On April 27, the U.S. Department of State recognizes International Girls in ICT Day to celebrate girls excelling in Information and Communications Technology (ICT). This aligns with the values and work of the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues (S/GWI) to advance gender equality and elevate the voices of women and girls in all their diversity in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields. Consistent with several U.S. strategies on the empowerment of women and girls, the Department is proud to promote this year’s theme, “Digital Skills for Life,” through the development of digital skills for girls and young women around the world.
Youth empowerment, particularly the empowerment of girls and young women, is a top priority of the U.S. government. When girls have equal opportunities and access to a quality and inclusive education, their risk of experiencing some forms of gender-based violence (GBV) often decreases, their chances of completing school is higher and their ability to share their voices in their community can grow, which further promotes their empowerment in society. In 2016, the U.S. Department of State launched its first-ever Global Strategy To Empower Adolescent Girls. Since then, this strategy has shaped S/GWI policy regarding the empowerment of adolescent girls – why it is important, how the Department can best advance this priority, and more. The priorities of this strategy, aimed at dismantling barriers that keep adolescent girls from achieving their full potential, are echoed in other U.S. strategies which seek to advance gender equity and equality and promote the agency and leadership of girls, including the National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality, the 2022 update to the U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence, the U.S. Global Strategy on Global Women’s Economic Security, and others It emphasizes the importance of adolescent girls’ empowerment to increase their economic and civic participation in their communities.
“Simply prioritizing digital literacy for girls is not enough. This is why I’m so inspired to see the Department of State empowering girls and young women through hands-on trainings to learn new digital skills, which not only improves their career opportunities but reduces their risk of gender-based violence and creates a brighter future for all.” — U.S. Special Envoy for Global Youth Issues, Abby Finkenauer
The Gender Digital Divide refers to women and girls’ lack of access to, use, and development of ICTs. Every person should have equal access to inclusive education that promotes understanding and use of innovative and accessible digital technologies. However, with 250 million fewer women online globally than men, and over 1.7 billion women not owning a mobile phone, the gender digital divide poses a threat to economic, social, and political progress.
Digital literacy, or the development of skills related to understanding technology and the ever-digitalizing world, is a notable priority related to empowering women and girls in ICT. The U.S. Strategy on Global Women’s Economic Security is an example of governmental action promoting digital literacy. The strategy encourages the use of digital technologies as a vital tool for women’s and girls’ empowerment and inclusion. When women and girls are equipped with strong digital literacy skills, they are able to engage more safely online and have more opportunities to thrive, learn, innovate, and contribute to the economy.
In addition to improving digital literacy, one effective approach to empowering girls and young women to engage on ICT issues is ensuring they have access to quality STEM education. Presenting girls with opportunities in STEM provides the foundation, skills, and confidence for more girls to enter non-traditional fields of study and enable them to overcome negative stereotypes, while providing the essential means to thrive and serve as role models for other girls and young women. The Support Her Empowerment – Girls’ Resilience, Enterprise, and Technology Initiative (SHE’s GREAT!), funded by S/GWI and implemented by IREX, works to do just that. Active in Benin, the Kyrgyz Republic, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Jordan, Georgia, St. Lucia, Ukraine, and Guatemala, SHE’s GREAT! supports youth ages 14-18 and schools, families, and communities to address harmful gender norms while developing technical skills in STEM fields, such as coding. In addition to providing increased access to technical skills and leadership training, the program links girls to networks of mentors and partners to support their STEM projects, education, and career pursuits. Further, it builds girls’ confidence as leaders and breaks down barriers and gender stereotypes that may have previously limited their community involvement.
SHE’s GREAT! has made an impact in places like the Kyrgyz Republic, where a STEM camp included workshops and educational activities led by women leaders in STEM fields. These workshops promoted a greater understanding of STEM as well as some of the stereotypes that impact women in coding. Participants also visited universities and U.S. Embassy programs to enhance their understanding of government affairs and civil society engagement, provide them with a place to learn, and expand their career opportunities.
Improving girls’ digital skills and participation in ICT – and STEM fields more broadly – also plays a critical role in reducing risks of GBV, including that which is facilitated by technology and occurs in the form of online harassment and abuse and can lead to girls falling victim to sex trafficking. Because they experience multiple, intersecting forms of discrimination, LBTQI+ girls, girls with disabilities, and girls from marginalized racial, religious, and ethnic groups, among others, often face increased risks of GBV, both online and offline, and additional barriers to their participation in ICT fields. An estimated 85% of women and girls globally have witnessed or experienced some form of online harassment and abuse, and, in the United States, one in three women under the age of 35 – and over half of LGBTQI+ individuals – report experiences of sexual harassment and stalking online. This actively undermines and discourages the participation of individuals in the public sphere, including in ICT-related fields.
As Jennifer Klein, Assistant to the President and Executive Director of the White House Gender Policy Council, said: “We cannot afford to lose a diversity of viewpoints, voices, and leaders, particularly at a time when democracy cannot be taken for granted.” That is why the Global Partnership for Action on Gender-Based Online Harassment and Abuse works to amplify the voices of women and girls in addressing technology-facilitated violence and other barriers to their full and equal participation in all facets of society. We know that, when individuals who are historically excluded from or underrepresented in decision-making spaces are able to overcome barriers and have their voices are heard, they produce more creative and effective solutions to the political, economic, and technological challenges we collectively face.
The U.S. assumed the Chairship of the Freedom Online Coalition (FOC) this year and is focusing on digital inclusion as a policy priority, which includes bridging the gender digital divide. Past work of the FOC has highlighted important gender issues such as the recently published Guiding Principles on Government Use of Surveillance Technologies, which asks governments to not use surveillance technologies that perpetrate technology-facilitated gender-based violence or discrimination online and offline. Additionally, the FOC issued a Joint Statement on Digital Inclusion which calls on governments to address multiple digital divides, including ones that exclude women and girls, reflect and reinforce existing social and economic inequalities, and enable gender-based violence online. The United States will continue to work on digital inclusion through this multistakeholder approach, especially through the FOC’s Task Force on Digital Equality where our goals overlap. FOC’s Task Force on Digital Equality where our goals overlap.
On this International Girls in ICT Day and always, the Department is committed to raising the voices of women and girls in all their diversity and supporting them in developing digital skills for life to narrow the gender digital divide and to help them reach their full potential.
About the Author: Eleanor Greenbaum is a Virtual Student Federal Service Intern in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues and attends George Washington University.