What Drives Myanmar’s Gender Digital Divide?

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Myanmar is currently undergoing a technological revolution concurrent with systemic political and economic change. As the country transitions to a democratic, market-based economy, there has been a great deal of optimism about the potential for information and communication technology (ICT) to optimize the positive impact of people-centered reforms in Myanmar.
Yet the nearly unprecedented pace of adoption of mobile ICT devices is uneven across gender, ethnic, geographic, and socioeconomic lines. For example, women are 28% less likely
than men to own a mobile phone, the primary means of internet access in the country, and experience related disparities in digital skills and use.
What does this sea change in interconnectedness mean for Myanmar’s women and girls, particularly those belonging to marginalized groups?
IREX conducted a first-of-its-kind political economy analysis of Myanmar’s gender digital divide to examine the extent to which nuanced evidence exists for gender-based differences in ICT access, digital skills, and benefits derived from ICTs among the diverse population of Myanmar and, in turn, gauged stakeholder awareness of how such differences may exacerbate existing disparities in development outcomes such as health, employment, and education.
Applying a political economy analysis (PEA) through a gender lens, IREX research reveals how deeply ingrained gender-based power dynamics, roles, and expectations influence individual differences noted in ownership, usage, and benefits as well as institutional incentives—or lack thereof—to close the gap.
Key Gender Digital Divide Findings:
Although manifestations of the gender digital divide in Myanmar are widely perceived to be normative and personal choices by women and girls, they are systemic and detrimental to women’s and girls’ full participation in or ability to benefit from development processes.
Among the three components analyzed (access, skills, and benefits), both (a) gender-based control over ICT devices and skills acquisition and (b) lack of real and perceived benefits of ICT use are more salient to the gender digital divide in Myanmar than issues of access, for which age/rural/urban lines are more strongly correlated.
The lack of a local focal point—whether a government agency or a high-capacity nonstate institution—to champion digital inclusion compounds low stakeholder awareness of how the gender digital divide functions as a brake on development.
There is more political will to accelerate integration of ICTs than for gender equality as a priority.
Deeper Analysis of Key Gender Digital Divides
Access to ICTs in Myanmar at the aggregate level is more strongly associated with non-gender-related aspects of digital disparities such as geography and age. Lack of reliable and affordable access is primarily a barrier for the 17 percent of households that do not own a phone.
While gender-based differences in access do exist for this group, the key stakeholders currently expanding “last mile” connectivity in isolated and/or conflict-affected areas and for the very poor are incentivized to maximize territorial and population-based ICT coverage, not gender equality.
In addition to subtle gender-based issues of access to ICTs and strong normative control
at all levels of the digital skills pyramid, the research revealed that a large measure of the gender digital divide in Myanmar is due to the lack of benefits that currently accrue to women users of ICTs.
Hampered by very basic digital skills; a reliance on family members or friends to share devices; limited exposure to the types of information, products, and services available online; and a dearth of relevant digital content by and for women to tempt them, women are more likely to report “no need” than “affordability” as the reason they do not own a mobile phone.
Recommendations to Reduce Digital Gender Divide
IREX employed a problem-driven PEA framework to identify likely champions and potential spoilers of efforts to narrow the gender digital divide in Myanmar, taking into consideration the incentive structures, enablers, and obstacles identified during the research.
Actionable rather than aspirational, both technically and politically feasible, the Myanmar gender divide report recommendations represent “best fits” rather than “best practices” and are grounded in a desire to optimize progress toward equitable, sustainable development in Myanmar.
The recommendations flow from the key findings described above, particularly the political expediency of harnessing economic drivers of ICT integration—an objective that enjoys far more support than gender equality.
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