KAIROS at UNCSW67 – Tackling the gender digital divide

Cheryl McNamara at UNCSW67
Cheryl McNamara at UNCSW67

Women and girls face a digital divide. There has been no framework to address this – until now. 

On March 18, Member States at the UN 67th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW67) agreed to an outcome document that provides for the first time a global normative framework on gender equality and digital technology.  

This is a very big deal. The framework will inform member state legislation, as well as the UN’s Global Digital Compact, which is intended to “outline shared principles for an open, free and secure digital future for all.”  

A yawning digital divide 

The Global Digital Compact is in its public consultation stage and will be formalized at the Summit of the Future in September 2024. It will address the yawning digital divide between the Global North and South, urban and rural, youth and senior, high income and low income, and men and women, including gender diverse people. 

“Digital technologies offer tremendous opportunities, including the potential to contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals,” states the Compact’s backgrounder. “At the same time, however, they also can pose harms to societies and the environment. The United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, has said that ‘Looking to the future, two seismic shifts will shape the 21st century: the climate crisis, and digital transformation.’” 

The world faces several intersecting crises, climate change of course, as well as the pandemic, food insecurity, and the rise in authoritarianism and gender-based violence, to name a few. The latter two go hand in hand. We are witnessing the clawing back of women’s rights worldwide. This is devastating for the women and girls impacted. It is also a blow to any meaningful work done to address these emergencies. 

We know for example that women offer effective solutions to the climate crisis, despite being acutely impacted by it and excluded from decision making, and that healthy democracies depend on gender equity. Today though, gender equity depends on digital access, and on this front much work needs to be done. 

During CSW67, António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, put it bluntly: “The gender digital divide is fast becoming the new face of gender inequality.”  

Given the ubiquity of digital technologies, it comes as a bit of a shock that CSW67 marks the first time that digital access and security was discussed in a UN forum. CSW67’s priority theme was “innovation and technological change, and education in the digital age for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls.” Its review theme was on rural woman. 


I attended CSW67 during its first week, along with Lucy Talgieh who is the Women’s Project Coordinator at Wi’am: Palestinian Conflict Transformation Center, based in Bethlehem, and a KAIROS Women of Courage: Women, Peace and Security (WPS)  partner.  Support for partners in multilateral spaces like UNCSW is a part of the WPS program. Lucy and I were both under the accreditation of ACT Alliance, a global faith-based coalition. 

What is UNCSW? It’s the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women. CSW in an annual event – this year marking the 67th – that takes place at UN headquarters in New York City during the first half of March. It brings together representatives of Member States, UN entities, and Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) accredited non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from all over the world weigh in on the priority and review themes through member-sponsored side events and 800 NGO led parallel events. More than 8,700 organizations registered to attend CSW67 either virtually or online. Member states negotiate language on the themes in the outcome document. This document is non-binding but sets the tone for subsequent UN documents and helps inform legislation for Member States. For an excellent 101 on the UN and CSW, I encourage you to visit the NGO CSW67 Advocacy Toolkit

Digital Access – a concurrent opportunity and danger to women and girls 

In opening CSW67, Sima Bahous, the UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, described the gender digital divide as follows: 

“Women are 18 per cent less likely than men to own a smartphone, and far less likely to access or use the internet. This past year alone, 259 million more men than women were online. Only 28 per cent of engineering graduates and 22 per cent of artificial intelligence workers globally are women, despite girls matching boys’ performance in science and technology subjects across many countries.” 

Why does this matter? A personal laptop or smart phone provides access to an online bank account, income opportunities, education, vital health resources, online public resources, and a wider community to name a few. In today’s world, a woman’s independence and ability to thrive relies on digital access. 

Concurrently though, internet access poses grave dangers. Security is an issue for those women and girls fortunate enough to have an internet profile. Women who are politicians, journalists, athletes and human rights and land defenders are subject to online bullying and threats. Many women in such fields report that they self-censor themselves to mitigate this risk.  

Sexual predators prey on vulnerable girls and women, blackmailing them for sex or luring them into sex trafficking. Lucy told me that in Palestine, Wi’am counsels girls who fall to men who claim to be their soulmates during online exchanges. The men ask for images that exposes their hair and other parts of their bodies. Lured into what they believe to be a romantic relationship, these girls provide them with these photos, only to realize they’ve fallen into a trap. The men threaten to share these images to their families and communities if they refuse to have sex with them. In a highly patriarchal society such as in Palestine, such exposure can come with deadly reprisals. 

KAIROS’ WPS partners have come up against the challenges posed by digital access and security. It was particularly felt during the pandemic when partners had to pivot their programs online knowing that most of the participants lacked connectivity. And, like Wi’am, they are grappling with the fallout of online abuse. For example, the Organización Feminina Popular reports that the increase in digital communication and online schooling has resulted in growing digital-based sexual abuse and violence against youth as well as recruitment for sexual exploitation and trafficking. 

Experiencing the theme at UNCSW67 

Digital access and threats were very much part of the dynamic at CSW67. While we chuckled at the irony of technical glitches during online or hybrid events, we had to be careful whenever we shared event-related images and quotes through our social media channels. While our time together felt safe, some women were concerned about their security upon their return home. As a result, I posted only images that involved myself and Lucy and shared posts by ACT Alliance, which carefully vetted what it published online. 

Clearly the issue at hand mattered a great deal to the women who risked their own safety to voice their experience and expectations at CSW67. 

Lucy and I attended multiple events each day, including strategy meetings with our fellow ACT delegates. ACT Alliance expertly guided us through CSW. For Lucy and me who were new to this forum, this guidance and support was greatly appreciated. For Lucy’s take on CSW67 and its theme, visit: Technology, cyber space and total isolation.  

ACT Alliance co-hosted several side and parallel events. I provide overviews of these and other CSW events on “Inspiring and humbling.” UN women’s events lead discussion on digital access and security

During one of our strategy meetings, ACT Alliance delegates spoke of the churches’ role in weighing in on the ethics concerning digital space. Among the delegates was Antje Jackelén, Archbishop Emerita of the Church of Sweden. She asked if AI (artificial intelligence) is created in the image of us, will we eventually be created in the image of AI? She also spoke about how the church can use its role in colonization as a cautionary tale for tech builders. But while churches can offer moral guidance, it’s important that they live by their principles and protect women church leaders in the digital space. She spoke personally about this as the Church of Sweden’s first female Archbishop. 

The outcomes 

ACT kept a close eye on the outcome document’s negotiation process. Its members were actively engaged in advocating ACT’s key advocacy messages to their Member States. Towards the end of CSW, the negotiation process dragged on, and there was concern that an agreement would not be reached. Progressive text received considerable pushback. ACT delegates expressed concern that some Member States were removing “girls” from the outcome document, a shocking cut given how girls embrace digital technologies and their vulnerability to predators. Girls can be powerful advocates for change, as we witness in Iran, and are clearly viewed as a threat.  

Happily, progressive voices (and text) prevailed. Girls are mentioned throughout the CSW67’s agreed conclusions. Of note in paragraph 19: “The Commission further recognizes that adolescent girls are part of the most digitally connected generation in history, and can disproportionately face discrimination, violence that occurs through or is amplified by the use of technology….” 

CSW67’s agreed conclusions will be publicly available soon.  

Organizations and individuals are welcome to contribute to the Global Digital Compact. Deadline is April 30, 2023. 

By Cheryl McNamara, KAIROS’ Communications and Advocacy Coordinator. 

Filed in: Gender Justice/Women of Courage

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