Earlier this year, a 23-year-old Bangladeshi woman needed help. She was pregnant and didn’t know if it was safe to drink the water from her local well. She opened Maya — an app that answers anonymous questions about everything from health to legal protection. She got the advice she needed, and she’s about to give birth after a healthy pregnancy.
For women who are cut off from information, services like Maya are a light in the dark. They can be the difference between having a normal pregnancy and facing unnecessary risks — or between knowing their rights and being exploited. The internet is the invisible force driving advancement for women around the world. Take education. Research shows that educated women have healthier families, earn larger incomes, and create more economic growth. Yet, two-thirds of the world’s illiterate are women.
The internet opens up a world of knowledge, from digital books and Wikipedia to online courses. Research shows that when women have access to reading apps, they use them significantly more than men.
Becoming connected also opens up economic opportunities. In a survey of large developing countries, nearly half of the women who were connected had applied for a job on the internet, and nearly a third had earned extra income online. Women use the internet to start businesses. On the South African site SmartBusiness, which helps entrepreneurs, women make up 28 per cent of the users — and ask more than 60 per cent of the questions. Armed with information, women grow our economies. In India, the online store Pelli Poola Jada was started three years ago by three women. Today, they employ 200 more.
Empowering women economically isn’t just good for them, it’s good for everyone. Improving women’s access to income and technology improves child welfare and nutrition. Research shows that countries with more equality in employment and education have lower child mortality and faster economic growth.
The internet also gives women voice — and allows their voices to be heard. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Hero Women set up their own internet café to tell their stories, and they successfully petitioned for the appointment of a US special envoy to the war-torn region. In Kenya, women set up Her Voice to fight gender-based violence by advocating for legal reform and working with victim support groups. In Brazil, women created I Will Not Shut Up, an app that maps assaults on women so that community leaders can be held accountable.
Despite the fact that the internet helps women get educated, start businesses, build communities, and assert their rights, access to this vital resource is still restricted — and sharply divided by gender. Globally, four billion people lack internet access, most of them women. In the developing world, nearly 25 per cent fewer women than men are connected; in sub-Saharan Africa, it’s 45 per cent. This inequality of access is holding back progress towards a safer, fairer, and healthier world. The internet gender gap is widening the global development gap. We must overturn this roadblock for women — and we can.
Six weeks ago, the United Nations committed to providing internet access for all by 2020. NGOs, governments and businesses are working together to get there — including tech firms like Google, whose Loon and Titan Aerospace projects aim to reach remote communities; SpaceX, which is planning a network of satellites to provide access; and Facebook, whose Internet.org initiative uses the Free Basics app and website to connect people in 30 countries. Free Basics makes basic internet services — including news, search and health information — available for free. It’s open to all developers, so anyone can create content for it.
Maya, which helped the woman in Bangladesh, is on Free Basics; so is BabyCenter, which 3.4 million families have used to learn about parenting. In just one month in India, people on Free Basics accessed healthcare information one million times. In rural Colombia, people are using a Free Basics service called 1DOC3 to speak to doctors, many of them for the very first time.
More than a billion people can access Free Basics — people who otherwise wouldn’t be online. Free Basics isn’t the full internet — there’s no sustainable economic model that can deliver that to everyone for free — but it is a bridge to the full internet. More than 50 per cent of people who start with Free Basics pay for the full internet after 30 days — and in countries where Free Basics has been launched, the rate of new-user internet adoption is twice as fast.
A connected world is a world where all people can find a way to a better future for themselves and their children. By working together to connect women, we can make that better future a reality.