Bridging the Digital Gender Gap in an Era of Online Learning

Photo by the World Bank

It’s difficult to believe that more than half a year has passed since COVID-19 became a pressing global issue, and during this time, our mindsets surrounding the virus have evolved from believing it to be a temporary predicament, to recognizing it as a longstanding pandemic. Throughout the past seven months, we’ve made great strides in understanding COVID, including efforts to mitigate spread, effective treatments, and progress towards a safe vaccine. However, at the onset of this global health crisis, many of us were completely unaware of the havoc this disease would wreak, and that quarantining among other practices, which seemed foreign and temporary at the time, would grow to preponderate our daily lives.

As the days in this new way of life soar past us, the world has demonstrated great resilience in adapting to evolving circumstances, and the internet has been one of the most valuable resources in responding to this public health crisis. That is, digital globalization has proven to be an underlying force in facilitating the continued interconnectivity of the numerous webs of the world, awareness of global happenings, as well as remote work and online learning. Broadband technologies have increasingly driven substantial transformation across various sectors, including food production, economic growth, public health reporting, and education.

That being said, roughly 52% of the world’s population does not have access to the Internet, and men outnumber women in terms of usage by approximately 17% (International Telecommunication Union, 2017).

In the past decade, the gender gap surrounding internet usage has hovered around zero in the Americas, and saw a decline throughout the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Europe. However, amongst the Arab States, the Pacific, Africa, and Asia, the gender gap surrounding internet usage has grown.

During a time in which the internet proves to be a binding and potent force around the world, providing essential health information alongside vital education and employment opportunities, it is crucial that we work to eliminate this destructive gender divide.

Not only is universal education a basic human right, but educating girls has additionally proven to engender a host of benefits, including stronger economies; fewer and healthier children; reduced maternal mortality rates; investment in future generations and communities, which perpetuates the cycle of education; and greater safety for women. It is therefore imperative that we act to mitigate the setbacks COVID-19 presents to the rights of women and girls.

Therefore, we must not only establish universal access to learning resources amidst quarantine, but we must also ensure that women and girls are empowered to seek them.

While remote education amidst lockdown requires our immediate attention, the reopening of schools amidst and post-COVID also ought to be a pivotal point of consideration. Given COVID-19’s disproportionate effects on women and girls, as the reopening of schools and universities around the world remains a contentious topic of discussion, it is essential to approach the topic from a gendered lens. Pre-COVID, promoting education amongst girls was already an uphill battle, and without school to attend to amidst lockdown, the mission of eliminating the gender gap in education has seen unprecedented challenges. As the burden of domestic responsibilities and caring for ill family members typically falls on women; economic stress has led to an increase in child labor, forced marriages, and domestic violence; and as health resources have been diverted away from reproductive services, there will be a substantial drop in the number of girls who return to school post-lockdown if proper action is not taken.

Addressing gender stereotypes both inside and outside of the home, holding men accountable for an equal share of childcare responsibilities amongst other domestic obligations, is a necessary step. Moreover, eliminating school fees has proven to be an incredibly impactful strategy in increasing the number of girls in school. Upon reopening, providing school lunches alongside fostering female-friendly environments (e.g., free sanitary napkins, clean bathrooms, gender neutral teachings) will aid in maintaining that boosted attendance. Lastly, investing in reproductive health services will reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, which will directly impact a woman’s ability to stay in school. If we do our part to ensure that remote learning is a resource provided to every girl, while also establishing that schools are gender-friendly upon reopening, we will continue our upwards trajectory for women, girls, and society as a whole.

As Ruth Mumbi, the founder and national coordinator of Bunge La Wamama, which aims to amplify the struggle of marginalized communities, once said, “When You Empower a Woman, You Empower the Whole World.”

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