Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Women in developing countries need more support to thrive in e-commerce

E-commerce has the potential to be a powerful tool for women's economic empowerment.

E-commerce has the potential to be a powerful tool for women's economic empowerment. Image: Pexels/Kampus Production

United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)
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SDG 05: Gender Equality

  • E-commerce can be a great opportunity for women in developing countries to improve their economic independence.
  • However, there are a number of challenges that women face in accessing and using e-commerce.
  • These challenges include: lack of access to the internet and digital skills, lack of access to finance and discrimination and social norms.
  • Governments and businesses need to take action to address these challenges and make e-commerce more inclusive for women.

To make e-commerce a greater driver of shared prosperity, the world must urgently tackle the challenges facing women small business owners in developing countries.

That was the message from experts at a meeting held during the UN Trade Forum 2023 on 9 May, where UNCTAD launched a new policy review of e-commerce through a gender lens.

The policy review examines the opportunities for women – particularly those living in developing countries – to harness digital trade for economic empowerment, and the challenges they face.

The report cautions that the shift to digitalization, if not strategically managed, can reinforce pre-existing development and socioeconomic inequalities. It urges stronger policy action to create enabling conditions for all.

“Overcoming existing North−South disparities and addressing gender inequalities in society and the economy is vital, if e-commerce is to support the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals,” said Simonetta Zarrilli, head of UNCTAD’s trade, gender and development programme.

Cascading gender disparities risk exclusion

The report calls attention to the growing gender digital divide, a major hindrance to inclusive e-commerce.

While developed nations have almost closed the disparities between men and women with internet access, a much larger gap of 13% persists across least developed countries (LDCs), where 43% of men and 30% of women used the internet in 2022.

Gender gap in internet access is highest in least developed countries
Gender gap in internet access is highest in least developed countries Image: UNCTAD calculation based on ITU (2022); Estimates for 2020 and 2021, forecasts for 2022.

Besides, women entrepreneurs in LDCs, including e-business owners, often lack access to credit and other productive resources. They also have limited basic digital literacy, a requirement to engage in the digital economy.

Such obstacles can lock more women e-traders into high-volume but low value-added activities, with limited prospects to leverage e-commerce to grow and diversify their businesses.

The report also points out the dominance of major digital platforms, the cost and requirements to access them, raising questions on how much smaller enterprises can benefit from them or bargain with them.

“These disparities have cascading gender impacts and act as productivity barriers and drivers of exclusion,” said Anita Gurumurthy, executive director of IT for Change, an India-based non-profit focusing on gender, education and digital justice.

“What women's enterprises need is a fair game, and we need to make the platform economy work for all,” Ms. Gurumurthy added.

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Women need more policy support

With the rise of cross-border e-trade, experts call on countries to shore up gender considerations in e-commerce policymaking and negotiations, following the approach adopted in the landmark Buenos Aires Declaration on Trade and Women’s Economic Empowerment.

“It is crucial to identify the specific barriers female-owned and -led firms face using microdata and design evidence-based policies that allow them to take advantage of the immense possibilities opened by digital technologies,” said Christian Volpe Martincus, principal economist at the integration and trade sector of the Inter-American Development Bank.

What UNCTAD is doing to help

UNCTAD, in collaboration with its partners, has long made calls to unlock women’s potential in the digital economy.

It supports countries to boost their capacity in producing gender-disaggregated data on e-commerce, which is key to designing policies that benefit women.

The work incorporates deliberations from the intergovernmental working group on measuring e-commerce and the digital economy, and a joint programme on trade and gender statistics.

The UNCTAD-led eTrade for Women initiative empowers the next generation of female digital entrepreneurs in developing countries.

The initiative also elevates the voices of women leaders in e-commerce in policymaking circles at local, regional and global levels.

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