is done and dusted, what would hopefully remain as one of its lasting legacies would be its attempt to mainstream a gender-responsive perspective and policy focus to bridge the gender digital divide across all the G20 demographies and geographies.

(The writer is head of publications and senior editor at NCAER. Views are personal)

Published in: The Pioneer, 13 Sep 2023