Technology as a Driver of Gender Equality and Peace
Between March 6–17, UN member states, UN agencies, and NGOs from around the world will meet at the 67th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). Established in 1946, the CSW has been the primary forum through which the United Nations—and the broader international system—has promoted gender equality and the empowerment of women. This year’s theme is innovation, technological change, and education in the digital age, with an overarching mission to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.
At the same time as CSW delegates convene in New York, the U.S. government will inch closer to releasing strategies for the country-level implementation of the Global Fragility Act (GFA) The GFA led to the U.S. Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability (SPCPS), a 10-year, whole-of-government effort that portends to reshape how the United States approaches these challenges, starting in nine countries: Papua New Guinea (PNG), Mozambique, Libya, Haiti, and five countries across Coastal West Africa. The GFA does not have a congressionally mandated gender focus and thus the SPCPS does not overly focus on gender; however, country strategies will hopefully acknowledge that gender inequality contributes to much of the state fragility in question. Women are left out of decisionmaking spaces, excluded from the paid labor force, deprived of access to valuable assets, and regularly experience gender-based violence to varying degrees in each of these nine countries—all dynamics that can exacerbate state fragility. These dynamics can be mitigated, at least in part, through technology.
That’s why this year’s CSW is on to something: innovation and technology can be powerful in addressing these inequalities and, as such, should be seen as critical tools within the SPCPS implementor’s toolkit. Technology—when available and accessible— could provide a means to scale the impact of SPCPS programming, potentially expanding reach to populations that might otherwise be excluded due to societal norms surrounding civic participation—including women. Appropriate utilization of technology will also be critical for policymakers to coordinate the work of the SPCPS with existing policy strategies such as the one covering women, peace, and security (WPS) issues. Moreover, technology will be essential to develop widespread and reliable local data collection mechanisms, a critical goal for SPCPS implementation.
Technology as a Driver of Gender Equality and Peace
Developing Technology-Driven Pathways for Women’s Economic Inclusion
Women in fragile environments are frequently excluded from the paid workforce as well as from social and economic resources—factors that feed back into fragility as women lose agency and are thus less resilient to conflict or disaster. Only 5.8 percent of women in Mozambique held paid jobs in 2018 and had, on average, only 1.4 years of schooling and limited access to land titles. This pattern holds across other SPCPS countries, even those where women have more education. For example, while over half of Libyan women have reached secondary education or higher—on par with Libyan men—an estimated 26 percent of women remain unemployed in 2023.
Current technology-focused projects within partner countries provide opportunities for women to remotely learn marketable skills, connect and share best practices between female tech entrepreneurs, as well as take part in the growth and development of their community’s digital infrastructure. In Libya and other fragile contexts where women may not be able to regularly or safely leave their homes to go to work, projects such as She Codes teach women coding skills as well as help them find flexible, online work opportunities that will allow them to earn money from their homes. For female entrepreneurs already working in the tech space, the U.S. Embassy hosted PNG, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu for a virtual information communication technology (ICT) workshops to bring them together to share their experiences, discuss opportunities for growth, and network from their homes. While support for these and similar initiatives will be critical to integrating women into the workforce and ameliorating economic factors of fragility, the success of these programs will depend on women’s independent access to economic resources such as savings accounts. This is a priority that is beginning to be addressed by efforts like Business Women Connect (BWC) in Mozambique, but should be greatly expanded by developing digital financial inclusion initiatives throughout the partner countries.
Digitizing Disaster Relief: Women and Climate Change Adaptation
Women’s exclusion from traditional economies is accelerating due to climate change and could have an outsized effect on women in GFA partner countries, opening the opportunity for the development of technology-focused programs that center women in monitoring climate change, facilitating the climate adaptation process, and developing disaster early warning systems. All nine SPCPS partner countries are littoral, rendering them especially vulnerable to sea level rise and exposure to extreme weather events. At the same time, in countries such as PNG, women make up a critical contingent of agricultural workers whose harvests will be impacted by climate change. Since women often take up most of the unpaid labor force, they take on a disproportional responsibility for ensuring their family’s adaptation to climate change. A Rapid Gender Analysis in Haiti determined that women took on the excess workload following the 2021 earthquake—seeking assistance, finding resources, and looking for childcare.
In PNG, technology-driven programs such as Sea Women Melanesia have successfully integrated women into the labor force through conservation, teaching and paying indigenous women to create and monitor protected areas for marine life using underwater cameras and GPS systems. In Mozambique, where El Niño-Southern Oscillation phases largely determine the likelihood of severe droughts, flooding, and extreme weather events such as cyclones, the government implemented an early warning system that combines text message alerts with in-person community outreach—conducted using bicycles and megaphones—to efficiently alert people in affected areas. While Haiti has received funding for an early warning system, no such system exists in Libya or in the coastal West African partner countries. Employing women in the development and implementation of this programming would allow these programs to capitalize on women’s intimate knowledge of their communities, while providing them marketable skills and employment within the information technology sector. This would at least amount to a small recognition of their outsized and primarily unpaid role in rebuilding communities after a disaster—and create pathways for further employment.
