Over 650 million women and girls are married before the age of 18. As gender equality becomes a global focus by governments and philanthropists alike, how can technology be used to help empower vulnerable women in developing countries?
While the world adapts to end discrimination and create a more gender-equal future for all, there has to be a focus on developing nations with poor women’s rights.
No matter what barriers and problems I face as a woman in the UK, it cannot be compared to what women have to go through in vulnerable communities and countries with little-to-no gender equality laws.
The world is fighting to end these unequal and atrocious practices, none more so than the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, one of which has a direct focus on empowering women in vulnerable communities; Goal #5: Gender Equality.
Objective 5.3 - Eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation
Even some states in the US still have laws that contradict gender equality, from the almost comical Florida law (one which many argue is a myth) that women can’t parachute on a Sunday to the far more serious North Carolina law (finally being contested this year) that states women cannot withdraw consent.
It’s worth mentioning that most of these laws are openly ignored by the governments and councils that enforce them, but they do make you think about the awful conditions and experiences some women have to go through.
1. Arranged & forced marriages
2. FGM (Female Genital Mutilation)
5. The wage gap
Forced marriages are depriving and diminishing the lives of young women and girls as they’re forced into unwanted partnerships before they’re even old enough to comprehend spending the rest of their lives with someone, especially a stranger twice their age.
According to the United Nations, “Globally, around 2017, an estimated 21 per cent of women between 20 and 24 years of age reported that they were married or in an informal union before age 18”.
How can the worst-affected nations use technology to help end child marriage? Bangladesh has the fourth-highest rate of child marriage in the world, here’s one way they’re using technology to tackle the issue head-on.
In a move to help end the 50% of girls being forced into marriages before the age of 18, the government of Bangladesh have invested in a project to help them combat child marriages.
Partnering with Plan International to develop a mobile app which makes it possible, for the very first time, for marriage registrars to confirm the age of their brides and grooms.
With over 3,700 child marriages stopped over a six-month period, the mobile app is set to roll out across the country with the support of the Prime Minister’s Office.
Young women in many countries across the world, even those with laws that abolish FGM practices, are still seeing an outrageous number of females go through the experience and suffer from lifelong major physical and mental health issues.
“Around 2017, one in three girls aged 15 to 19 had been subjected to female genital mutilation in the 30 countries where the practice is concentrated.”
– United Nations.
A truly powerful story of five school girls from Kenya fighting against FGM by taking part in the Technovation Challenge, a Silicon Valley competition that aims to empower young women in technology and digital startups.
The app, i-Cut, gives young women and girls the chance to seek help, aid and support both before and after they’ve undergone procedures, mainly by getting medical aid and sending reports to local authorities.
Including everything from information and help to emergencies and reports, the app is putting the power in the hands of vulnerable people and making a huge difference to the lives of many women who have to face FGM.
The UN reports that: “Based on 2005–2016 data from 56 countries, 20 per cent of adolescent girls aged 15 to 19 who have ever been in a sexual relationship experienced physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner in the 12 months prior to the survey.”
Especially when combined with the issues around forced and arranged marriages, this statistic just goes to show how many young women are put in positions where they live in constant fear of people who should make them feel safe and secure.
Vodafone and Hestia collaborated on a mobile app that could transform the way victims of domestic abuse seek help from domestic support services.
The app, Bright Sky, helps users identify different kinds of abuse, search for their nearest support centre, get advice on safely getting out of an abusive relationship and even records incidents through audio and video, which are never stored on devices for partners to find.
The Bright Sky app is an extension of the formed TechSOS system; which was a way to safely contact emergency services and having already helped over 82,000 vulnerable people in countries across Europe, the app is a promising way people suffering from domestic abuse can get the help they need and deserve.
In one of the most awful examples I’ve come across, a survey in South Sudan revealed that 83% of school girls used goatskin, cloth and nothing at all to deal with their periods every month, perhaps equally as shocking is that some women are even forced to live in sheds and huts during their period.
With the recent pledge of the UK government to invest £2 million by 2030 into organisations fighting to end period poverty, the question is can technology create an affordable solution for vulnerable girls dealing with their periods for the first time?
While there’s an abundance of period-tracking and management apps out there; there are few that are trying to tackle period poverty head-on, in fact, most of the efforts to eradicate period poverty are being implemented by schools, local authorities and health organisations.
Tampons are the world’s most popular form of female hygiene product, but by no means does that make them the obvious choice for young women, teenagers and girls. One alternative, menstrual pads, offer a less-expensive and longer-lasting form of protection.
One app that’s currently on Kickstarter, LOONCUP, connects to what’s been coined as ‘the world’s first smart menstrual cup’, which aims to quantify your flow and analyse your blood, the issue with technology tacking period poverty is that it’s pretty expensive and difficult to distribute.
For me, the role technology plays in ending period poverty will come from supporting local organisations fighting for the cause, no platform, app or website will be a viable solution to combat the issue alone.
While the world’s efforts to reduce the gender wage gap have made progress and decreased by $0.05 since 2015, women around the world still only make £0.79 for every $1 that men earn.
This issue is different from the others mentioned as it doesn’t only affect women in vulnerable communities, but every woman on our planet. However, as big a problem as it is in countries like the UK, it’s only made worse in areas that have fewer laws, rules and regulations around gender equality and equal pay.
In fact, there is a huge discrepancy around not just gender, but race also; as African American, Black and Hispanic women earn around £0.74 for every $1 white men earn.
Leveraging machine learning to identify areas of opportunity for equal pay, GapSquare is a promising piece of tech that already boasts clients including Vodafone, Condé Nast and Serco. The system can identify and flag things like career progression compared to peers and the number of employees being promoted to more senior roles.
So far, GapSquare has analysed the wages of more than 270,000 employees based in the UK alone, and with more than 10,000 UK companies releasing their gender pay gap data for the very first time last year, technology is providing an honest and transparent way for employers to promote and advocate equal pay.
Many say that the UN Sustainable Development Goals are over-optimistic and almost unachievable, others claim technology holds the key to unlocking a more gender-equal world.
In the face of the alternative opinions and potential solutions, one thing is for certain;
In order to leverage technology to improve the lives of women in vulnerable communities, we need to collaborate with individuals and groups that are actually experiencing the problems first-hand.
Only then can we truly harness technology to put the power in the hands of women living in vulnerable communities to champion their own solutions and share their message with the wider world.
Published on July 11, 2019, last updated on May 10, 2021