Statement by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet
Geneva, 27 September 2021
One of the many lessons we have learned over the past 18 months is how reliant and increasingly dependent we are on digital technologies. In this case, as in many others, what COVID-19 did was to expose and exacerbate an existing reality – and one often based on exclusion.
Let us be clear from the outset: the gender digital divide we are here to discuss is a reflexion of the overall discrimination faced by women and girls.
The offline population is disproportionately poor, rural, older and female. Women and girls form the majority of the estimated 3.7 billion unconnected people in the world. Those who are subjected to intersecting and multiple forms of discrimination are even less likely to be online.
When the pandemic lead to digital technology being the only lifeline to essential services, health-care information, livelihoods or to exercising rights, the digital exclusion became dramatic.
The examples are many.
Being more than half of the 1.7 billion people financially excluded from the digital economy, women can have less access to cash transfer programs in times of crisis.
Estimates show that 11 million girls may not go back to class due to COVID-related education disruptions. They would join the 130 million worldwide who were already out of school before the pandemic.
Many women did not have a chance to switch to teleworking – due to their type of work, lack of connectivity or care burden at home and therefore lost their income.
Emerging data shows that the pandemic was accompanied by a surge of domestic violence and an increase in all types of gender-based violence, offline and online.
Here, let me raise an important point. Even when technology has enabled women to continue their work during the pandemic, online harassment, violence and intimidation -- obstacles that especially women human rights defenders, politicians and journalists already faced before COVID-19 -- increased even further. A survey conducted last year by Plan International revealed that more than 58 percent of girls and young women interviewed worldwide have been harassed or abused online. These and other threats can further narrow the already shrinking civic space for women and girls, and must be addressed.
Specific groups of women, in particular young women, women belonging to ethnic minorities and indigenous women, lesbian, bisexual and transgender women, women with disabilities and women from marginalized groups may be at greater risk and may experience particularly severe forms of online violence, exacerbating their digital exclusion.
As we can see, diverse and persisting gender disparities related to digital technologies threat women’s human rights.
So, this is what we must do.
Issues of access to, use and misuse of digital technologies should be guided by international human rights norms and principles, especially equality, non-discrimination, inclusion, participation and the provision of effective remedies.
Developed countries should honour their commitment to facilitate technology transfer to developing States and integrate programmes for women’s and girls’ access to digital technology in their development and assistance policies.
Countries should take measures to ensure safer and affordable access to ICT devices and services In response to the pandemic, good practices have already been developed by some States, such as monthly free data or free access to information content about the pandemic.
Another essential step is to dismantle discriminatory gender stereotypes which perceive women and girls’ access to ICTs as “inappropriate”, or doubt their ability to study science and technologies. With 90 percent of future jobs being estimated to require ICT skills, it is imperative to ensure girls’ equal access to digital literacy skills, including for girls living in remote areas.
States and the private sector must also take concrete measures to combat online violence against women and girls and to ensure an enabling and safe environment in the digital space, including through collaboration with business and women’s rights organizations.
Through its resolutions and thematic reports, the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms, especially the Special Procedures and Advisory Committee, have paved the way for the adoption of a human rights and gender sensitive approach to digital technology.
I encourage you to continue this key role, including with a view to making COVID-19 response and recovery measures responsive to the gender digital divide.
In this sense, the Secretary-General’s RoadMap for Digital Cooperation provides us with an instrumental guide.
Earlier this year, the Generation Equality Forum in Mexico City launched a plan was to advance gender equality by 2026. One of its concrete actions is to halve the gender digital divide.
If we don’t succeed, there is a significant risk that technology will actually widen gender inequalities.
We cannot let that happen.
That would be going against our promise to leave no one behind and against our duty to recover better from the pandemic.
As the Secretary-General stressed in his address to the General Assembly, we need to act now to bridge six Great Divides and “save humanity and the planet”. Two of them are the gender and the digital divides.
Closing these gaps is a matter of upholding human rights.
I look forward to this discussion and your thoughts on concrete steps we can take.