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April 28, 2023 - Comments Off on Can engaging the grassroot community help in closing the digital divide?

Can engaging the grassroot community help in closing the digital divide?

Author: Salwa Rana

In the scorching heat of the summer-spring sun, Shama* walks through an urban sector of Islamabad where she works as a domestic helper for four different households. Two of these houses are at least three kilometres apart, and she must take this journey on foot, sometimes more than once a day. This is in addition to the over 5 km walk she undertakes to travel to this neighbourhood from her home in an overpopulated slum. My interaction with Shama had been short and brief until I caught her extremely distressed outside a home. On inquiring, she told me the homeowners were not home, and she had travelled all this distance only to be sent back. I asked her why they could not inform her through a phone call, and she told me she isn’t “allowed” a cell phone.

Shama is a woman in her late 50s with grandchildren enrolled in primary school. Her life revolves around feeding her children and caring for the home, a sole breadwinner despite having two children. Her husband died over a year ago, and he had not permitted her to use or own a cell phone. She tells me after his death, some women she worked for collected money to buy her a phone, but her sons did not “allow” her to use it, saying that “it went against the wishes of their deceased father.”

Having spent a large chunk of my career working in digital rights, especially at the intersection of gender, access to the internet has been part of my core work. However, listening to Shama’s story was a rather crude awakening for me and how disconnected I had been from the working class women of Pakistan and their problems. The men of Shama’s family insist that she will use the phone to access the internet and talk to “other men” or access “ immoral “ content. At this, Shama and I laugh, because this is obviously not true.

While the digital gender divide in Pakistan is a significant issue that has been identified by many researchers and organisations, there is little or no action from the state actors to take a principled stance on connectivity and access to the internet for the women of this country. The issues faced by women with regards to connectivity are caused by deeply embedded cultural practices and beliefs[1] which have systematically worked to keep women outside of public spaces, whether online or offline. This applies to the usage of cell phones without internet as well, like in Shama’s case, and anything that allows for freedom of communication with the outside world.

According to a report by the World Economic Forum, women in Pakistan are 49% less likely to use mobile internet than men, which translates into 12 million fewer women than men using mobile internet.[2] For an estimated 11 million women in Pakistan, family disapproval is the key barrier to owning a mobile phone, according to another report by GSMA.[3] This is a significant number of women for a country with a population of around 220 million. The gendered gaps in access to and usage of digital technologies pose socio-human development challenges and have a two-way relationship with structural and systematic inequalities.


[2] How to close the digital gender divide and empower women-

[3] The Hovering Digital Divide in Pakistan-

[4] Mobile Gender Gap Report 2022-

[5] Women Disconnected: Feminist Case Studies on the Gender Digital Divide Amidst COVID-19-

In the GSMA study, “Mobile Gender Gap Report 2022”[1] Pakistan’s gender gap in mobile ownership stands at 33%, while the gender gap in mobile internet usage is 38%. The primary factors contributing to these disparities include the lack of family approval (35%) and low levels of literacy and digital skills (23%). Notably, at the provincial level, in Balochistan, only 16% of females are mobile phone users, while in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, this percentage rises to 37%.

The cultural barriers that contribute to this divide include patriarchal norms that limit women's mobility and access to public spaces, lack of female role models in technology fields, and limited access to education for girls.[2] In the case of Shama and many other women she knows, there is an assumption that using cell phones and the internet is guaranteed to lead women astray and to be involved in immoral or corrupt activities. Many men are afraid of others harassing the women of their families through these mediums, and the best solution to the problem is to ban them altogether from accessing the internet.

Several initiatives have been taken to address the issue of the gender digital divide in the country. These include the Digital Pakistan initiative the government led to transform Pakistan into a knowledge-based economy through digitalisation. The initiative includes several programs to promote digital literacy and access to technology, including providing digital devices to students and establishing e-learning centres in rural areas. Additionally, UNDP Pakistan’s Youth Empowerment Programme has some initiatives relevant to promoting women in ICT, including digiskills training for over 2,000 young girls from KP; supporting the world’s largest annual start-up competition for women and technology, She-Loves-Tech, which has supported over 130 women-led tech startups over the past three years; and supporting Sehat Kahani in training 500 women doctors and 500 nurses and healthcare staff in digital health service delivery. Private sector leaders, like Jazz are also committed to the cause. The Jazz Smart Schools program is helping to break down cultural and social barriers to education and technology, empowering women from rural areas to pursue careers in the digital field.

