The COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent efforts to control the spread through school and business shutdowns and stay-at-home orders, has meant that many aspects of daily life have moved online. Before the pandemic hit, the world had made huge leaps in improving online access over the last 25 years. Recent estimates claim that there are approximately 4.6 billion internet users worldwide and 3.8 billion active social media users; the global online penetration rate is estimated at 59%. Compare this to 1995, when less than 1% of the world’s population was connected to the internet.
Much has been discussed about efforts to close the gaping digital divide that is exacerbating inequalities in our pandemic-constrained world. In 2018, men were 25% more likely to have online access than women and fewer than one in five women in the least developed countries were connected. The pandemic has magnified these inequalities. Policymakers and advocates are reviewing what changes to existing laws and regulations affecting mobile network operators and internet service providers are required, and if subsidy programs to help ensure access for those who lack the means might be necessary. Attention is also going to those that are not currently online through alternative remote delivery options, including a revival in interest in radio-delivered remote learning. Sometimes going the “old” tech way is a better option than waiting for the new tech.
The Digital Good
Efforts by donors and governments to move more people and activities online, and expand on digital ways of delivering to those in the poorest and most marginalized community, will create new opportunities, particularly for women and girls. Moreover, virtual worlds have the potential to help flatten hierarchy and structures, creating new forms of access and giving voice to many who are not normally heard. Online, your gender may be less likely to influence who you can reach out to, communicate with, in what meetings you can participate and in what order you are heard. Online, you may be able to access information, communities, decision-makers and knowledge that otherwise would have been out of reach. Social media communities can be tools for empowerment and action. In a time where recurring lockdowns and fears of infection keep us apart, the internet and social media communities can help reduce feelings of isolation.
A 2017 U.K. study of children online found, for example, that 62% of respondents said that social media had a positive impact on their friendships. In a recent Plan International report 82% of the youth interviewed felt that social media is “very important” as a tool for not just socializing, but finding a job, keeping updated with current affairs and “interacting with a wide range of people and building online communities.” For girls, in particular, it is seen as an essential tool for speaking out about important topics and sharing content from secondary sources.
The Digital Danger
But the new access that the global migration online provides also opens up new risks which need to be managed. The same 2017 U.K. survey found that 38% of respondents reported social media had a negative impact on how they feel about themselves. The recent Plan International report, which explored the specific risks girls online face, also found that there are significant gender differences in how being online is experienced by girls relative to boys. Across the 31 countries of the study, 58% reported some form of online harassment. The report’s authors conclude that girls and young women get attacked and harassed just for being girls, and especially for daring to put their thoughts and content online.
The report goes on to suggest a number of actions policy-makers can take to improve online safety for girls everywhere. But beyond these broader policy actions to protect online lives in general, international development organizations bear a special responsibility for ensuring online environments are safe, especially as we move program delivery online. Noting the double-edged nature of fostering online presence for children and girls in these times of COVID-19, and the specific amplified risks to which girls in particular are exposed, it is essential for international development practitioners delivering virtual programming to take special precautions when designing and rolling these out.
What can you do?
Here are some steps that international development practitioners can take with examples of how Plan has integrated these into some of our recent digital programs:
- Build educational safeguarding measures in the digital platforms and the processes around their use.
We are employing artificial intelligence (AI) for these purposes for a program in Nepal, where we developed a chatbot to interact with youth via mobile phones and the internet to help them identify and prevent trafficking.
- Developing digital platforms that use anonymized information.
We are engaging and interacting with program participants via WhatsApp to avoid the risks of criminal gangs getting access to personal and other data to locate children and youth to exploit and traffic them. We are currently taking this approach with a program we are implementing jointly with ChildFund International in Mexico and Central America. The program provides assistance to children and youth involved in migration toward the U.S.
- Employing Facebook and WhatsApp groups where access and membership are controlled, and discussions are moderated.
Our Girls Out Loud program uses a private Facebook group where girls, teenagers and young women can ask questions and discuss issues relevant to them. There is a moderator to keep the group dynamic, build trust and inform the girls about their rights. Girls Out Loud aims to create a girl-led movement for gender equality that uses innovative approaches to get insights into girls’ realities and to drive data-led disruption. It was piloted in Colombia and is currently being scaled up to the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Senegal and the U.K.
We are sure there are other examples. We welcome more initiatives by conveners in our international development community, like Humentum, to help identify and disseminate best practices for ensuring more access to the digital world does not result in more risks and rights violations for children, especially girls.