By Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia
On International Women’s Day, WHO is calling for intensified action in the South-East Asia Region and across the world to ensure that every woman and girl, everywhere has timely and equitable access to digital innovations and technologies that can protect, promote and support health and well-being, and accelerate gender equality.
For both women and men, digital innovations and technologies hold immense potential to increase access to essential health services, and to improve health and well-being. However, gender inequality constraints the ability of women and girls to benefit, compounding existing inequities in health outcomes. An estimated 61% of women in the Asia Pacific use the internet, compared to 75% of men. Women are about 12% less likely to own mobile phones than men, and among those not owning mobile phones, women outnumber men by 39%.
Women are under-represented in tech sector jobs and leadership roles, which could lead to unconscious bias in the design and development of new digital products, including for health and well-being. In 2022, women comprised 33% of the workforce in the 20 largest global technology companies. However, they held just one in four leadership positions.
Similar disparities exist in the health workforce. Women comprise about 70% of the global health workforce but hold just 25% of senior roles. This could impact the design and delivery of digital health and other interventions, as well as health policies and systems more broadly. WHO analysis shows that women leaders often expand the health agenda, strengthening health for all and targeting health inequities.
Despite these and other challenges, countries of the Region have in recent years developed bold, innovative uses for digital technologies, with the aim of advancing the health and well-being of women and girls, as well as supporting female health workers. Since 2013, Timor-Leste has connected pregnant women and their health providers through health-related text messages and conversations, reaching over 100 000 pregnant women. Since 2014, India’s Kilkari application has delivered weekly, time-sensitive audio information about reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health directly to families’ mobile phones nationally.
In 2019, Bangladesh launched a web-based e-learning module on clinical management of rape, with the aim of building the capacity of health workers to respond to the needs of survivors of gender-based violence. In Thailand, the ‘AorSorMor’ online mobile application functions as a social network tool that provides relevant up-to-date information to connect health care staff among primary health care units and village health workers, most of whom are women.
In all countries of the Region, gaps in digital access, use and skills must be closed, and inequities in digital leadership and decision-making overcome. Countries must continue to strengthen gender analysis, which can reveal the reasons for gender differences in health and health policies, programmes and interventions, including digital health interventions.
Digital health solutions must specifically address the underlying and interlinked causes of the gender digital divide, such as poverty, lack of empowerment, gender inequality and weak health, education and social protection services. Emerging forms of online violence – for example stalking, abuse, trolling and even trafficking – must be urgently addressed to avoid adverse health outcomes and ensure all women and girls can use the internet safely.
Gender-sensitive assessments and gender-responsive interventions should be applied to enhance health and health equity, and an increased role for women in the digital health space should be actively pursued to accelerate health for all and gender equality more broadly.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing gender inequalities, and by one estimate, has increased the time it will take to achieve gender equality globally, from 100 years to 132 years. However, new digital tools in health and other sectors can help close the gap and accelerate progress towards gender equality – but only if they are appropriately designed and delivered, and accessible to all women and girls.
On International Women’s Day, WHO reiterates its commitment to support all countries of the Region to ensure that every woman and girl, everywhere has timely and equitable access to digital innovations and technologies, for a healthier, more just and gender-equal Region and world.