Chapter 2. The complexity of discriminatory social institutions for sustainable and inclusive growth

This chapter discusses the complexity of discriminatory social institutions and how these create barriers to the achievement of SDG 5 by 2030. It describes how barriers impede economic growth and outlines the economic costs of gender-based discrimination in formal and informal laws, social norms and practices. The chapter analyses gender gaps in social protection as an example of discriminatory social institutions, emphasising how these gaps increase women’s vulnerability. Moreover, it focuses on the importance of acknowledging intersectional discrimination, describing how migrant women and rural women are affected differently by gender-based discriminatory social institutions. Finally, the chapter evaluates the opportunities and challenges that digitalisation offers for women’s empowerment and gender equality.


The SIGI is an innovative tool to provide policy makers and development practitioners with analysis of the underlying drivers of gender (in)equality. The previous chapter has set the scene, indicating key progress and describing the challenges facing the achievement of Agenda 2030, including SDG 5. The scores and ranking of each country are complemented by detailed country notes that provide national contexts including how social institutions can discriminate against women and girls.

The SIGI also offers vital new evidence and perspectives on emerging topics around gender and development. This chapter indicates how the complexity of discriminatory social institutions creates barriers to achieving SDG 5 by the target date of 2030. These barriers impact the economic cost of gender-based discrimination in laws, social norms and practices. Discriminatory social institutions take various forms, such as gender gaps in social protection, and their effects are exacerbated by intersectionality where a woman may suffer from other forms of discrimination, not based on gender (Box 2.1). Digitalisation offers both new opportunities and challenges for enhancing gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Box 2.1. Definition of intersectional discrimination

Intersectional discrimination refers to discrimination against certain women who belong to more than one “category”. The overlap between gender and other forms of discriminated or marginalised population categories leads to increased inequalities and may further disadvantage some women. These categories include ethnicity, education, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion/belief, economic status or place of residence.

Discriminations may be cumulative. For example, a black woman may be subject to labour-market discrimination because she is a woman (gender discrimination) and because she is black (racial discrimination).

Discrimination may also differ in nature. For example, only women (not men) with disabilities (not without disabilities) are subjected to coercive practices such as involuntary abortions.

The economic cost of discriminatory social institutions

Gender-based discrimination in social institutions impedes economic growth. Through their influence on the unequal distribution of power between men and women in the family, in the economic sphere and in public life, discriminatory social institutions constrain women’s economic opportunities. For example, the practice of early marriage limits their access to education and has an impact on their future employment opportunities (OECD, 2014[1]). Similarly, threats to women’s physical integrity can transform schools and workplaces into unsafe spaces. The absence of paid maternity leave, child-care facilities or family-friendly job policies creates barriers to women’s full participation in economic life. The global economy cannot operate at its full potential with constraints holding back half of the world’s population. In addition to fulfilling fundamental human rights, gender equality in social institutions could therefore generate substantial macroeconomic gains benefiting all.

The current level of discrimination induces a loss of up to USD 6 trillion or 7.5% of global income. This loss amounts on average to USD 1 552 per capita. After taking into account other geographic, economic and institutional factors that also explain economic growth, regional income losses associated with current levels of gender-based discrimination in social institutions are significant: about USD 3 722 billion in OECD economies (USD 3 266 per capita); USD 1 598 billion in Asia (USD 1 652 per capita); USD 294 billion in the Americas (USD 1 104 per capita); USD 169 billion in Africa (USD 466 per capita); and USD 164 billion in Europe (USD 1 584 per capita) (Figure 2.1).

Figure 2.1. Income loss associated with discrimination in social institutions by region

Note: Regional income losses associated with current levels of gender-based discrimination in social institutions. Income losses are measured in terms of 2017 real income at current PPP.

Source: OECD (2019), Gender, Institutions and Development Database,; and World Bank (n.d.), World Development Indicators, (accessed 13 November 2018).

