We are living in the world of technology as it shapes our social and economic life. Digital is the future. Technology has transformed the world, as it has entered in fourth Industrial Revolution (IR 4.0), which ranges from Financial Technologies (FinTech), the Internet of Things (IoT), Deep Learning (DL), and Artificial Intelligence (AI). If we look at Pakistan, the country is in the second, third, and fourth stages of this revolution. In the sector of Agriculture, the country is in the first, meanwhile, in the sectors of e-commerce and financial services, the country has entered the fourth stage. But the question remains: are women included in this development? The answer unfortunately is: not nearly sufficiently.
As per the Annual Inclusive Internet Report by Economic Intelligence, Pakistan has dropped to 90th place among 120 nations in terms of availability, affordability, relevance and readiness of internet inclusion. This ranking means, Pakistan is second-lowest in Asia and lowest in South Asia. “Failure to improve conditions may widen inequalities between on- and offline populations,” the report said.
Despite showing a 6 percentage point improvement from last year, the report stated that Pakistan still ranked highest in the world in terms of the gender gap. “The gap in internet access between men and women is 65%, while it is 51% in access to mobile phones,” the report highlights.
One of the major reasons is the social patriarchal structure of Pakistan. In most households, men are in charge, hence, women act in line with traditional gender-role restrictions. In some parts of the country, women cannot have a Facebook account, in other cases, they cannot upload personal pictures and share personal information because it can lead to harassment. “It is quite common for women from middle- and lower-income households in Pakistan to set up social media accounts using aliases and unrelated profile pictures,” Nida Kirmani, an academic and social activist said.
For some experts, the very high ratio of illiteracy among women in Pakistan is the biggest reason. According to Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement Survey (PSLM) 2018-2019, only half of women and girls in Pakistan (aged 10 or older) have ever attended school. “Only half of women population over age 10 can read and write any language in Pakistan,” the report said. Although, the ratio is much better in the younger generation as 64 percent of women and girls (aged 15-24) can read and write, but this is majorly for urban areas, especially in Punjab. The women’s literacy rate in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh is 50 percent, while it is only 32% in Balochistan. So, it is no surprise that the same survey showed that only 26 percent of women (aged over 10) own a mobile, while only 13 percent have access to the internet.
“In addition to practical reasons, internet access is also important in finding a means to report domestic violence or abuse within households,” notes writer Mishael Hyat Ayub. “While websites and helplines do exist where this can be reported, women are helpless if they cannot reach out to these helplines through their own phone.”
In another study, released in January 2021 by Media Matters Democracy, it was found that 6 out of 10 women face restrictions at home while using the internet. The above data and reports show that the only issue is lack of opportunities, our social structure and thinking based on centuries-old thinking. Women consist of 49 percent of the whole population, and not providing them education and digital access is totally unjustified, activists maintain. They reiterate that women deserve equal opportunities in every field of life, especially on the digital platform. Many observers stress that the biggest benefit of the digital platforms, for societies like Pakistan, is that there are countless learning, financial and earning opportunities from the comfort of home. Financial analysts say that this means if the families allow the women of their families to study and take advantage of this technology revolution, there is a huge economic potential, which will provide them a chance to financially independent.
However, observers maintain that if the society remains unable to cash this advantage, the economic loss this country can face could be immense along with the jobs which would go to waste. Feminist activists urge that by tweaking the family structure and patriarchal thinking, Pakistani women can achieve unlimitedly and be a great helping hand to their families, ensuring economic prosperity for not only themselves but for others.
“The digital divide can increasingly prevent women from accessing life-enhancing services for education, health, and financial inclusion in a world that has become virtual overnight—hence placing them in an information black hole,” noted writer Dr Izza Aftab.
“As education shifts to mostly online platforms, many Pakistani women are left out, which means they will also be more likely to be left out from the realm of formal employment as well,” she added.