In most initiatives, what seems to be missing is the element of awareness raising about the cultural barriers that contribute towards the wide gender digital gap. During the research for this article, most programs focusing on ICT and women prioritised e-learning and entrepreneurship. While this is imperative, the programs also operate with the presumption that women have “permission” from the heads of their households, that are mostly men, to be able to access mobile, computers and the internet to put these skills to use. They fail to consider women like Shama, who are restricted to their houses and places of work and will probably never get the opportunity to learn digital skills. The same is the case with her daughters, who were married off in their early teens and are now responsible for raising their children and housework. For them, they say, there is no way their lives can progress unless the men in their family “permit” certain things, like owning a cell phone or receiving further education.

This begs the question of the fate of women who are at the mercy of their male family members and whether they would ever be able to break the shackles of the cultural and so-called religious barriers.

Maria Umar, Founder President Women's Digital League (WDL), hails from South Waziristan and has been working on the digital employability of women in KP for over fifteen years. She says that freelance opportunities for women through the internet can act as an incentive for low-income households but for that women need to have access to these devices. She cited the example of Benazir Income Support Program (BISP) which was the motivation behind many low-income households to get CNIC cards made for the women in their family, since many of them did not possess it in the first place. She also stressed that while it is important to crush the societal norms that prevent women from access to the internet and general connectivity, we must be mindful of how we approach traditional societies. Maria shares her experience of working with some young women in KP and how during digital employability training, the facilitators and organisers spoke to the parents of these girls, and in some cases, their in-laws.

Maria suggests that conversations around decreasing the digital gender gap cannot be limited to women and girls only. Keeping in mind her experience as an expert, the effort must include parents, husbands, brothers and other typical heads of households, who are, in many cases, men. It is important to be cognizant of the power men hold in such societies and instead of proposing radical changes that may offend the people of these communities, Maria says that we must work “slow and steady” towards incorporating education and awareness within them without upsetting their belief systems.

Hija Kamran, a digital rights expert, stresses the importance of including men in conversations around access and connectivity for women, saying, “In the context of Pakistan, even when women are placed in geographies where digital access is not restricted by infrastructure, it is the patriarchal restrictions barring them from this access. This power commonly resides with men of the house, no matter their age, who decide whether women in the family can have digital access and to what extent. So when we talk about strategies to bridge gender digital divide, we must also include men in the conversation about the importance of gendered access to technology, because even the most progressive legislation and policies will fall short of any positive impact if they are not taking cultural context into consideration.”

She further added that for all women to have meaningful access to technology, it is absolutely critical to shift the mindsets of men towards this access: “This shift cannot happen in isolation or just by consulting women in conferences; the discussion has to start on a grassroots level making sure men are an active part of these spaces because they are the ones who have to give up their patriarchal control over women's lives and choices. There's only so much we can expect women to fight for in hopes that it doesn't lead to violence of any sort in the house.”

Hija makes an important point towards the end regarding the safety of women when working with traditional societies like ours, as many view education and digital literacy as a threat to their moral values. The harassment of women online is a very real issue and threatens their wellbeing in a number of ways. Sexual harassment, rape and death threats, blackmailing and stalking are common for women online, and form part of the reason many hesitate to let women of their families have an online presence, or just prohibit them from posting their photos online.

Increasing access to the internet for women means that they must also be prepared to face the dark side of the internet, and it is imperative that they are trained on how to deal with such instances. However, the burden cannot lie on the individual to ensure protection, especially when it is already a great ‘privilege’ for them to have this access in the first place. This means that the government must do better to deal with online gender-based violence, as part of a larger goal to ensure all women are guaranteed not just access, but also safe access. Maria also gives an example relevant to women’s safety and explains how when a girl wants to get “easy load” or “credit” in her mobile phone, she purchases a “voucher” instead of sharing her number with the shopkeeper for easy load, something that a man is able to do without having a second thought. She says that it is very common for mobile numbers to be leaked this way, and women are stalked and harassed over the phone, which puts their lives in danger.

Another crucial element highlighted by both Mari and Hija, is the importance of working at the grassroot level, where working-class men and women can be made part of the conversation. Development work is often disconnected from these due to lack of resources and class structures, but the only way we can make an effort to surpass the roadblocks set by patriarchy is to engage with those affected by it the most. This can be done with the help of community leaders and involving the local people in these conversations.

Additionally, focus on traditional and civic education, separate from digital literacy, needs to be prioritised for both women and men and curricula need to be updated to become more inclusive and in line with the technological developments in the world. To conclude, it is imperative that we look into our policymakers and think beyond the token representation of women in development and policy making spaces, and engage with movements that mobilise the common people in order to bridge this disconnect. Women like Shama, despite being illiterate, need to become part of conversations that are limited to the privileged at this moment.


Published by: Digital Rights Foundation in Digital 50.50, Feminist e-magazine

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