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Recently, a number of excellent reports and findings have enlightened the people about digitalisation of Pakistan’s economy. It is heartening to see a dramatic increase in the use of internet, maybe more so due to Covid-induced push to become tech-savvy. While in 2016, Kantar Icube gave a figure of 22% for internet penetration, the latest 2021 figure is 54%.
Covid has also accelerated the use of online shopping in Pakistan. Among Pakistani shoppers, 35% are new users of digital economy due to Covid lockdowns. Mobile internet data usage has also increased from 614 petabytes in 2016- 17 to 4,498 petabytes in 2019-20 – an increase of more than 600%. An interesting finding of a Google survey is that YouTube, being the second most popularly used app in Pakistan, is being used amongst other things for taking online classes for personal or business interest.
This is interesting to see and confirms that internet is being used for productive purposes. However, the survey also shows that non-users are constrained due to not only accessibility but also familiarity. The GSMA 2020 report had additionally listed affordability in the list of barriers to internet use. While in Pakistan 20% are out of broadband coverage, this 2020 figure is much higher than the regional counterparts such as Bangladesh (5%), India (10%) and Indonesia (5%).
The concerning part of this is that against 66% of the urban people, in rural areas the figure of internet usage is 47%. On top of that, only 39% of females are users of internet and only 52% of the women are mobile owners in Pakistan. Among regional partners, Bangladesh has 64% and India has 67% of females with ownership of mobile phones. These figures are important as they determine their eventual tendency to use internet.
The unequal access to internet facilities deprives women of access to important information and online services. It also greatly inhibits the opportunity to effectively meet their daily needs in a digitalised economy. When seen in the context of women empowerment, Pakistan seems to be faring rather poorly. There is little understanding of the relevance of gender issues in digitalisation in general.
Globally, information and communication technologies (ICTs) and their impact on and use as an instrument for the advancement and empowerment of women are considered vital. The impact of digitalisation on women and its use as a tool for the empowerment and promotion of gender equality has been well established. Digitalisation can provide varied avenues for women’s social, political and economic empowerment.
Women’s economic livelihoods can be elevated through increasing access to local and international markets for women producers and traders, and through improved access to jobs, education and training, and entrepreneurial opportunities. Urban women have to some extent started to take advantage of the increased flexibility in employment conditions to combine roles in the care economy with professional roles.
They have increased their access to health, nutrition, education and other human development opportunities, such as political participation, through internet-mediated delivery channels. The changing nature of work in the information economy, however, has room for considerable improvement. Women’s high rates of illiteracy and lack of digital training prevent them from entering the information economy.
Although the government has introduced its “Ehsaas Digital Hunar Programme”, which has been designed to deliver three to six months of virtual programmes with in-demand market skills and 100% employability for the youth, there is a long way to go.
The cost of technology is a barrier to many women in Pakistan using the technology for economic advancement. Other barriers, besides women’s uneven and unaffordable access to internet facilities and services, include inadequate provision of relevant content and applications, particularly in local languages that are adapted to the needs of illiterate women.
The English-language dominance in software and content affects women more as Pakistani women are less likely than men to know English. Additionally, cultural barriers also exit in society. Even where women have the necessary skills, persistent cultural constraints, such as stereotypical views of roles of men and women, and women’s lack of mobility remain a barrier to their full participation in the digital age.
There is an urgent need to ensure that women enjoy the huge potential for social and economic empowerment offered by digitalisation and participate effectively in all aspects of the field.
Making digitalisation policy gendersensitive is an area of great importance in securing the benefits of information age for girls and women. There is a need for increased, strategic and focused investment in training for women to help them enter the digital sector.
Also, educated women should be encouraged to acquire ICT skills to increase their economic competitiveness and productivity. The government should take concrete steps to increase the number of women students in the field of technology, in ICT careers at all levels, especially in hardware design and production, and software engineering.
It is important to increase the number of women researchers, scientists, educators and administrators, especially at tertiary levels, in this field. Given the wide range of specialists required at all levels, building institutional capacity deserves special attention. The government should promote women’s entrepreneurship in the digital sector, including by supporting role models, encouraging the creation of networks and mentoring programmes, development of business support programmes and linkages between the local people and Pakistani diaspora.
It is also important to develop digital information systems with relevant content for women to increase economic opportunities and promote entrepreneurship skills, including the information about national economic and trade policies and programmes. The government should develop programmes to enable women entrepreneurs to keep up with rapid changes in technology and increase economic opportunities and mobilise resources to support innovative projects in support of gender equality in the digital sector.
There is a need to use digitalisation to increase women’s economic literacy and economic participation. Each woman should have the opportunity to acquire the necessary skills and knowledge in order to understand, participate actively in, and benefit fully from, the digitalisation of economy.
Literacy and universal primary education are the key factors for building a fully inclusive digital society, and also by paying attention to the special needs of women.