Women and children account for more than 75 per cent of the refugees and displaced persons at risk from war, famine, persecution and natural disasters, according to the United Nations Population Fund. But access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) has a major impact on people’s ability to prepare for, survive and recover from disasters.
Data from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) shows that improved access to technology can save lives in emergencies. However, women across the world are less likely to have access to mobile technologies, putting them at additional risk during times of emergencies.
According to ITU data, women are about 12% less likely to use ICTs, and the gap is wider in the world’s Least Developed Countries. GSMA’s Mobile Gender Gap Report estimates there are 197 million fewer women than men who own a mobile phone in low- and middle-income countries. The mobile gender gap varies by region and country, but it is widest in South Asia, which presents additional challenges for reaching and supporting women in crises in that region.
Under the leadership of the World Food Programme, the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC), is a network of United Nations agencies, governments and organizations that work together to provide shared communications services in humanitarian emergencies worldwide. As a partner of the ETC, ITU is committed to ensuring that ICTs reach their full potential to positively impact lives, especially in times of emergencies.
The ETC is working to help address some of the challenges women face in disasters using ICT solutions. In Cox’s Bazar for instance, the cluster piloted an innovative mobile application, ETC Connect, to help aid workers address complaints and improve access to information amidst gender disparities in the Rohingya refugee community.
“The Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) piloted a mobile solution called ETC Connect that helped provide two-way communication between refugees and female aid workers, helping humanitarian organizations respond to information requests and confidential complaints,” explains Gabriela Alvarado, Chief of IT Emergency Preparedness and Response at World Food Programme, the global lead of the ETC.
“The pilot helped improve accessibility, accountability and monitoring for one of its projects with UNICEF, which was made up of 90% women, including women from the Rohingya community,” she said.
This innovate approach shows how technology can help address the challenges of women, when their needs are fully understood and integrated into emergency response.
“The core challenge is access to information: we operate in many contexts where women face widespread gender inequality, which translates to disempowerment and limited access to information. If we are serious about providing effective emergency response, we need to be able to reach women so that they can make informed decisions for themselves and their families,” said Alvarado.
On International Women’s Day, the theme “Think equal, build smart, innovate for change,” calls for all organizations to advance innovative ways in which we can advance gender equality and the empowerment of women, particularly in the areas of social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure.
In emergencies, the role of ICTs is critical. Both in prevention, through early warning systems, and in the coordination of life-saving services, ICT infrastructure forms the basis of all disaster relief efforts, and it is critical that gender analysis is included in the global response.
Today, at ITU’s Global Forum on Emergency Telecommunications (GET-19), a special lunch session devoted to women in emergencies looks at how ICTs can empower women in disaster management, including the key role of mobile in emergencies.
“We need to cultivate the reflex of integrating the special needs of women into national disaster response strategies. Including women in disaster planning teams and involving women in strategic consultations on disaster response would be an important first step in the right direction,” said Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau.
ITU has a long history of work on emergency telecommunications. It has produced nearly 50 international standards related to emergency telecommunications, including those for early warning systems, requirements for safety confirmation and broadcast message service for disaster relief, and others. In addition, ITU’s Radiocommunication Study Groups work on all phases of disasters, including prediction, detection, alert and relief.
ITU works with the global community and as such, is a signatory to the Tampere Convention on the Provision of Telecommunication Resources for Disaster Mitigation and Relief Operations and the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction.
As we work together to empower women with technology in emergencies, we remember the message from Melinda Gates, co-chair of the UN High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation: “The most powerful mobile phone is the one in the hands of the world’s poorest women.”