- Women are key in tackling gender inequality in health systems
- By leveraging key technologies that have become increasingly accessible, women can continue to access crucial services and advance and shape their essential role in the global health sector
- Gender barriers further marginalise women and girls, widening the gender accessibility gap
The global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant effect on the Sustainable Development Goals, and its effects will likely not be fully apparent for decades to come. What is clear, though, is that its impact is being disproportionately felt by women and already disadvantaged groups. With COVID-19 resulting in the first increase in global poverty for more than 20 years, the 50% of the global poor that are women are likely to have particularly negative outcomes.
These consequences are wide-ranging, with serious and negative multiplier effects for individuals, communities, and countries. The pandemic has increased rates of gender-based violence (dubbed the ‘shadow pandemic’), increased the pressure to provide unpaid care work, caused disruption to sexual and reproductive health supplies and services, and impacted already fragile health systems – risking increases in teenage pregnancy, maternal mortality, and other gendered health outcomes. Gender equality will likely retrogress in the years to come, cancelling the positive gains in women’s health and empowerment achieved in previous decades.
Women are key to tackling these unprecedented challenges. This builds on the crucial role that many are already playing in global health. Women represent the majority of the health and social profession – accounting for over 70% of all health workers worldwide. However, institutional and societal gender norms also impact the health sector. Although women make up the majority of the health workforce, they are sorely underrepresented at the senior management levels. We need to provide them with the tools, skills, and opportunities to be leaders and decision-makers.
In this context, digital health can be transformative. By leveraging technologies and approaches that have become increasingly accessible – particularly mobile phones, health data, and online platforms such as social media – women can continue to access crucial services, can build their technical and professional skills, increase their safety and stability, and advance and shape their essential role in the global health sector.
By leveraging technologies and approaches that have become increasingly accessible – particularly mobile phones, health data, and online platforms such as social media – women can continue to access crucial services, can build their technical and professional skills, increase their safety and stability, and advance and shape their essential role in the global health sector.
Despite this potential, barriers exist. Digital literacy remains a fundamental challenge – women often have lower digital skills than men. Compared to men, women are 8% less likely to own a mobile phone in lower-income countries – and 20% less likely to own a smartphone. 300 million fewer women use mobile internet than men. Affordability of technology is an issue, particularly in a context where financial inclusion is impossible for many women. Echoing women’s experience in the offline space, digital safety and security can also be a significant barrier to initial or meaningful participation in the online world too. These are not abstract figures – lives and livelihoods exist behind each and every percentage point. Women and girls are being marginalised from the digital and broader economy, and society.
The United Nations University’s International Institute for Global Health (UNU-IIGH), in collaboration with the University of Cape Town and BBC Media Action, is working to shape policies, programmes, and institutions to ensure that women can lead digital health efforts – for the benefit of other women, and for their societies. As part of this work, we are running a focused digital series exploring case studies and best practice on using digital technologies to improve health outcomes for women, broader issues such as privacy and ethics, and the fundamentals of building successful digital health systems that address persistent gender inequities. You can sign-up to the series here.
The first episode in the series (‘What does the digital gender gap mean for healthcare?’ showcased above) focused on setting out what the digital gender gap means for healthcare. Socio-economic, literacy and other disparities are some of the biggest determinants for access to – and usage of – technology. These barriers also prevent women from accessing crucial health information. New technologies – including social media – also risk exacerbating and entrenching these inequalities. However, if applied thoughtfully and inclusively, technology can be transformative in improving women’s health outcomes.
Future episodes in the series will focus on topics including gender-based violence, digital literacy, and Big health data. This wide-ranging relevance highlights why we need to be focusing on the role of gender in the digital health sector. Through these discussions, and building a global network through our Gender Health Hub, we want to ensure that the central role of women in healthcare and technology is recognised, strengthened, and catalysed. We hope you can join us on this journey – at our events and workshops, and beyond.
- Claudia Lopes, Research Fellow, UNU-IIGH
- Calum, Consultant, UNU-IIGH and Senior Advisor, Digitalisation and Smart Cities
- Alex Tyers, Product manager for Oky, UNICEF’s period tracker app