Digital Tools to Drive Women’s Civil Society Participation
Civic participation has rightly been at the center of Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) programming; women in fragile contexts, facing the intersecting issues of violence, economic exclusion, and the burden of climate change adaptation, have been systematically deprived of agency and inclusion in decisionmaking spaces. In PNG, only nine women have been elected to parliament since the country became independent from Australia in 1975 and efforts to set a quota for just five out of 111 parliamentarians to be women failed in 2022. This is not due to lack of interest: 167 women ran for parliamentary positions in August 2022, with only two winning seats. Haiti, similarly, ranks 187 out of 190 in terms of women’s political participation, while the Coastal West African countries are doing only slightly better with between 8.4 and 18.7 percent of parliamentary seats being held by women across the five countries as of 2021.
While no single digital application is going to increase the number of women in parliament, SPCPS implementors should prioritize the creation of digital tools that can be mobilized to help women understand, operate, and develop agency in civic spaces. For instance, in Cambodia, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Innovations for Social Accountability Cambodia project has employed widely used social media platforms to empower Cambodian citizens with up-to-date information on civic resources available to them within the fields of education, healthcare, and local administration and to connect them directly with service providers, thus creating mechanisms for feedback and public service accountability.
Technology as a Tool to Fight Impunity and Combat Gender-Based Violence
Gender-based violence (GBV) is perhaps the most obviously gendered contributor to fragility. Women and girls make up 97 percent of conflict-related sexual violence victims while often being excluded from obtaining the resources or institutional access needed to get assistance or remove themselves from dangerous situations. In Haiti, the United Nations’ Spotlight Initiative estimated that at least 30 percent of women and girls between 15 and 30 years old had experienced GBV. In PNG, a woman is beaten approximately every 30 seconds. Across the GFA partner countries, impunity for GBV perpetrators is a pervasive issue; only 100 people were convicted for domestic violence relative to an estimated 1.5 million cases of GBV in PNG in 2020. In Libya, where women face potential prosecution for sex outside of marriage, justice might be even more difficult.
Technology can serve as an indispensable tool to fight impunity for GBV, especially digital reporting mechanisms and utilizing technology to facilitate access to potentially life-saving health and safety resources. In PNG, a national phone counseling helpline became the central mechanism for GBV victims to seek aid during the pandemic, experiencing a 75 percent increase in demand between March 2020 and April 2021. Taking this concept a step further, in Mozambique, the creation of the InfoViolência software—combined with community outreach conducted over WhatsApp—has been especially crucial to tackling GBV. InfoViolência allows decisionmakers to identify trends in GBV and translate them into data-based “interventions, policies, and budgets in areas where women and girls need them most.” While the creation of helplines and digital monitoring tools are important first steps to combating GBV in fragile contexts, other programming could be modeled off existing digital tools, such as Brazil’s Mapa do Acolhimento, which connects survivors with nearby pro bono lawyers and volunteers trained through Mapa’s online services. A similar project applied in SPCPS partner countries could help survivors evaluate potential next steps in seeking justice.
The Way Forward
Track progress . . .
Across SPCPS programming, using technology to develop accurate and reliable local data collection and monitoring mechanisms will be invaluable to the adaptability of each country’s strategy to realities on the ground. Fragility is inherently gendered, necessitating the collection, analysis, and integration of gender-disaggregated data into ongoing SPCPS programming. Moreover, training and paying women to report issues, monitor progress, and collect data on SPCPS progress across their communities can serve as an opportunity to connect and collaborate with local women, building on the work of organizations that already have existing programming using technology to combat gender inequality and fragility. Of critical importance in the absence of long-term U.S. government country teams over the 10-year SPCPS implementation period, this local network can serve as a foundation from which to develop local buy-in to GFA programming. Moreover, in developing women-led data collection mechanisms at the community level, country teams can feed live, primary source information directly back into data analysis platforms being maintained in Washington, such as the Department of State Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operation’s Instability Monitoring & Analysis Platform, allowing for programming focused precisely on areas of need as well as further honed conflict early warning systems.
Fragility is inherently gendered, necessitating the collection, analysis, and integration of gender-disaggregated data into ongoing SPCPS programming.
. . . while closing the digital gap.
To mobilize digital tools to combat gendered factors of fragility across the nine SPCPS countries, implementors face the difficult task of closing sizeable digital access gaps. Internet connectivity varies across the partner countries and often differs for women; only 7 percent of women in Haiti, for instance, had access to the internet as of December 2020. In PNG, owning a cell phone is sometimes viewed as a safety risk for women who fear being targeted for theft, online harassment, or domestic violence due to an intimate partner’s jealousy. Even in regions where internet access is widespread, facilitating access to a phone or the internet is not enough; implementors must prioritize training women how to use technology fluently, with consideration for safety, privacy, and the ever-present threat of misinformation. While digital connectivity might be nascent across most of the SPCPS countries, closing the digital gender gap can and should be given central consideration at the earliest phases of implementation. Surtab, a USAID-funded project, pays a women-dominated team three times Haiti’s minimum wage to manufacture tablets which are distributed to schools, businesses, and the health sector to expand the reach of these services in rural parts of the country. Such efforts are vital to the success of the SPCPS.
Great utilization of digital tools will not solve all issues women face in fragile contexts, nor should it be expected to do so. Still, SPCPS implementors should approach gender-focused digital tools as vital components of the broader conflict prevention and stabilization toolbox—a means to scale programming, reach new communities, and amplify the female voices so often left out of the conversation.
Abigail Edwards is a research assistant with the Project on Fragility and Mobility at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Alexis Day is program manager for the Smart Women, Smart Power Initiative and outreach manager for the International Security Program at CSIS. Erol Yayboke is a senior fellow with the International Security Program and director of the CSIS Project on Fragility and Mobility.