Before my career as a tech journalist, I was a media personality who constantly bumped against the ugly face of cyberbullying. Keyboard warriors are vicious creatures, unsatisfied until they watch you bleed as they claim their pound of flesh. I remember reading tweets from a powerful woman on X stating the number of women who would love to be online, authentically or otherwise, is diminished thanks to cyberbullying. Even if they have not been bullied, they fear being bullied and they keep away. The result is their voices go unheard. No one represents them or their interests online so it is as if they do not exist.
Maybe this is why the UN Women’s Statement for International Day of the Girl Child that declared “Digital generation. Our generation” as this year’s theme tugged at my heartstrings.
We are familiar with the digital divide. It starts with the premise of inequality, specifically noting the disadvantaged Girl Child who falls on the wrong end of it even as it acknowledges “To be a girl today is to be part of a digital generation.” It further stated, “Girls have proven that they are more than ready to lead the digital transformation.”
This is good news. The opportunities ranging from #GirlsWhoCode to AI and robotic boot camps mean the lovely girls will be absorbed into the digital space. But before that happens, we need to be clear about digital realities around connectivity, skills, and online safety. It is said parents are the greatest role models for their children. Let’s take this and run with it. According to the GSMA’s Mobile Gender Gap Report 2022, women in sub-Saharan Africa are 30 per cent less likely to own a smartphone than men in the region. Thankfully, this figure has grown steadily from 22 per cent in 2017, due to men’s smartphone ownership far outpacing that of women in the region. However, once women own a smartphone, their awareness and use of mobile Internet is almost on par with men.
2.2 billion people ages 25 and below do not have internet access at home. It is girls who are more likely to be cut off. Forget the American teenage girl with a smartphone growing out of her ear or sprouting TikTok branches. Digital literacy and access are more likely for the girl whose mother navigates the world using tech. True to observations, girls who choose to go online are all too often encountering cyber violence. A survey of 14,000 girls in 31 countries by Plan International’s annual State of the World’s Girls Report, 2020, showed that 58 per cent had been harassed and abused online. One in four girls abused online feels physically unsafe as a result. Curiously, accessing the Internet does not equal having “The skills or knowledge necessary to use it effectively.” Enter proactively teaching children about digital literacy. That way, they can “Become savvy social media users who are equipped to thrive in an ever-changing digital landscape.” Hence the need for modelled behaviour.
Excluding girls from the digital transformation is a luxury the world cannot afford. Not only does digital literacy and inclusion dictate earnings; it amplifies girls championing gender equality, climate action, social justice, and more. Girls’ voices are needed with all their diversity. They already played a crucial role in shaping the Global Acceleration Plan for Gender Equality, launched by UN Women and its partners during the Generation Equality Forum. The voices of adolescent girls, working alongside governments, civil society leaders, and corporations, have been instrumental in the creation of this visionary plan.
While UN Women supports initiatives aimed at providing girls with digital access and the development of essential digital skills, it also recognises that connectivity and digital literacy are the first steps towards empowerment. While I personally cringe at the phrasing, feminist technology – technology that is developed, designed, and used with a strong focus on promoting gender equality, women’s empowerment, and addressing the unique needs and perspectives of women and gender-diverse individuals – goes a long way towards roping in the Girl Child’s genius. It grants freedom to innovate across multiple fronts from software and hardware designed with gender inclusivity in mind to initiatives that promote women’s participation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), building an inclusive ecosystem. These are all non-negotiables.
I am now a little more fortified against cyber violence, having observed the unattractive parts of human nature up close. That is why I advocate for more girls online. The digital revolution needs as many warriors as we can get. Cleaning the online spaces should also be safe for all, irrespective of gender. The International Day of the Girl may be any old Wednesday, but it ought not to be.