March 30, 2017

Ensuring Free and Equal Access to the Internet: Gender Perspectives from Malaysia


ABA ROLI hosted workshops for lawyers, journalists and human rights defenders on the “Feminist Principles of the Internet,” digital security and privacy rights online.

Technology often reproduces and entrenches existing gender inequalities and violence against women. Oftentimes, the discourse around internet access is perceived as a physical or structural access issue, and overlooks critical social dimensions completely.

The American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) recognizes that unequal access to the online space on the basis of gender prevents the exercise of internet rights. ABA ROLI’s Internet Freedom program in South and Southeast Asia addresses this barrier through cross-cutting small grants that support the promotion and defense of online rights of women; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) individuals; and other at-risk and vulnerable populations.

In Malaysia, ABA ROLI has partnered with EMPOWER — a nongovernmental organization that promotes and supports actions advancing justice and democracy based on feminist and human rights principles — to encourage women as they assert their voices online.

ABA ROLI has supported various activities of EMPOWER, such as a six-day social media campaign about internet freedom as a human right and technology-related violence against women. In addition, ABA ROLI hosted workshops for lawyers, journalists and human rights defenders on the “Feminist Principles of the Internet,” digital security and privacy rights online. Based on the lessons learned from the workshops, EMPOWER has developed an institutional Information and Communications Technology policy to facilitate secure and safe usage of digital tools and online communications at the workplace. The policy was shared with the Malaysian Joint Action Group for Gender Equality whose members attended ABA ROLI-supported workshops. These activities have sparked an increased debate about women’s rights online, in the media and among Malaysian civil society organizations and policymakers.

ABA ROLI and EMPOWER are currently developing a capacity building program for Malaysian lawyers to examine the intersectionalities of gender, internet, laws and governance and to prepare them for defending internet rights through legal advocacy and strategic litigation in cases involving violations of freedom of expression online. The program will aim to address some of the systematic gender-based barriers to internet freedoms, which include limited financial resources and time, legal and socio-cultural norms, digital insecurity, gender gaps in digital literacy and the lack of full understanding about the value and relevance of internet access among women and girls.

Women in the region addressed a number of those challenges during a workshop on “Gender and Access” organized by EMPOWER and the Foundation for Media Alternatives (Philippines) at the Asia-Pacific Internet Governance Forum, held last year in Taipei, Taiwan.

Time. Several studies have cited lack of time being the single most important barrier preventing women who are online from using the internet more often. Implicit in this are the underlying cultural norms relating to women’s responsibility at home and unpaid caregiving work. Regardless of their work status, women are expected to be the caregivers of the family.

Affordability. Cost is featured as one of the important factors as to why women are not connected online. Based on the World Economic Forum’s finding, in 2016 Malaysian men earned 40 percent more than Malaysian women. Accordingly, women are less likely to have disposable income and financial resources to afford devices, data packages or pay for public access. In a world where high-quality internet connection is not a luxury but a necessity, access to the internet should be contextualized in terms of quality and not just mere technological access, which is closely linked to affordability.

Relevance. Regardless of gender, everyone wants to use technology that is relevant to their needs and interests. For women with financial and time barriers, the decision to spend time online is costly, which influences the perceived value and relevance of the internet. Content, applications and products are rarely designed to target older women, who tend to have lower literacy rates and make up a large proportion of the unconnected population. Despite the vast information the internet offers, data from the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission shows that non-internet users still rely on conventional sources of information such as TV, people around them, printed media, etc., despite 97 percent of them owning at least one device capable of connecting to the internet.

Culture and norms. The significance of culture and gender norms, along with the attitudes and stereotypes that accompany these cannot be ignored. Social perceptions that women and girls are not capable of learning science and technology can influence women’s role, status, empowerment, access to education, income level and inevitably their relationship with technology.

Digital Literacy. Digital literacy often presupposes basic literacy and education, without which engagement and effective use of the internet is impossible. In Malaysia, internet users are largely educated to at least upper secondary level (66.1 percent). The impact is particularly stark on women who tend to have less access to education and low literacy levels. In Malaysia, data from the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) indicates that women account for 65 percent of the illiterate population, ages 15 years and older compared to 35 percent for men. The disparity is starker between men and women ages 65 and above.

Women’s participation. Diverse representation of women at national, regional and global levels in the development of technology and the implementation of technology-based interventions is key to ensuring free and equal access for women. The tech industry is blind to gender at large and often excludes women due to social and cultural biases that reinforce gender discrimination. Such gender disparities have driven most women into the digital marketing arena, a field deemed more feminine and suitable for women.

Access to the internet, however limited, is being harnessed by women from various backgrounds to amplify their voices; to access information; to connect with others; to increase public participation and more. ABA ROLI is working to close the gender gap through public awareness raising, legal advocacy and strategic litigation, in hopes that it will result in substantial benefits to women and societies. This is recognized globally and re-emphasized in the U.N.’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which includes an important pledge to harness information and communications to advance gender equality and women’s empowerment.

To learn more about our work in internet freedom, please contact the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at rol@americanbar.org