Women in Bangladesh are advancing in all fields, but still need to catch up in the information technology (IT) sector. Information and communication technology (ICT) has a vital role to play in fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Media reports as well as government and non-government studies indicate significant gender disparity in the IT sector. Unless this gender gap can be closed, it will not be possible to achieve the SDG.

It was noted that most rural women in the haor regions of Kishoreganj, Netrakona and Sunamganj were outside of any internet facilities. According to the government-run Bangladesh National ICT Household Survey 2018-19, 53.2 per cent of the male respondents used the internet, as opposed to 34.2 per cent of the women. The study revealed a 55.6 per cent gender gap in the use of internet.

A similar picture emerged in a report of a foreign organisation, where the mobile internet gap in Bangladesh was 58 per cent (The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2019, London, GSMA 2019).

This study revealed that 95.4 per cent were women who said that they didn't use the internet, did not have the permission to use internet. Only 4.6 per cent were men were in this position. Meanwhile, 5.4 per cent were men who said they did not use the internet for security reasons, but for women this stood at 94.6 per cent. This indicates that woman face a far greater challenge than men in the use of new technology.

Incidentally, 29 per cent who said they did not have time to use the internet were men, 71 per cent were women. And the majority of the visitors to public internet service centres such telecentres or cyber cafes, were men (80.6 per cent).

If IT can be made more accessible to women as to men, to the rural areas as to the urban, then the optimum use of new technology will yield overall and macro results.

In rural Bangladesh, the internet was mainly centered on social media. A joint study of We Are Social and Hootsuite in 2018 indicated that at least 30 million persons used social media in Bangladesh. Facebook was the most popular social media platform in the country. And 24 per cent of the profiles were of women. (The Financial Express, 24 March 2018). So even in the use of social media, women lag way behind men.

The haors are among Bangladesh's most backward rural regions. Quoting a study report, Dhaka Tribune on 22 August wrote that only 10 per cent of women between the ages of 15 and 29 years living in the village used the internet. This was 20 per cent in urban areas. While 50 per cent of the youth in the country are female, the percentage of their use of the internet is disappointing. Yet it is the youth, male and female, who have the most potential and promise in the use of internet.

The report said that 72 per cent of the youth of low income families owned mobile phones, where this rate among the higher income families was 92 per cent. And of girls in the low income families, 24 per cent owned mobile phones, while this was 73 per cent among girls in higher income families. So while poverty is a hindrance to the use of technology by women, so is gender. Unless this disparity can be removed, women, who constitute 50 per cent of the country's most promising population, will be dropped from development work, which naturally will hold back the country's overall development and progress.

So the precondition to implementing the vision of Digital Bangladesh, that is, taking internet services to every town, village and union, has not gone very far. There is still much work to be done.

A large section of youth in Bangladesh depends on their smartphones to use the internet. Yet the gender gap in the country regarding mobile phone ownership is 29 per cent and regarding using the mobile phone for internet, is 52 per cent (The Business Standard, 3 February 2021).

All these facts and figures indicate that women are far behind men when it comes to internet and the use of technology. And the women in the backward haor regions are even more marginalised. This gap between men and women in the villages and the cities must be closed. The vast possibilities opened by new technology, must be used for national development. If IT can be made more accessible to women as to men, to the rural areas as to the urban, then the optimum use of new technology will yield overall and macro results.

Coronavirus is the new reality. Over a year people have been more or less restricted to their homes. Technology must be made easily accessible and usable to people of all areas in the country, including the haor regions. This calls for training, devices and internet services available for all. Technology must be made women-friendly. If the gender gap in technology is reduced, women will be empowered socially and economically and this will also have contribution to preventing the repression of women and children.

If the people in general can be made interested and skilled in the use of technology, there will be a qualitative improvement in people's lives, and that will have considerable contribution to achieving the SDG.

* Firoz Choudhury is assistant editor of Prothom Alo and can be reached at [email protected]