UNITED NATIONS, New York – Digital technologies are fueling explosive growth, innovation, and connectivity around the world. But these tools are also creating new kinds of inequalities.
Adolescent girls are less likely to use the Internet; in some countries, boys are four times more likely than girls to use the Internet. Girls are also less likely than boys to own a cell phone. Some see barriers to these technologies as protection against online predators. But keeping girls away from digital tools only limits their access to important information and services and deprives them of the ability to make informed decisions for themselves, their bodies, and their futures.
On October 11, the International Day of the Girl Child, UNFPA calls on leaders to ensure that girls are empowered not only in their communities but also in the digital world. This means expanding access to these technologies while putting safeguards in place to prevent exploitation and abuse.
“We must not tolerate a digital world that reinforces inequality. Instead, let’s use these tools to close the gender power gap for girls,” UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem said in a statement marking the day.
Around the world, UNFPA is working with girls to develop digital tools that provide sexual and reproductive health information and services to empower those most left behind.
𝗜𝗻𝗳𝗼𝗿𝗺𝗮𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻 𝘁𝗵𝗮𝘁 𝗲𝗺𝗽𝗼𝘄𝗲𝗿𝘀
According to recent data, only an estimated 55 percent of girls and women can make their own decisions of sex, contraception, and health care, and too few adolescents have access to comprehensive sexuality education.
“Because of limited knowledge about family planning and lack of access to services, girls like me get pregnant earlier,” says Enkhmaa Baatarkhuu, 18, in Mongolia, who dropped out of school after she was in 10th grade.
Digital tools can help close those gaps. Enkhmaa Baatarkhuu recently helped UNFPA test a chatbot called Mandukhai that helps users find sexual and reproductive health information and services. “We need advisors like Mandukhai,” Ms. Baatarkhuu said, “to access information so we can make informed decisions.”
Unbiased advice from digital sources is also important in Arab states, where UNFPA has introduced a digital ambassador named Mariam. Mariam encourages adolescent girls to speak openly and honestly about sensitive topics. The online persona was able to reach girls with a survey that revealed a great need for education about menstruation.
A follow-up campaign helped dispel common myths and overcome the stigma of menstruation. “Menstruation is a health topic that should be addressed openly,” commented one user during the discussion.
𝗥𝗲𝗮𝗰𝗵𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝘁𝗵𝗼𝘀𝗲 𝗶𝗻 𝗰𝗿𝗶𝘀𝗶𝘀
Girls also receive accurate health information through resources such as Alapon, a Bangladeshi counseling center that answers health questions and provides psychosocial support. Alapon counselors also host weekly Facebook Live sessions to answer adolescents’ questions.
The service, supported by UNFPA and the Bangladesh Ministry of Education, targets vulnerable and crisis-affected girls. For example, after Cyclone Amphan, a girl named Sadia learned about Alapon through a dignity package distributed to storm survivors. Alapon also offers information in the local dialect in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.
“I hope Alapon will help reduce social stigma,” Sadia said. “Maybe we can also prevent child marriages.”
A digital platform in India has empowered a girl named Ragini to do just that.
Ragini is a volunteer at Naubat Bajawith, a cell phone service that answers questions about health and human rights. When she learned that a 14-year-old girl in her community was about to be married off to a 40-year-old man, she knew the potential consequences – from early pregnancy to loss of education to abuse.
“The girl told me she didn’t want to get married and study,” Ragini said.
But her family feared a backlash if she spoke out. “My mother said we couldn’t raise our voices against it because it would be difficult for us to live in the community if we did,” she said.
Ragini was not discouraged and raised the issue at her school, which contacted the authorities. The girl’s marriage was prevented, and Ragini’s role in the intervention was concealed to protect her. “Now she is studying,” Ragini said.
𝗗𝗲𝘀𝗶𝗴𝗻𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗮 𝗯𝗿𝗶𝗴𝗵𝘁𝗲𝗿 𝗳𝘂𝘁𝘂𝗿𝗲
Girls don’t just use these tools. They create them.
Azra says she plans to continue developing digital tools to support women and girls. Image courtesy of Azra Komarica
In Eastern Europe, UNFPA partnered with socially responsible company Violeta d.o.o. and local partners Mozaik Foundation and Belgrade Centre for Human Rights to launch the Girls Advance Lab, a mentorship-based innovation platform that calls on girls from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia to develop solutions to gender inequality and other issues they face in society. The Lab currently provides support, including funding, mentoring and other resources, to 13 projects submitted by girls ages 13 to 19 and selected through a rigorous selection and pitching process.
Azra Komarica, 19, is one of the leaders of a project called My Cyclic Life, which provides accurate information about menstruation. She says the experience inspired her.
“My plan for the future is to continue working on applications and programs that help girls and women,” she told UNFPA. “I want to send a message to all girls to realize their potential.”