Gender Digital Divide Is Reflection of Overall Discrimination Faced by Women and Girls

OHCHR

Council Concludes General Debate on Human Rights Situations that Require the Council’s Attention

The Human Rights Council this afternoon held its annual discussion on the integration of a gender perspective throughout the work of the Council and its mechanisms, with a focus on the gender digital divide in times of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Council also concluded its general debate on human rights situations that require the Council’s attention.

Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that the gender digital divide was a reflection of the overall discrimination faced by women and girls. 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. In response to the pandemic, good practices had already been developed by some States, such as monthly free data or free access to information content about the pandemic. Ms. Bachelet concluded by saying that if they did not succeed, there was a significant risk that technology would actually widen gender inequalities.

Tlaleng Mofokeng, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, said that a number of factors posed significant challenges in the realisation of equitable and non-discriminatory digital health. The global digital divide in much of the Global South and in other developing contexts excluded many from benefiting from digital health and related innovations, she said, explaining that it affected women and adolescent girls in particular.

Tatiana Vasconcelos, Disability Consultant, said that the pandemic had deepened the “circle of invisibility of disability”, in which the needs of persons with disabilities had not been taken into account when designing and implementing public policies to address the needs generated by this global crisis. She recommended supporting recovery responses that included a human rights approach, and that placed all people at the centre of the solutions, without any distinction of gender, age, ethnicity, race, religion or disability.

Jaroslaw Ponder, Head of the Office for Europe at the International Telecommunication Union, said that COVID-19 had further widened the gender gap in technology. Focusing on working for a more gender balanced information communication technology sector and for a more gender balanced use of it across society was imperative. Without greater involvement of girls and women in technology, the kinds of products, services and platforms being created would not address the needs of half the population.

Lainah Ndiweni, Legal Researcher, said that there was a need to address the inequalities in access to information as many women and girls could not afford the high cost of data. There was a need for the Human Rights Council to strengthen capacity building and advocacy in all spheres of women human rights defenders in bridging the digital gap in women and girls. The Council should also ensure that responses to mitigate the economic impacts and digital divide must be gender centred and promote all women in all areas.

In the discussion, speakers stressed the importance of the integration and implementation of a gender transformative perspective in the work of the Human Rights Council as well as an intersecting perspective into the Human Rights Council resolutions, and mainstreaming it in the work of Special Procedures and in the mandates of fact-finding and monitoring missions. Some speakers said that the digital divide also had an inter-generational dimension that needed to be considered. Particular attention needed to be paid to women and girls who were victims of intersecting forms of discrimination.

Speaking were: Australia, European External Action Service, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Norway, Chile, Barbados, Lesotho, Egypt, Israel, Canada, Greece, Egypt, Spain, France, Food and Agriculture Organization, Thailand, Angola, Viet Nam, India, Cyprus, United Nations Population Fund, Georgia and UN WOMEN.

Speaking was the national human rights institution: National Human Rights Commission India. Also speaking were the following non-governmental organizations: European Region of the International Lesbian and Gay Federation, Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women, Stichting CHOICE for Youth and Sexuality, Plan International, and Action Canada for Population and Development.

The Council also concluded its general debate on human rights situations that require the Council’s attention.

Speakers highlighted that freedom of religion was a very important human right that could not be derogated from, even in times of public emergency. Other speakers stated that much like any other right, freedom of religion was not absolute and that it should be balanced with other rights, including the right to education for children. Allegations of human rights violations in specific countries and regions were mentioned.

Speaking in the general debate were the following non-governmental organizations: Indigenous People of Africa Coordinating Committee, International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, Association Ma’onah for Human Rights and Immigration, Japan Society for History Textbook, Global Appreciation and Skills Training Network, Asian Legal Resource Centre, Reprieve, L’Observatoire Mauritanien des Droits de l’Homme et de la Démocratie, Association Bharathi Centre Culturel Franco-Tamoul, Association pour la défense des droits de l’homme et des revendications démocratiques/culturelles du peuple Azerbaidjanais-Iran, Community Human Rights and Advocacy Centre, Conseil de jeunesse pluriculturelle, Alliance Creative Community Project, Institut International de l’Écologie Industrielle et de l’Économie Verte, PRATYEK and ABC Tamil Oli.

At the end of the meeting, India, Iran, China, Latvia, Venezuela, Russian Federation, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Turkmenistan, Lithuania, Belarus, Japan and Armenia, Cuba, Algeria, Poland, Indonesia, Iraq and Saudi Arabia spoke in right of reply.

