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Digital exclusion: an obstacle that hinders rural women’s work

In 17 of the 23 Latin American and Caribbean countries analyzed, the number of women who report owning a mobile phone is lower compared to men. The greater the gender gap with respect to mobile phone ownership, the lower women’s participation in the workforce. Rural women are the least connected group.

In most Latin American and Caribbean countries, rural women are the group that is least connected to Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), reveals a study carried out by the University of Oxford with support from the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

According to the study “Digital rural gender divide in Latin America and the Caribbean”, overseen by Italian social scientist Valentina Rotondi based on data from the Gallup World Poll, information on the countries and digital trace data from Facebook, in 17 out of the 23 countries analyzed, women are less likely to report to own a mobile phone compared to their male counterparts. Low-educated women living in rural areas are also the least “connected” group.

Fewer women than men report owning a mobile phone. However, this varies between rural and urban areas. Characteristics such as gender and household location of residence interact with each other producing multiple layers of disadvantage for women living in rural areas.

The topic of this study is particularly relevant amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, which has accelerated changes in production methods and marketing networks for all types of products, such as food and other goods supplied by rural areas.

Contributing to reversing the inequality faced by rural women and facilitating access to technology for those involved in agricultural production are two of the main challenges that IICA, IDB and IFAD have committed to addressing. IICA’s efforts are channeled through its five hemispheric work programs for the period 2018-2022, which include the topics of Gender and Youth and Innovation and Technology as cross-cutting issues. IFAD is intensifying its program to develop and implement telematic applications that enable small farmers and the staff of the projects that it funds to follow up on business plans and to sell products in Latin America and the Caribbean, without the intervention of an intermediary.

“The study reveals that reduced access to mobile phones and the Internet is yet another issue faced by rural women, who must overcome greater obstacles to secure funding, receive training, access formal employment opportunities, and own land”, stated Manuel Otero, Director General of IICA.

“This pattern of inequality hinders the full development of rural women, who play a key role in driving agricultural productivity and guaranteeing the stability of their families”, added Otero.

In his first speech as the new president of the IDB, Mauricio Claver-Carone stated that the multilateral funding institution “must spearhead efforts to expand opportunities for employment through digitalization in the region”, adding that the agency should “be at the forefront of efforts to expand connectivity in rural areas and to increase its use in education, small businesses, banking, and financing”.

The head of IFAD, Gilbert F. Houngbo, highlighted the revolutionary role that mobile phones can play in reducing poverty and hunger, as well as in bridging the gender divide in rural areas.

He maintained that, “Rural women continue to be marginalized. Digital connectivity, through mobile phones, is critical to empowering these women, by granting them access to markets, information and financial services, particularly in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. Lack of equitable access to mobile phones threatens to intensify the inequalities already suffered by rural women. If we do not resolve this problem, this gap could reverse the gains that we have worked so hard to achieve in terms of gender equality in rural areas, which would be to the detriment of rural development as a whole.

According to annual data from the Gallup Poll, mobile-phone ownership has increased from about 45% in 2006 to about 80% in 2017. The digital gender gap in mobile-phone ownership has narrowed over the past decade, yet with an apparent worsening over the past five years.

Although there are gender gaps in most countries, the study did identify some exceptions. While Argentina and Brazil have almost achieved gender equality, Guatemala and Peru are examples of countries with a wide gender gap. On the other hand, in countries like Chile and Uruguay, the female-to-male ratio tends to favor women.

“The rapid diffusion of mobile phones has shown some promises in narrowing the digital divide and generating a positive impact on the economy and social development. For many people around the world, mobile phones constitute cheap, easy and effective computers, allowing not only to communicate and access information but also to obtain vital services linked to health, education, and the economy, or sell their products”, stated Rotondi.

“Despite these advancements, women still often lag behind in digital access. According to the latest report released by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), in most countries of the world women are still trailing men in benefiting from the transformational power of digital technologies: over half the total global female population (52%) is still not using the Internet, compared to 42% of all men”, added Rotondi, who analyzed data from the Gallup World Poll (2017) related to information provided by mobile phones.

The study explores the correlation between gender gaps in mobile-phone adoption and three measures of women’s empowerment utilized by the International Labour Organization (ILO), namely the ratio of female to male vulnerable employment rate, the ratio of female to male labor-force participation rate, and the ratio of female to male youth unemployment (measured in 2019).

The study concluded that, overall, a more narrowed digital gender gap with respect to mobile phone ownership is associated with better labor-market prospects for women and lower gender gaps in vulnerable employment and youth unemployment.

With respect to the use of social media platforms, the study utilized digital trace data on the gender composition of Facebook users (retrieved in February 2020) to measure the gender divide in social media use. Facebook was selected because it is the most popular social networking site in the region.   

The results show that, relative to countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, male and female Facebook penetration rates in Latin America are quite balanced, although there are some differences.

While in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Colombia, Suriname, Uruguay and Paraguay, women are more likely to be Facebook users than men, in others, including Mexico, Nicaragua and Guatemala, men are slightly more active on Facebook.

The research study coordinated by Rotondi focuses on the first-level digital gender divide, which is the divide related to accessing ICTs, and highlights the need to conduct further research on the second-level divide, which relates to the skills required to better capitalize on these technologies.

Download the report “Digital rural gender divide in Latin America and the Caribbean”.

About the IDB

The Inter-American Development Bank is devoted to improving lives. Established in 1959, the IDB is a leading source of long-term financing for economic, social, and institutional development in Latin America and the Caribbean. The IDB also conducts cutting-edge research and provides policy advice, technical assistance, and training to public- and private-sector clients throughout the region.

About IICA

It is the international organization specialized in agriculture of the Inter-American System, whose mission is to stimulate, promote, and support the efforts of its member states to achieve agricultural development and rural well-being through international technical cooperation of excellence. It has 34 member countries in the Americas and Spain is an associated country.

About IFAD

IFAD invests in rural people and, by empowering these people, it helps them reduce poverty, increase food security, improve nutrition, and strengthen resilience. Since 1978, we have provided $22.4 billion in grants and low-interest loans to projects that have reached about 512 million people. IFAD is an international financial institution and a specialized organization of the United Nations based in Rome, where the United Nations central mechanism for the food and agriculture sector is located. For more information, visit:

External Contacts

Andrea Ortega

Andrea Ortega

Randall Cordero Sandí

Randall Cordero Sandí
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