Opportunities of the digital world: what women are telling us
Many people are talking about the digital divide but the women in our Water and Energy projects are talking about the opportunities of the digital technology and innovations.
It is important to recognise that the digital divide remains a gendered one: ‘3.9 billion people who are offline are in rural areas, poorer, less educated and tend to be women and girls.’ Through our partners, we explore the opportunities digital tools provide in their work and beyond. And, how integrating digital technology and innovations while working with women, can provide opportunities to improve their digital skills, further utilising the possibilities of the digital world to bring more sustainable and equitable development.
We asked them about how they see the digital future and what benefits and challenges they have experienced in the last year. Online training opportunities, digital connection and partnership platforms, and mobile money wallets were shared as real improvements. Echoing the ‘DigitALL’ theme of this year’s International Women’s Day, they emphasised, (i) the importance of strengthening women’s digital skills, (ii) the need for a deeper understanding of household power relations which create barriers, and (iii) the huge potential for their project work, their businesses and opportunities for them to be more empowered in their everyday lives.
Meet Shyam Kumari Chaudhary from Nepal
WASH digital training encourages online community engagement on GESI issues.
Shyam Kumari Chaudhary, from Khadak Nepal, is a project officer with our local partner in the DGIS-funded WASH SDG Programme. In our discussions, Shyam talks about the importance of women’s involvement in household decision-making in unlocking the potential of the digital world (relating to internet access, purchasing smartphones, and time for using and learning digital skills) and a process of digital programming which has been intentional about ‘involving people of all genders and not leaving anyone behind.’
COVID-19 saw closures in public life and presented SNV with the opportunity to pilot digital training within their project in remote parts of the country. Working with digital partners in Nepal, online training modules on Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) in schools and healthcare facilities and gender equality and social inclusion mentoring were launched. The digital trainings reached 1,500 participants and were supported by multiple digital platforms. These created virtual connections between teams and WASH stakeholders, which enabled them to discuss issues and experiences relating to the digital trainings. Also, importantly, reflect on the GESI mentoring sessions and social behaviour change messages relating to handwashing with soap (HWWS) and menstrual health and hygiene management (MHM) being shared in their communities by the project.
Though digital literacy created barriers to engagement in online polling and limited/weak Wi-Fi led to connectivity issues, Shyam tells us that her experience with digital training was mostly positive. In addition, Shyam believes that online training, mentoring and engagement can present a ‘very convenient option for people with disabilities who have accessibility issues and provides women with time-saving opportunities’ as they don’t always need to travel to a training location. The ability to travel and find time (due to care and domestic work) are often shared as key barriers for women in these areas. The launch of the digital training triggered more engagement online for our teams and stakeholders and supported mentoring on GESI in the months after (through frequent and continued discussions via online hosting and WhatsApp chat groups).
Fig 1. Digital Inclusive in Nepal, 2021
Shyam comes from Nepal, where the Women Inclusiveness Score (WIS) is 67 per cent. GESI-responsive policies to expand opportunities for women to build digital skills and increase women-owned digital businesses and participation in the digital economy are needed to bridge this gap (figure 1). While the country is strongly investing in developing its digital economy, limited attention to the accessibility and participation needs of vulnerable groups will hinder inclusive development gains as the digital economy expands.
Digital innovations help women-led businesses in the clean cooking sector grow and empower women in the process.
Celio Barnete, Operation and Financial Manager for Pamoja, a cookstove company in Mozambique, markets and sells clean cooking technologies in partnership with SNV. Celio talks about the products that can be purchased with micro-credit and repaid monthly using PAYGO via smartphone. He explains that this functionality is ideally suited to women clients; ‘The model allows for payment flexibility in case of irregular incomes, which is very common among women.’
Meet Celio Barnete from Mozambique
The benefits of this, Celio tells us, go beyond access to improved cookstoves but segways into the broader use of mobile money by female clients; ‘we have realised that women often have difficulty keeping cash due to cultural and safety reasons, and it is easier for them to use mobile money.’ For this reason, Celio adds, ‘we are slowly phasing out cash payments in favour of mobile money.’ Access to mobile money facilities can enable women to overcome these barriers and provides online access to basic financial services which they may not have had before.
The barriers to fully realising the potential of digital innovations, Celio shares, are access to smartphones and digital literacy relating to the use of mobile money platforms. Sales agents are training clients on this functionality, while the micro-loans have been expanded to include the purchase of a smartphone. Celio believes that this is important work for her business. ‘Digital integration is critical for the future of the project in Mozambique as the technology will enable the business to scale to thousands of customers’ – which is a clear path for scaling the benefits and reach of clean cooking.
The Pamoja cookstove. Photo credit: BRILHO and SNV programme.
Celio comes from Mozambique, where young women face high levels of unemployment, alongside underrepresentation in socio-economic and political structures. In addition, the Mozambique 2017 census found that the percentage of women with access to a computer or mobile phone has fallen since 2007.
Both Shyam and Celio see big potential for digital technology and innovations: accessing online training, accessing finance through mobile money wallets, and reaching markets via PAYGO. Both also note differing challenges, which are often higher for women and affected by gendered dynamics in households and decision-making. In both instances, we see innovations advancing women's status in society. Celio shares Pamoja’s business response to these challenges ‘we (also) focus on employing women workers and agents/ambassadors since they are better at explaining the benefits of our products to other women, who are our primary consumers.’ Shyam and Celio flag to us the importance of contextualised analysis and raise awareness of the structural barriers’ women face.
Like Shyam and Celio, many of our partners see huge potential in accessing the digital world and how building digital skills enables them to achieve their goals.
We stand by the voices of the women we work with and how they see their future in the digital world.
 UNCDF, ‘Nepal’, Inclusive Digital Economy Scorecard, UNCDF, Nepal - Inclusive Digital Economy Scorecard (uncdf.org) (1 March 2023).
 World Bank, Mozambique Digital Economy Diagnostic Executive Summary Report, Washington DC, World Bank, 2019.
 In 2023, SNV will launch its updated GESI strategy, as we embark on a period of deep gender equality and social inclusion reflection and work as we progress towards our 2030 ambition. Going forward, we will take the voices of our women partners, use their insights to inform our GESI framework, and seek ways to integrate digitalisation as an important entry point in accelerating gender equality and inclusion, and enabling people’s access to their basic rights and needs to water, energy, and food.
For more information, contact Ami Reza, Global Technical Advisor - Gender Equality and Social Inclusion by email.