When schools closed in Jordan in mid-March as part of the country’s coronavirus lockdown, Syrian refugees followed a strict schedule to access the online learning platform set up by the Jordanian government.
It was a struggle, UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, details in a recent report, “Coming Together for Refugee Education.”
Take, for example, the siblings Nour, 15, Fadia, 14, Nadia, 12, Muhammad, 10, and Abed, 5. All five children share the same bedroom, making it difficult to find the silence and solitude needed to focus. More problematic is that the family only has one mobile phone. Meanwhile, the data is not always reliable and the videos sent by teachers ate it up quickly. The family, which lives off informal labor and $200 in monthly U.N. aid, has had to cut back to afford it.
“Yesterday, I had an online test,” Nour told UNHCR. “I couldn’t get the data to work.”
Even so, some might say Nour and her sisters are luckier than many other female students in the Arab world. One of the big hurdles to female education and employment even before the pandemic has been unequal access to mobile technology. The 2020 Global Education Monitoring Report by Unesco found that worldwide, access to mobile Internet is 26 percent lower for women and girls overall than for their male peers, and even lower for refugees. That means 327 million fewer women than men have smartphones, says Matthias Eck, a researcher with the Global Education Monitoring Report.
“Even when women do have access to the Internet, they may be less able to use it—and that can be for various reasons related to gender,” Eck said. “So, for example, when you have multiple members of a household that need access to computing resources which can be limited at home—there might be only one computer and one smartphone—then women and girls tend to receive less access to those to those devices.”
“And that’s even more so the case now with Covid-19,” he added.
The pandemic, with its impact on employment, is expected to widen the already growing “mobile gender gap.”
In financially struggling households across the Middle East and North Africa region, when girls don’t get access to the tools to continue their education, the risk that they drop out of school permanently rises because an alternative—child marriage—offers their families a financial lifeline. (See the related articles “Pandemic Will Force Thousands of Refugee Girls to Become Brides Instead of Students” and “Why Families Choose Marriage Over School for Their Daughters.”)
A Stark Gender Gap
The mobile gender gap, which is widely attributed to already-existing gender inequalities in literacy, education, income and employment, is found across all household income levels.
In the MENA region, 82 percent of women own a mobile phone, with women 9 percent less likely than men to have one, according to “The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2020,” by GSMA, an international association of Internet providers. In the low and middle-income countries of MENA—that is, every country in the region except the Gulf states—only 47 percent of women are using mobile internet, leaving 66 million women behind.
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Another report measuring “digital development” in 2019 by the International Telecommunication Union found similar Internet penetration rates for women in the MENA region and said the gap has been growing.
That has raised concern among aid officials. Besides basic literacy and numeracy, information and communications technology skills “are increasingly seen as really essential to functioning in the knowledge-based world that we live in today,” said Eck.
In surveys, the key reasons cited for the lack of mobile-phone ownership among women in lower- and middle-income countries around the world were affordability, literacy and skills, the “family does not approve,” and safety and security, says GSMA.
Overlaying those factors are gender norms that create this disparity, says Claire Sibthorpe, head at GSMA of Connected Women, Connected Society and Assistive Tech.
“There is structural inequality around different levels of income, employment and education for men and women, but then layered on top of that, there’s social norms,” she said. “But even if you hold all those same factors constant, the factors we all know contribute to the gender gap, there is still a gender gap in mobile ownership and mobile Internet,” she said. “So that’s clearly highlighting that things like social norms and discrimination play a key role.”
“There is structural inequality around different levels of income, employment and education for men and women, but then layered on top of that, there’s social norms.”Claire Sibthorpe Head of GSMA’s Connected Women, Connected Society and Assistive Tech