This blog is part of the WomenConnect Challenge (WCC) Blog Series: Introducing Strategies for Closing the Gender Digital Divide. The U.S. Agency for International Development WomenConnect Challenge (WCC) is a global call for solutions to improve women’s participation in everyday life by meaningfully changing the ways women access and use technology. In the first round of the Challenge, WCC awarded nine grants to organizations working to identify and change the social and economic circumstances that keep women offline and under-empowered. Through close partnership with local awardee teams and community members, WCC has identified five proven strategies for closing the gender digital divide and increasing women’s empowerment. This blog explores one strategy at length.

It is no revelation that the global economy has been permanently digitized. Now, the internet is not just “the marketplace of ideas” but also the world’s largest marketplace of commodities, crafts, and services. Exclusion from this vast and dynamic market limits one’s opportunities in countless ways—socially and economically. Across the world, many women are unable to engage with the digital economy, and many “real life” economic opportunities—even those traditionally available to women—are moving online, rendering them inaccessible and necessitating new approaches to development.

“As we push toward more digitization of all development domains—especially in the post-COVID-19 era—we have to be so much more mindful about women’s positionality and how they’re accessing and using technology. Or we’re just going to continue to exclude them,” cautioned Revi Sterling, Director of the WomenConnect Challenge, as real-life inequities are not eliminated but rather exacerbated in online spaces.

“Well, there is good news,” reflected renowned expert Dr. Sophia Huyer during the WCC “Steps to Success” webinar series, which convened development academics and practitioners to discuss WCC’s five proven strategies. “We know there have been gains… more access, more rights, more options for women and girls and marginalized groups,” said Huyer. “But women are still 25 percent more likely [than men] to live in extreme poverty… And their labor force participation is still quite low. They’re still only 31 percent of the labor force. A lot of women, especially young women, are unemployed.”

While the economic and employment situations of women in offline spaces may not seem directly related to their digital lives, such inequities “condition the circumstances for women to be able to use ICT [information and communications technology] effectively and to really participate in the digital context,” explained Huyer. When connected to the internet and trained on using technology, women can access a whole frontier of new economic opportunities, from serving as community technology leaders to starting or expanding their own businesses. Huyer, whose seminal research has positioned her as a pioneer in the field, clearly defined the relationship between economic empowerment and all things ICT, writing in her paper, “Supporting women’s use of information and communication technologies for sustainable development” as far back as 1997: “Women’s effective access to ICT can help them achieve increased participation in production and productivity, thereby contributing more to economic development.”

Operating under this framework, WCC grantee AFCHIX worked in rural and peri-urban communities in Kenya, Morocco, Namibia, and Senegal to provide reliable and affordable connectivity to communities and to generate business and empowerment opportunities for women. AFCHIX worked with women collectives in underserved communities to create internet networks specifically implemented and operated by women. To augment the overall connectivity goal, the project also trained women in the communities on technology and internet use and taught them about online business opportunities and entrepreneurship in general.

“We are in need of this project,” said Astou Thiaw, one of the women participating in AFCHIX programming. “Today, [the] internet is an indispensable tool to sell our products. You have helped us to get knowledge about online sales and other skills. We now have to be recognized internationally by selling our processed products on social media,” she continued.

Another participant, Esther Wangui, a high school secretary, said, “I always had a desire to have some source of income to supplement my salary. Once wi-fi was installed in our school… I started researching on Google and came across the idea of making flower vases and flower pots from old fabrics. I read more from the internet, and I watched video tutorials from YouTube on how to make them… Since then, I have been making them in different sizes and shapes depending on the market demand. This has really helped me to easily meet some financial needs.”

When women and their families come to understand technology access as an important avenue for income generation—instead of a luxury product for enjoyment—the value of connectivity multiplies tenfold. “I think we need to look at digital as something that can be an enabler but that has to be fit to women. Women can’t be expected to be fit to the technology,” commented Huyer. For online economic opportunities to be attractive to women and prove viable, there needs to be not just an avenue to income but proof of added value to conducting business online instead.

One AFCHIX association member remarked, “This project offers us not only the possibility of staying at home and connecting but also a place for training. We also had huge problems in selling our products, but today this project makes our products visible all over the world.” For many association members, online access helped them gain not just additional income but also more time and information. Women’s financial gains allow them to have more liberty to afford additional internet access, educating and empowering them further and opening the door to achieving other development objectives such as the delivery of critical health information.

AFCHIX leaders.jpgAFCHIX leaders work together to install the mast for their new community network Demonstrating the economic benefits of digitalization is pivotal to cultivating buy-in from communities and among women and their families. Once men are educated about the online workforce and income generation opportunities for women, they often become more supportive of technology access due to the increased family income. “If you even just inform and bring [men] into the process, they may not be involved directly… but they appreciate knowing what the benefits are for their families,” explained Huyer.

“None of these women were technology experts [initially],” Sterling—and her USAID colleagues Thomas Koutsky and Lauren Grubbs—wrote in a recent paper: “[B]ut through this initiative, women trained in basic networking and subsequently gained respect due to their new roles, knowledge, and control of a community good, thus positively shifting social and cultural perceptions.” The women often acted as gatekeepers to the internet in AFCHIX communities, which positioned them as leaders, often requiring them to instruct others, including men, on the operations and opportunities of the network.

Such strategies and positioning not only provide opportunities for economic advancement in the short and intermediate terms but also start to shift the pervasive cultural and social contexts that have long barred women from more widespread economic participation. The AFCHIX model proved so successful that the organization was recently awarded another USAID grant for Round Three of the WCC.

“AFCHIX empowers women to take a leading role in how their community accesses the internet,” commented Sterling. “This helps to overcome perceptions that women can’t or shouldn’t use technology and also builds their self-confidence about using it. The training these women receive shows them how to use technology to their benefit by accessing economic opportunities, including as entrepreneurs.”

WCC is implemented by DAI’s Digital Frontiers project, a buy-in mechanism that works closely with USAID Missions and Bureaus, the private sector, and international and local development organizations to identify successful and sustainable digital development approaches and scale their impact globally.