Technology access and adoption are taking place at an accelerated pace across the world. Yet, vast swathes of the global population still remain outside the digital realm. The digital gender divide is especially wide in low-income countries, including Pakistan. According to the Mobile Gender Gap report 2022, Pakistan has a 33% gender gap in mobile ownership and a 38% gender gap in mobile internet usage. In the context of Pakistan, while affordability and digital literacy concerns remain, socio-cultural and religious factors are the primary factors driving technology usage, particularly among women. These factors become more complex and layered when considering the intersection of technology use and labor market activities, such as setting up and expanding businesses. Hence, it becomes crucial to map and analyze existing conditions and vulnerabilities surrounding technology ownership and usage to foster women's economic participation and financial inclusion leading to empowerment.
While talking to approximately 90 low-income factory workers, domestic workers, home-based workers, and businesswomen, multiple socio-cultural perspectives regarding technology access and usage were identified. A discussion was subsequently held by the GenTech research cluster that combined the insights gained from the academic research with the practical understanding of industry professionals and on-the-ground rights advocacy groups working for the capacity building of low-income women. These experts were from organizations working on women's empowerment in different parts of Pakistan and included Kashf Foundation, Karandaaz, Dbank, Homenet, Circle, and Khudkaar. The 4-hour-long workshop discussed diverse interventions of these organizations with a focus on challenges faced by the beneficiaries and the steps taken to improve earning opportunities for women micro-entrepreneurs and small businesses through technology. It also helped explore women's preference to work from home, technology access and usage, and the role of socio-cultural norms in affecting women's work, particularly outside the home.
The qualitative research data and workshop discussion identified the following as significant barriers to accessing technology:
Restrictions from male members and personal reservations:
Particularly among low-income women, barriers such as restrictions from male members of the family are prevalent. At the same time, the willingness to access technology is related to the experiences of women in the family or neighborhood. We found that most of the low-literate women we interviewed have negative perceptions about technology usage and consider mobile phones to increase the chances of harassment; a thought process that links these devices to a woman's character. These perceptions are derived directly from past experiences in the household, with neighbors, or with relatives. As mentioned by one of the home-based workers, "My uncle's daughter, she did the same; she gave her father's number to a guy, and then she started talking to the guy and then ran away with him."
Overall, we observed hesitancy toward social media usage. Here, they conveyed that social media is a waste of time, creates problems, and can demean one's cultural values.
One of the most significant barriers to accessing technology among low-income women is that they cannot afford the required gadgets or internet facilities at home. CIRCLE reported that a large chunk of their trainees could not run their online businesses because they couldn't afford internet packages or were located in areas with poor telecommunications networks. Significantly, women were more concerned with meeting daily household expenses and viewed cell phones and the internet as luxuries. As one of the factory workers mentioned, "Yes, I do want one, but we can't really buy it. Who doesn't want to own a cellphone?"
Privacy linked to technology access:
Privacy and technology usage linkages were key concerns flagged by our respondents. Most women in low-income households have shared phones which makes it difficult for women to have privacy, so they avoid using them at all. Upon inquiring about the usage of WhatsApp to make calls, a participant replied, "No! I like talking to those who are important, like my parents, that's it. I don't really use my phone because everyone is near me. So I don't talk to anyone for too long."
Women viewed heightened privacy as a barrier to building trustworthy relationships with their male kin. Women are aware that the male members of the house check their mobile phones. As mentioned by a participant, "My brother would get angry. Mostly, he has the phone when I go back home." So, to gain trust, women show their activity on mobile phones to male members.
Given this lack of privacy, women are wary of using tech-based savings solutions. Hence, our interviewees indicated that they prefer to keep their savings with their friends rather than using digital wallets.
Mobile usage and SIM ownership:
Basic access to technology comprises access to a mobile phone and SIM ownership. They should be able to use this technology to improve their earnings by finding work or extending their home-based work on different platforms. But in the urban context of Pakistan, SIM ownership has a lot of barriers. The primary requirement for registering a SIM is to have an identity card. But because many low-income women do not have their identity cards, they can't have SIM ownership. According to one of the representatives of Southern Punjab, men in her village prefer to keep the usage and ownership of the SIM separated to avoid any harassment that women might face. In this context, registering a SIM in a woman's name is considered to increase the risk of abuse and harassment.
Potential of technology in fostering empowerment:
Despite all the barriers to accessing technology, we also observed that technology has a significant potential to empower women. The women we interviewed highlighted that it provides them an opportunity to have flexible working hours, earn more earnings, learn new skills, get a diverse customer base, and have autonomy at work. It also helps in lowering the harassment or abuse faced by women. Meanwhile, it can serve as a networking platform for women running similar businesses that can help solve issues and grow enterprises more efficiently.
Considering the barriers faced in access and usage of technology, the following recommendations are essential to ensure the efficiency of interventions targeting women's empowerment and financial inclusion.
Advocacy for change in SIM recovery procedures to improve SIM ownership trends.
Targeted subsidies to encourage internet usage among women.
Engage male counterparts in the digital skills training given to women to create awareness regarding the potential benefit to their household.
Enable networking platforms for women running small businesses and micro-entrepreneurs.
Access to loans for low-income women.
Provide funding to work exploring best mechanisms for women's technology usage.
About the contributor: Taqdees Aziz is a Research Assistant at GenTech Research Cluster. She is interested in gender and development and wants to work as a development sector practitioner. She also aims to help women in her village gain financial independence by enabling them to access markets digitally.