Bridging the digital divide in South Asia

We need to empower girls with the needed skills so they can excel in a rapidly evolving digital world

Veronica Kamanga Njikho, Regional Adviser Gender, UNICEF ROSA
29 May 2024

In today’s increasingly digital world, access to and knowledge of digital technology is crucial to success. Digital technology has become an integral part of our lives. It has changed the way we work, live, and interact with others. This is why having access to digital technology can greatly impact children and young people’s development and their ability to succeed in life. Unfortunately, the deep-seated gender divide that many women face in the physical world is also replicated in the digital world. This divide perpetuates the inequalities that hinder every girl’s ability to reach her full potential. 

Gender digital divide in South Asia

South Asia currently leads all regions in terms of the number of users online and in acing the expanding influence of digital culture and digital economy. Unfortunately, this region also carries the highest digital gap burden between girls and boys. Adolescent boys are one and a half times more likely to own a mobile phone and nearly twice as likely to own a smartphone than adolescent girls. The rate of internet usage among boys is double that of girls in Nepal and quadruple than that of girls in Pakistan. Such glaring discrepancy is depriving women and adolescent girls the opportunities to engage in the digital sphere. The societal expectation about gender roles as well as online safety concerns also curb their access to the digital sphere.   


In South Asia, there are 170.6 million adolescent girls who could benefit from increased digital access. However, studies have shown that adolescent girls are 35 per cent less likely than adolescent boys to possess basic digital skills, like sending emails or managing files. Unlike boys who use their phones for a wide range of activities, girls often stick to basic functions like calling or using the calculator.

Families in low and middle-income countries, like most countries in this region, often see careers in technology being more suitable for boys than girls, thus, delaying girls' access to technology. Furthermore, girls are only half as likely as boys to be in digital training programs. In a world where 90 per cent of jobs require digital skills, the lack digital skills in girls limit their job opportunities. 

Importance of digital solutions to girls

Access to digital technology and possessing digital literacy can offer women and adolescent girls’ opportunities to overcome problems they may face in the physical world. It can help make them more aware of their rights, strengthen their autonomy, increase confidence, and ensure that they are not left behind.  

Investing in girls' digital literacy can also boost the country’s economy. Over the last decade, barriers preventing women and girls from going online has cost developing countries a staggering US $ 1 trillion.  By providing girls access to the internet and mobile phones, they can access information about health, education, and entrepreneurship. With these digital skills, girls can emerge as leaders and catalyst for positive change, ultimately benefiting themselves, their families and their communities.  

What can we do about the gender digital divide 

Closing the gender digital divide remains a herculean feat and governments cannot do it alone. To move the needle in favour of all girls in South Asia, governments need to work with private sector, non-profits, community leaders and influencers and families.

Some important steps that need to be undertaken:

by the government: 

  • Introduce policies and tailored programmes that prioritises empowering girls on digital skills. 
  • Increase investments in school digital infrastructure, especially in underserved areas, and integrate digital literacy, skills development, and online safety into the curriculum at all education levels. 

by the private sector:

  • Offer low-cost or free devices and internet access, and fund programs to teach digital skills, especially in underserved communities.
  • Create mentorship opportunities with female role models to inspire and guide girls in the digital field. 

by caregivers, families and communities: 

  • Families should provide equal access to digital devices and learning opportunities for both girls and boys.
  • Local leaders and organizations should challenge gender biases and support girls' digital inclusion.
What is UNICEF doing

UNICEF is committed to closing this gap by empowering girls with digital skills, ensuring technology is both affordable and inclusive especially for girls from marginalised communities, while also addressing the gender norms and safety concerns, which hinder girls’ equal access to technology. 

To overcome barriers of equal access to technology and support digital solution for girls UNICEF is working closely with family members including men and boys, teachers, and community leaders. UNICEF is also working with women and youth led organizations, such as Women in Tech in Maldives, Feminist Approach to Technology in India, to implement programs and advocate for policies that help narrow the digital gender divide. Notable initiatives include the mentorship programs, hackathons held by Women in Tech in Maldives, e-learning passport in Pakistan, and the UNISOLVE platform in Bhutan to name a few. 

These and many similar initiatives represent vital steps towards narrowing the gender digital gap in the region and ensuring that half the population is not left behind. 

About the author

Veronica is the Regional Adviser for Gender Equality at the UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia. She supports UNICEF programs on gender equality and women's empowerment across the region. Veronica has over 24 years of experience in development and humanitarian contexts, working with governments and partners in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. She has also held various roles in the UN system, primarily with UNICEF and UNFPA, and has extensive experience in advocacy and policy formulation related to gender equality and women's rights.

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