The webcast of the Human Rights Council meetings can be found here. All meeting summaries can be found here. Documents and reports related to the Human Rights Council’s forty-eighth regular session can be found here.

The Human Rights Council will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 28 September for its annual panel discussion on the rights of indigenous peoples, with the theme: the situation of human rights of indigenous peoples facing the COVID-19 pandemic, with a special focus on the right to participation. This will be followed by an interactive dialogue with the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Statement by the High Commissioner for Human Rights

MICHELLE BACHELET, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that the gender digital divide was a reflection of the overall discrimination faced by women and girls. Women and girls formed the majority of the estimated 3.7 billion unconnected people in the world. When the pandemic led to digital technology being the only lifeline to essential services, health-care information, livelihoods or to exercising rights, the digital exclusion became dramatic. Women, who made up more than half of the 1.7 billion people financially excluded from the digital economy, could have less access to cash transfer programs in times of crisis. 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 information communication technology devices and services.

The High Commissioner said that in response to the pandemic, good practices had already been developed by some States, such as monthly free data or free access to information content about the pandemic. Another essential step was to dismantle discriminatory gender stereotypes which perceived women and girls’ access to information communication technology as “inappropriate” or doubted their ability to study science and technologies. With 90 per cent of future jobs being estimated to require information communication technology skills, it was imperative to ensure girls’ equal access to digital literacy skills, including for girls living in remote areas. Ms. Bachelet concluded by saying that if the international community did not succeed, there was a significant risk that technology would actually widen gender inequalities. They could not let that happen as it would go against the promise to leave no one behind and against the duty to recover better from the pandemic.

Statements by the Panellists

TLALENG MOFOKENG, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, said that a number of factors posed significant challenges in the realisation of equitable and non-discriminatory digital health. The global digital divide in much of the Global South and in other developing contexts excluded many from benefiting from digital health and related innovations, affecting women and adolescent girls in particular. Another challenge lay with digital and artificial intelligence solutions in the area of health, as they were not neutral in terms of race and gender. The increased risk faced by women and marginalised groups due to State and online surveillance of health-related information was concerning. If digital healthcare interventions were to serve all equally, Ms. Mofokeng concluded, it should be approached from the perspective that real people with diverse needs would be receiving its outcomes.

TATIANA VASCONCELOS, Disability Consultant, said that for people with disabilities, particularly women and girls, information and communication technology had become another barrier in this pandemic context. She highlighted that the pandemic had deepened the “circle of invisibility of disability”, in which the needs of persons with disabilities had not been taken into account when designing and implementing public policies to address the needs generated by this global crisis. She recommended that support recovery responses included a human rights approach that placed all people at the centre of the solutions, without any distinction of gender, age, ethnicity, race, religion or disability. Ms. Vasconcelos concluded by saying that this pandemic was giving the world the opportunity to be better, more inclusive, supportive, fair and empathetic societies but it would depend on the commitment of each and every one to make it possible.

JAROSLAW PONDER, Head of the Office for Europe at the International Telecommunication Union, explained that COVID-19 had widened further the gender gap in technology. As women made up half of the work force worldwide, equality of opportunity in the tech sector was a goal that needed to be prioritised. Focusing on working for a more gender balanced information communication technology sector and for a more gender balanced use of information communication technology across society was imperative if the world was to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Mr. Ponder said that women comprised more than 40 per cent of university graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related fields which needed to be translated into women and girls’ strong participation in the technology sectors that continued to remain remarkably low. Without greater involvement of girls and women in technology, the kinds of products, services and platforms being created would not address the needs of half the population. Mr. Ponder concluded by saying that, as the world moved towards 2030, now was the time to take bold steps to ensure that girls and young women enjoyed the digital revolution.

LAINAH NDIWENI, Legal Researcher, said that communication for development in human rights was very important and critical in defending and promoting women’s human rights. Carrying out her work as a legal researcher while upholding social distance was a challenge in a developing country like Zimbabwe because of the need to first acclimatise to the new digital normal which was non-existent in her work. There was also a need to address the inequalities in access to information, as many women and girls could not afford the high cost of data. There was a need for the Human Rights Council to strengthen capacity building and advocacy in all spheres of women human rights defenders in bridging the digital gap in women and girls. Ms. Ndiweni concluded by saying that the Human Rights Council should ensure that packages and other responses to mitigate the economic impacts and digital divide must be gender-centred and must promote all women in all areas: the marginalised, vulnerable, disabled, elderly and illiterate women.

