In the wake of Covid-19, virtual inclusion matters more than ever
The slogan of “Digital Bangladesh” of the Bangladesh Government has been one of its symbols for national development. However, the nation’s dream for Vision 2021 might lose its meaning if everyone in society is not allowed to stake their claim for a place in the digitalization of the country.
As the Covid-19 pandemic pushed essential day-to-day activities and services online, it has exposed the glaring implications of the global digital divide. The disparities are particularly noteworthy in Bangladesh as our position, as providers and users of ICT services, is far behind many countries.
Let’s make something clear -- a trickle-down approach may not be the best strategy for equitable development. A recent study conducted by BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), surveyed 6,500 rural households across the country to develop a Digital Literacy Index (DLI); in spite of the government’s pro-digital approach, it unveiled that 59% of people in rural households do not have access to a smartphone and 49% have no access to computers.
If Digital Bangladesh only includes the urban elite and privileged, the socio-economic gap will only expand as those who lack access to internet connectivity, digital skills, or affordable devices are being left behind by an increasingly digital society.
About 38% of Bangladesh’s population lives in urban centres, while 62% lives in rural areas -- how many from that 62% of people can really afford to buy smartphones and stable internet connections/data packages, especially in light of the pandemic which has already resulted in widespread unemployment and has reduced purchasing power?
The gender divide
Gender discrimination has been a perpetual problem in Bangladesh, so it should hardly come as a surprise to know that Bangladesh has a 29% gender gap in the ownership of mobile phones and 52% in the use of mobile internet.
Not knowing how to use a mobile phone is a common reason given by many housewives and their partners in Bangladesh when asked why they do not own one. But isn’t having access to something the first step to becoming proficient in using it?
In the survey carried out by BIGD, 63% households identified a man as the most digitally-abled person, almost twice as many as women, with a common notion that women must be educated in order to use technology -- something which is not a requirement for men.
The paradox of digital exclusion due to being illiterate is that this is one of the causes of girls missing out on education in the first place. Especially in light of the pandemic when all schooling is remote, a problem arises when a family has one electronic device and multiple members using it.
The priority, unfortunately, may be given to sons over daughters as in the eyes of many rural conservatives -- boys are also more entitled to receiving education than girls.
Additionally, there are persisting gender norms that an adolescent girl using a cell phone might be involved in premarital relationships that may “tarnish” the family’s reputation and honour.
As such, women might have to go to brokers or intermediaries, which are expensive, or be dependent on other male family members. This does little to improve the status quo of women in our already patriarchal society.
So hypothetically, if this gender gap did not exist and everyone had equal access to technology, would that result in an inclusive virtual space? Unfortunately, even then the answer is no.
The cybercrime division of DMP has revealed that Bangladesh has a high rate of cyber-bullying, with a staggering 80% of all victims being female. Adding to this is the fact that there are simply no friendly environments for female cybercrime victims at police stations or systemic mechanisms in place to combat this by the government.
This aspect of technology usage is grossly overlooked as there is little monitoring of the information superhighway, leaving it open to everything from Trojan horses and viruses to cyber stalking, trademark counterfeiting, cyber pornography, and cyber terrorism. These can leave profound emotional and traumatic scars on victims, potentially disheartening them from using the internet in the future.
Fortunately though, this can be avoided if users can be better informed of these risks and safety protocols. Women should understand that passwords are personal and private, and should not be shared with anyone, even their partners.
To contain the rising trend of cyber harassment, government policy-making and intervention measures are also required -- progress is slowly being made as the Bangladesh Police has launched an all-woman special wing called the “Police Cyber Support for Women” where the cell (composed of female officers) will provide necessary advice and legal assistance to the victims.
We must also remember that the citizens of Bangladesh cannot just be broadly classified as “male or female.” We are a unique example of a truly diversified country with gender diverse people like the Hijra community along with at least 45 small ethnic groups who possess different cultures.
Hate speech and cyber-bullying have robbed these communities of opportunities to reap the benefits of the internet as well, such as using social media and networking apps like LinkedIn to find potential jobs.
However, this isn’t one of those cases where we can just blatantly point fingers at the government, rather this is a collective failure of us as a nation. We tend to live in self-constructed bubbles with no room for diversity, associating only with people of similar ideologies and backgrounds but becoming hostile towards anyone not conforming to our predetermined ideas of normalcy.
Perspective-taking and empathy, both concerned with putting yourself in someone else’s shoes to discern their perspective, can be ways to address this issue. We need to remember that empathy is not an inherent ability, rather a cultivated one.
As majority of cyber criminals and hackers fall between the age-range of 16-17, schools and community organizations should cultivate these qualities in adolescents through sharing stories about marginalized groups and various listening and perspective-taking activities such as writing about a day in the life of a racial minority, handicapped individual, gender-diverse individual, etc.
This will help them acknowledge differences whilst still finding enough common ground so that we can coexist in mutual respect and civility.
To the average person, digitalization might mean artificial intelligence, automated robots, the internet of things (IoT), etc. However, for the average Bangladeshi, these things probably have not even crossed their minds.
What the majority of the people in the country are looking for is just a way to make their lives a bit better by having access to basic technology and a safe virtual space for self-expression. Is that really too much to ask?
Armeen Ahmed is a freelance contributor.