In the developing world, nearly 25% fewer girls and women are online than boys and men – closing this gap will change their futures, argues Nigel Chapman, CEO of Plan International.

Should access to a computer or a mobile phone be a basic human right? A controversial question perhaps but, nowadays, as technology leaps ahead into previously unimagined realms, one can argue that to be ill-educated in information and communications technology is to be immediately disadvantaged for life and work in the modern world. You only have to look at the news from last week’s annual technology exhibition in Las Vegas – the spectacles equipped with Google; the digital fork that helps you lose weight – to know that computer technology is not, these days, merely space-age, but increasingly omnipresent.

In the context of the digital age, excitement is wide-ranging in the developing world, not least because it’s one of the only sectors in which the developing world has effectively jumped ahead a stage. While Westerners have pottered through the technological revolution via desktop computers, laptops, mobiles, smartphones and now, tablets, much of the developing world has leaped straight in with mobile phones, and in many cities young people are fast accelerating straight to the latest generation smartphones.

The potential of technology to help the developing world is enormous and, while the challenges are numerous, there’s a sense of great hope and transformation. The fact that, in Africa, only one in three people has access to electricity but some 700 million have a mobile phone can be seen in a positive light. And for their owners, technology is about solving problems rather than sharing social trivia; while the West is playing around with digital forks and science-fiction glasses, the developing world is making pragmatic use of technology to drive GP growth, reinforce rights and break the cycle of poverty.

You’re more likely to find mobile phone owners using a service to send money to a rural relative, or volunteer nurses logging on to text a health message to a pregnant mother. Farmers monitor their cows’ gestation cycle or find out where they can get the best price for their goods. Radically, technology for the developing world is about survival rather than entertainment.

The key, I believe, is to make sure that girls and women, above all else, have the same access to such technologies as men. In the developing world, nearly 25% fewer girls and women are online than boys and men – with this gap climbing to 40% in regions like Sub-Saharan Africa.

Discrimination, lack of confidence and lack of basic language skills all affect teenage girls’ access to computers, for example. In many countries, it’s considered inappropriate for a girl to go to an Internet Cafe, thus preventing her from completing her homework. Girls are less likely than their brothers to have the financial resources to pay for, say, a mobile phone and its running costs.

If we can change these gender stereotypes and transform attitudes to technology, I feel sure that we will see girls in the developing world attain their human right to technology, and make massive leaps in the sector, both in their private and their working lives. If no action is taken, the gap of women online will increase from 200 million today to 350 million within three years.

I hope that one day in the future, it will be the female Internet engineer from Africa who wows the world by bringing the latest useful, space-age tech development to that great exhibition in Las Vegas.

 Author: Nigel Chapman, CEO of global child rights organization, Plan International, who will chair a panel at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2013 on “Girls and the Digital Divide”

Image: Reflections of a young woman looking at her mobile phone REUTERS/Carlo Allegri