By Belinda Goldsmith
LISBON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Almost a third fewer women than men in the world's poorest countries are connected to the internet and the gap is set to widen, limiting access to life-changing opportunities, an anti-poverty group said on Tuesday.
A study by the ONE organization, co-founded by Irish rock star Bono to tackle extreme poverty, found 18 percent of men in the 48 least developed nations are online versus 12.5 percent of women, with a gender gap of 22.3 million or about 30 percent.
The analysis, released at Europe's biggest tech event, the Web Summit, forecast the digital gender divide would widen further by 2020 to about 32 percent when factoring in population growth and current internet trends, to a gap of 53.5 million.
The report said a global target set by U.N. member states last year to have universal affordable internet access in the least developed countries by 2020 was off track.
Anti-poverty campaigners and tech leaders such as Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg have actively promoted the internet to help lift people out of poverty by connecting them to education and business opportunities as well as health services and banking.
David McNair, policy director at ONE, said the new analysis showed that almost 350 million women and girls would remain unconnected by 2020 compared to about 290 million men due to a range of access, cultural and literacy factors.
"But the fact is that when you empower women and girls to more education and job opportunities then this also benefits their families, communities and countries," McNair told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview in Lisbon.
WOMEN INVEST IN FAMILIES
Studies repeatedly show that women plough 90 percent of their income back into their families compared to men, who invest about 35 percent in their families.
While internet connectivity is assumed as a given in many parts of the world, figures show that 53 percent of the world population - or 3.9 billion people - remains unconnected, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).
The ITU, a U.N. agency for information and communication technologies, estimates almost 75 percent of people in Africa do not use the internet compared to 21 percent of Europeans, and usage rates are higher for men than women globally.
A survey of 40 countries by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center earlier this year found Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana were the countries with the largest divide between the numbers of men and women likely to use the internet.
McNair said ONE was encouraging tech leaders among the up to 50,000 attendees at the Web Summit to recognize the importance of internet accessibility and affordability to the world's poorest people and find solutions to address this.
He said governments needed to invest more in technology infrastructure and change laws to open up internet and mobile markets. The private sector also had a role to play in finding innovative ways to deliver the internet to communities, he said.
"We want tech leaders to use their brilliant minds to find solutions to help those living in poverty and not just people in London and San Francisco," said McNair.
"We need to stop the next generation of women missing the opportunities for empowerment, education and inclusion offered by the internet."
(Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith @BeeGoldsmith, Editing by Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)