Social Innovation

Digital public infrastructure – blessing or curse for women and girls?

Can digital public infrastructure improve service access for everyone equally?

Can digital public infrastructure improve service access for everyone equally? Image: Â© UNICEF/UNI494321/Benekire

Gerda Binder
Senior Advisor, Gender Equality & Digital Technology, UNICEF
Carolin Frankenhauser
Technology for Development Specialist, UNICEF
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  • Digital public infrastructure (DPI) can enhance public service delivery and help achieve the sustainable development goals but its design and implementation must consciously address and bridge gender digital gaps to serve all citizens effectively.
  • To build inclusive DPI, the gender inequalities present in physical infrastructure must not be replicated; DPI should be intentionally designed with gender-responsive strategies.
  • DPI can be leveraged as a tool to transform gender inequalities by prioritizing interventions that benefit women and girls, ensuring their access to digital IDs and services and incorporating measures to tackle the gender digital divide, online safety and privacy concerns.

Digital public infrastructure (DPI) promises to boost public service delivery at scale and help countries achieve development priorities and sustainable development goals (SDGs) for their citizens.

Much like physical infrastructure, DPI aims to connect people and improve their access to goods and services, and more and more low- and middle-income countries are committing to investing in it. Clearly, DPI will revolutionize service provision to citizens. However, what is less clear is whether DPI will serve all citizens.

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Bridging physical and digital gender divides

The prospects do not look promising if physical infrastructure is anything to go by. Infrastructure design across all sectors, including energy, transport, water and sanitation, has historically failed to consider the specific needs and realities of women and girls.

Women and girls too often bear the brunt of infrastructure gaps. For example, inadequate public transportation disproportionately impacts women’s mobility and safety, reducing their access to education or employment opportunities.

Similarly, schools that do not meet the safety, hygiene or sanitation needs for girls to feel safe, dignified and supported can lead to school absenteeism, dropout, child marriage and other negative consequences. Women also face more challenges in accessing financial services or obtaining IDs compared with men, as public service design and delivery are yet to adopt a gender-responsive approach.

And then there is the digital gender divide. Gender inequality in the physical world is already replicated in the digital world. Innumerable studies and data on digital adoption and use show that women and girls are less likely than men and boys to access and use digital technologies.

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That is driven by factors such as women’s fewer financial resources (and decision-making power) to purchase devices and cover connectivity or data costs, lower levels of education and digital literacy, lack of relevance of digital offerings, online safety and privacy concerns, underpinned by discriminatory gender norms and gatekeeper restrictions. When creating and leading digital technologies, the gender gap is even more glaring.

Gender-equitable digital public infrastructure design and implementation matters. Women and girls represent half of the intended DPI user base. But they will only adopt and use DPI if built to their needs, capabilities and (digital) realities. In addition, female (frontline) workers are often expected to serve as intermediaries between citizens and DPI, for example, by registering children’s births and ensuring their legal proof of identity and the basis for digital identification.

Too often, digital solutions or services fail if they only work in theory and do not anticipate challenges, like the ones faced by female frontline workers. These challenges can include not having electricity or gatekeeper permission to charge devices at home or not being able to navigate the platform or complexities such as two-factor authentication.

At the same time, digital public infrastructure provides a golden opportunity to transform or eliminate stubborn gender inequalities. For example, well-designed financial services and inclusive digital payment systems can facilitate economic opportunities for women and lead to the inclusion of the remaining unbanked female population.

Data interoperability could be a blessing for better maternal and women’s health care if data insights into women’s health issues are prioritized and inform decision-making and public finance allocations.

None of this will happen by chance. DPI needs to be intentionally designed to remove gender barriers and discrimination. It should be supplemented with relevant social and behavioural change interventions that transform harmful gender norms and bring gatekeepers and policymakers on board.

Key supporters and funders of open-source DPI solutions, such as the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation Norad, are increasingly focusing on safeguards that ensure that DPI benefits everyone.

“We have been a champion for digital public goods such as DHIS2 and OpenCRVS for many years. Ensuring that digital public infrastructure works for women and girls is key for the advancement of inclusive DPI everywhere", says Director General Bård Vegar Solhjell from Norad.

Similarly, the Co-Develop Fund, a global nonprofit fund for the advancement of DPI at scale, highlights the importance of gender considerations in DPI design.

“In the architecture of DPI, gender equity must be more than an afterthought; it must be the blueprint guiding every decision. We have an opportunity now to address the gender inequalities of the physical world in the digital landscape. ”, says Tim Wood, Chief Partnerships Officer at Co-Develop.

Strategies for inclusive digital public infrastructure

So how can we ensure that DPI contributes to gender equality instead of reinforcing existing inequalities? These five steps can serve as a starting point:

  • Learn from the lessons of designing inclusive physical infrastructure: How to design and implement infrastructure projects to benefit women and girls is well-studied in the transport, energy and sanitation sectors. Existing good practices and guidance and their applicability to the digital world should be considered in any DPI initiative, including example lessons on meaningful community engagement and assessing and monitoring gender impacts along the entire project lifecycle.
  • Avoid replicating “analogue” inequalities in the digital world: Digitizing the current state of public service structures and processes will not address existing gender-related barriers to access and use. For example, the discrimination that women in many countries face for registering their children will not be addressed by simply digitizing the same processes. Instead, holistic approaches covering legal aspects and community engagement are needed to address discriminatory regulations, norms and practices.
  • Prioritize DPI interventions that benefit women and girls: DPI should enhance women and girls’ access to services and benefits. In some countries, national IDs are seen as more crucial for men so for women to access and use them, digital IDs must provide tangible advantages like aiding in securing formal jobs, increasing safety, and promoting financial autonomy. Ethiopia’s Fayda ID initiative for example, actively assesses women’s perception of ID to identify barriers and make it relevant for women.
  • Include women in DPI creation, design and implementation: Avoid DPI development by homogenous teams for a generic male user. Diversity deficits hinder innovation and limit perspectives. Including women and girls of all abilities in DPI shaping enhances usability and accessibility. Incorporating female personas in user experience design, testing with female users, and establishing accessible feedback channels for all users are crucial for informed, iterative digital public infrastructure improvements.
  • Leverage DPI to tackle the gender digital divide: Investments in DPI must bridge gender digital gaps by enhancing meaningful connectivity and digital literacy, including for women’s digital ID access through gender-responsive training and tried best practice. In Rwanda, for example, addressing these gaps is central to digital transformation. However, focusing on online safety and privacy is also key. Efforts must also challenge gatekeepers and change restrictive gender norms to ensure lasting impact and mitigate technology-facilitated gender-based violence.

DPI has been coined the “digital highway” for the achievement of the SDGs. Let’s make sure women and girls are not left by the roadside once again.

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Social InnovationGender Inequality
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