Gender equality — including in the digital field — is a shared priority for the African Union and the European Union. Both institutions have gender equality strategies in place, which refer to Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) as an opportunity to increase women’s participation across different sectors of the economy, improve access to education, and encourage their involvement in decision-making and politics.
According to Salomé Guibreteau, Policy and Advocacy Adviser at CONCORD Europe, these ambitions are not always equally reflected in other policies, though. “There should be more coherence between different commitments,” she said. “For example, many of the outcomes of the recent EU-AU Summit, including in the joint vision for 2030, aim to address gender equality and women’s empowerment. However, when gender equality is a mainstreamed priority, it’s not visible and concrete enough in digital commitments.”
CONCORD Europe is the European NGO confederation for relief and development and the main civil society interlocutor with the EU institutions on development policy and international cooperation. In September 2021 it launched a digital community, which advocates for the promotion of equality through digitalisation, including closing the digital gender divide.
“Our work supports the European Union and its partners to make sure that girls and women around the world can fully participate in the digital transformation and enjoy all the opportunities that it creates,” said Guibreteau. With this aim, CONCORD Europe is hosting the side session “Closing the gender digital divide: From policymaking to on-the-ground implementation” at the Africa-Europe D4D Hub Multi-Stakeholder Forum, which will take place online on 18 March.
Understanding the bias
The departing point to understand why gender equality should be central to AU-EU digital cooperation is that technology is not gender-neutral, according to Silla Ristimäki, Development Policy Adviser at Fingo, the association of Finnish Development NGOs and a member of CONCORD Europe’s digital community. The experts designing and funding digital technologies are still mostly male, who do not always understand or consider female users’ interests, needs and specific challenges.
“The tech sector is still largely dominated by men and by profit. Often, the result is gender-biased products that perpetuate inequalities,” added Johanna Caminati Engström, Policy and Advocacy Officer at the EU Office of Plan International and also a member of CONCORD Europe’s digital community. “But tech can do good things if we support innovative tools that empower women.”
According to Ristimäki, a key measure is to invest in women’s digital skills. First, so they can approach the digital world with the right knowledge, information, and confidence. Second, so they can participate in the digital transformation not only as users, but as innovators and creators of solutions.
Caminati Engström echoed this view: “The digital transformation must not be something imposed on girls and young women, it must be co-created. They need to be able to take ownership in this transition, be trained for it, and feel safe while engaging with technology and online spaces.”
Towards a gender-transformative approach
Women should be consulted and involved in all digital interventions, even before the design phase, said Ristimäki. “We need to ask women and girls: How do you want to learn about technology? What do you need technology for? How do you want to go through the process from learning to design and implementation?”
For this involvement to work, she argued “there needs to be more funding available for civil society, because they really have the nuanced and contextualised understanding of local conditions and socio-cultural factors.”
For Caminati Engström, the solution lies in a gender-transformative approach to digitalisation. “This means really sitting back and understanding the root causes of the gender digital divide. Why do we have this problem in the first place? Undertaking this kind of analysis to redistribute power in the sector is really the only way we can create technology that works for everybody,” she concluded.
What policies are needed to support women and girls’ participation in the digital economy? How can the AU-EU digital partnership deliver on its gender equality ambitions? Register for the Africa-Europe D4D Hub Multi-Stakeholder Forum here to join the discussion.