Youth Blog: The Gender Digital Divide in the MENA Region: Innovation in Times of Crisis

Date: Sunday, July 4, 2021

Sana Afouaiz, Director of Womenpreneur. Photo: Courtesy of Sana Afouaiz.

Sana Afouaiz is an award-winning gender advocate, and public speaker on feminism and women’s issues. She is the author of the book “Invisible Women of the Middle East”. Currently, she is the Director of Womenpreneur, where she leads a Digital Hub with a community of 15,000 members across 20 countries, aimed at advancing women’s entrepreneurship and participation in technology, innovation and society in the MENA region. Sana is also a member of UN Women’s Gender Innovation Agora.

The Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) region, like the rest of the world, is undergoing a profound transformation of society, industry, and economy due to the rapid advancements of the technological and digital sectors. These developments, however, risk leaving women behind due to a persisting gendered digital divide that hinders women's abilities to access essential services, navigate the digital world safely and efficiently, participate in the digital economy, and access the free flow of data and information. As we continue to confront the repercussions of the global health pandemic, conversations regarding the gender digital divide are more important than ever.

Though the pandemic has greatly impacted all populations, women in the MENA region, particularly marginalized women, are additionally vulnerable to the economic repercussions of the global health crisis. Despite an increase in women’s educational attainment, women in MENA remain overrepresented in informal sectors, often restricted to unpaid care and domestic labour. This places women at higher risk of income loss and of bearing the added burden of nationally imposed confinement restrictions, which often increases household care responsibilities.

Indeed, despite trends suggesting that rates are increasing, the MENA region still represents the lowest rate of female participation in the labour force in the world. In fact, a recent report by the World Economic Forum suggests that 16 countries within the MENA region have a female participation rate of less than 50 per cent, with others reporting rates below 20 per cent, including Yemen, which has the lowest rate of female labour force participation at 6.3 per cent.

An additional factor affecting women’s ability to enter into the labour force is the rapid advancements in the digital sector restricted by the persistent digital divide. In fact, recent polls find that the digital divide indeed disproportionately affects women in the MENA region, suggesting that there is a 56 per cent chance that women from the MENA region are not considered “internet users''. This prediction may reflect the cultural norms of the region, where gender roles, biases, and traditions likely serve as additional barriers for women gaining the relevant skills to participate fully in the digital economy. To avoid excluding women from economic activity, efforts must be made to include women in both the paid labour force and the digital economy.

Thus, actions should focus on increasing digital literacy and online training resources that allow women to gain the necessary skills to participate in the digital economy and recover from the economic effects of the pandemic.

Accessible Inclusive Education and Training

Accessibility is vital in offering programs and services targeting the most disadvantaged populations to ensure the language barriers and internet connectivity do not further hinder women’s ability to access skills, knowledge, and employment.

Furthermore, opportunities to learn a wide range of skills are essential, not just to obtain employment, but to navigate the internet safely and confidently, use digital services to increase efficiency in your life, and access essential services and knowledge. Thus, soft-skill development is equally essential to economic and social participation as technical skill development.

As countries around the world continue to develop COVID-19 recovery plans, it is imperative that measures be taken to address the gendered digital divide within the MENA region to empower women’s participation in the digital economy, rather than exclude them. As investment and development of the digital sector advances, educational and training opportunities should remain a priority, particularly those that are inclusive and comprehensive in the skills they aim to teach, as a means of addressing the greater issue of gender inequality across all MENA countries.