Discussion

Speakers recognised the potential for information and communications technologies to promote economic development and the enjoyment of human rights and commended the expert mechanisms for continuing to improve the understanding of the gender dimensions of human rights violations. They acknowledged that it was imperative that a multi-pronged, integrated approach was taken to overturn the strong forces that reinforced and perpetuated gender inequalities. Some speakers stressed the importance of the integration and implementation of a gender transformative perspective in the work of the Human Rights Council as well as an intersecting perspective into the Human Rights Council resolutions, and of mainstreaming it in the work of Special Procedures and in the mandates of fact-finding and monitoring missions. Other speakers added that besides socio-economic disparities, the digital divide also had an inter-generational dimension that needed to be considered so that no women, whatever their age, income or geographic location, were left behind. Particular attention needed to be paid to women and girls who were victims of intersecting forms of discrimination. A normative and regulatory framework was needed to prevent online-violence and cyber-crime. Calls were made to end abuse, intimidation, and slander of female journalists and women human rights defenders.

Some speakers noted that with the COVID-19 pandemic, the digital transformation had accelerated, generating more dependence on these technologies, therefore exacerbating the gender gap. Some speakers believed that the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms should deepen their analysis of the inequalities that arose from or were exacerbated by the gender digital divide. Calls were made to urgently address and bridge the gender-based digital divide, redouble efforts to support the role of women and girls in the technology and innovation sectors, and to lift all forms of discrimination and stereotypes that hindered the access of women and girls to modern technology services and applications. Other speakers highlighted that the pandemic had disrupted efforts in advancing literacy and digital literacy through the closing of schools and the switch to digital means as these were not equally accessible for everyone. Calls were made for affordable and reliable access to digital tools, devices, and services as women were less likely than men to have internet access – up to 33 per cent in some countries. Speakers said there was a need to scale up policies and programmes promoting digital access and digital skills for women and girls. Technologies developed without considering gender differences could reduce their usability for women, while others could perpetuate gender biases. The unintended gendered impacts of technologies must therefore be examined from their conception, while promoting more women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics’ careers could contribute to gender-responsive technology design.

Concluding Remarks

TLALENG MOFOKENG, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, called on States to commit to women’s rights to health. Women and girls with disabilities must not solely be beneficiaries of digital solutions, they must also be able to participate in decision-making in this area. Solutions must be accessible, affordable and of high quality, and all materials must be scalable, responding to developments in the field. She concluded by saying that innovation must be aimed at caregivers and that all must be wary of the racism that could creep into diagnostic algorithms.

TATIANA VASCONCELOS, Disability Consultant, said that the pandemic had worsened the inequalities affecting women and girls, especially those with disabilities. Recovery plans must include everyone and measures must take into account the particular needs of everyone, including those of people with disabilities, given that disability was not homogeneous and could take many forms. She concluded by saying that women with disabilities must be able to express their needs and participate in every step of the recovery from the pandemic.

JAROSLAW PONDER, Head of the Office for Europe at the International Telecommunication Union, called for policies that could bring systemic and sustainable change in bridging the digital and gender divide. All users must have the same skills and confidence in the use of information technology and telecommunications. This would require working with national policy makers to protect and empower the most vulnerable. More women needed to enter the information communication technology services sector, where they could thrive.

LAINAH NDIWENI, Legal Researcher, regretted that, contrary to expectations, information and communication technology had not improved connectivity in rural areas during the pandemic. (The connection with the speaker was interrupted.)

General Debate on Human Rights Situations that Require the Council’s Attention

The general debate on human rights situations that require the Council’s attention started on Friday, 24 September, and continued this morning. Summaries can be found here and here

General Debate

Speakers highlighted that freedom of any religion, as enshrined in article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, was a very important human right that could not be derogated from, even in times of public emergency. Other speakers stated that much like any other right, freedom of religion was not absolute and that it should be balanced with other rights, including the right to education for children, under articles 28 and 29 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Some speakers reiterated their strong commitment to the respect of economic and social rights in the areas affected by mining. They drew the attention of the Council to the lack of transparency in the mining process, as the failure of the governance of mining companies led to serious violations of human rights through environmental pollution. Calls were made to the Council to invite States to adopt technologies based on industrial ecology in both the governance process and in the mining systems and ensure that the governance of mining areas was inclusive and transparent, respecting the human rights of the populations concerned.

Link: https://www.ungeneva.org/en/news-media/meeting-summary/2021/09/la-fracture-numerique-entre-les-sexes-est-le-reflet-de-la

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