Global internet gap is also a gender issue

11 Jan 2019

Image: © Budimir Jevtic/

Global digital divide to continue as women in poorer countries are being left out of the mobile and internet revolution.

The World Wide Web Foundation – the organisation created by the web’s inventor, Tim Berners-Lee – has warned that the dream of universal internet access could be decades away.

Access to the internet, particularly through the world wide web, is perhaps the most critical element for unlocking the potential of new technologies and boosting economic and educational opportunities. Sadly, the goal of universal internet access is still beyond the grasp of people in the world’s poorer nations.

‘Mobile devices are often priced beyond what those who earn the least in most communities can afford’

The foundation has warned that the UN’s goal of 90pc of people being online may not be reached until 2050 or later.

A chief reason for this is that the price of basic devices and connectivity in some of the poorer nations on Earth is still beyond the reach of many. It has been noted that women, in particular, will remain on the wrong side of the digital divide the longest.

It is expected that half of the world’s population will be online in 2019. However, of the approximately 3.9bn people who remain offline, an overwhelming majority reside in the Global South and 2bn are women. Nine out of 10 people who are offline live in Africa or Asia and the Pacific, according to the World Wide Web Foundation.

Half a world away

In December, the UN’s International Telecommunications Union declared that global internet access had crossed the threshold with more than half of the world’s population now online.

However, according to the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), at the current rate of progress towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 9, target C, universal access to internet and communications technologies by 2020 will not be reached.

Only 16pc of the world’s poorest countries and 53pc of the entire world will be connected by 2020, according to A4AI. It warned that the impact of this connectivity lag will “undermine global development across the board, contributing to lost opportunities for economic growth and denying hundreds of millions access to online education, health services, political voice and much, much more.”

Research by the World Wide Web Foundation found that in poor communities in nine cities across Africa, south-east Asia and Latin America, nearly all women and men own a phone. However, when controlling for income, education level and age, women are nearly 50pc less likely to access the internet than men in the same communities, with internet use reported by just 37pc of women surveyed.

“Research has consistently pointed out that the cost of accessing devices and the internet is the key barrier to connecting the unconnected,” said Nanjira Sambuli, senior policy manager at the World Wide Web Foundation, in the UN Chronicle. “Unfortunately, the measures recommended by various actors have not achieved sufficient political and policy momentum to eliminate this barrier. Mobile devices are often priced beyond what those who earn the least in most communities can afford, even though device costs have decreased and adoption of mobile-enabled smartphones has increased. Additionally, for these people, the price of a basic broadband connection represents a much higher proportion of income than for those earning the national average income.”

The GSM Alliance (GSMA) also warned recently that mobile connectivity is not spreading equally, pointing to disparities in access and use of mobile phones and the use of the internet which follow urban, rural, gender and geographical divides.

The GSMA, in its latest assessment on the mobile gender gap, further found that “women in low and middle-income countries are, on average, 10pc less likely to own a mobile phone than men, which translates into 184m fewer women owning mobile phones”.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years