Gender-based discrimination in social institutions hampers global development by lowering women’s human capital by 16% and labour-force participation by 12%, as well as reducing global investment by 8%. The growth literature suggests that a country’s level of economic growth depends on its levels of physical and human capital, as well as on total factor productivity (Mankiw, Romer and Weil, 1992[2]; Solow, 1956[3]). Given a similar distribution of innate abilities between men and women, the exclusion of women from the job market artificially reduces the pool of talent from which employers can draw, and therefore decreases countries’ ability to accumulate physical and human capital and to innovate (Ferrant and Kolev, 2016[4]). Discriminatory social institutions affect growth through three channels:

  • Discriminatory practices and attitudes against girls, such as early marriage, early pregnancies, domestic responsibilities or son preference, reduce women’s average years of schooling;

  • Gender-based violence, including missing women, unequal sharing of household and caring responsibilities, discriminatory workplace legislations, stereotypes of working mothers or restricted freedom of movement, constrain women’s participation in the labour market; and

  • Discriminatory inheritance practices and restricted access to land and non-land productive assets or financial services limit women’s ability to contribute to physical capital accumulation.

Gender parity represents an immense economic opportunity. Reducing gender-based discrimination in social institutions through appropriate policy measures could yield substantial economic benefits. A gradual reduction of gender-based discriminatory social institutions by 2030 could increase the global annual GDP growth rate by 0.4 percentage points over the next 11 years (Figure 2.2).

Figure 2.2. Income gains associated with reduced discrimination in social institutions

Note: GDP forecasts for 2030 in two scenarios: (i) business as usual, using available growth forecast, and assuming no change in the global level of gender-based discrimination in social institutions between 2018 and 2030; (ii) gender parity, assuming that each country would have eliminated gender-based discrimination in social institutions by 2030. GDP forecasts are measured in terms of 2010 real GDP per capita at current PPPs.

Source: OECD (2019), Gender, Institutions and Development Database, and ERS International Macroeconomic Dataset (2017).

Gender social-protection gaps: An illustration of discriminatory social institutions

The impacts of social-protection programmes are not gender-neutral. Female and male beneficiaries of social-protection programmes have different experiences, notably linked to the reproductive role of women and prevailing gender patterns in the workplace. Moreover, the eligibility criteria do not consider intra-household inequalities that frequently disadvantage women. As such, social-protection programmes can reinforce gender inequality and negatively affect women’s empowerment opportunities. For example, some conditional cash transfer (CCT) programmes have exacerbated women’s unpaid-care work burden (Cameron, 2014[5]; Benderly, 2011[6]). CCT often places major responsibility for achieving programme goals on wives and mothers, such as sending children to school or regular health check-ups, despite restricted access to basic infrastructure, such as child-care, transport and sanitation facilities. As a result, some women beneficiaries had to reduce their paid working hours or delegate domestic and care responsibilities to their daughters, proving detrimental to the girls’ education (Cameron, 2014[5]; Benderly, 2011[6]).

Gender gaps in social protection exacerbate women’s vulnerability, especially for retired women and widows. Women are particularly disadvantaged in social protection systems, experiencing lower coverage rates and substantially lower benefit levels (ITUC, 2018[7]): in the absence of social-protection floors, women are often left behind without any support (UN Women, 2015[8]). This is particularly crucial during the first months after childbirth, following retirement age and by widowhood. Despite universal provision of paid maternity leave (only 2 out of the 180 SIGI countries do not provide paid maternity or parental leave for mothers), only 41% of mothers with new-borns receive a maternity benefit (with fewer than 16% in Africa), while 83 million remain uncovered (ILO, 2017[9]). Only 58% of women of pensionable age receive a pension, compared to 68% of men; the gender pension gap reaches 55 percentage points in Northern African countries where only 8% of elderly women receive an old-age pension compared to 64% of men (ILO, 2014[10]). In Europe, the relatively narrowed gender gap in old-age pension coverage (6.5 percentage points) hides extensive gender disparities in benefit level: women’s pensions are on average 40% lower than those of men (Directorate for Citizens Rights and Constitutional Affairs, 2016[11]). Women represent two thirds of people above the retirement age living without a regular pension (ILO, 2016[12]).

Discriminatory social institutions may partially explain gender social-protection gaps in two ways (Figure 2.4):

  • First, legal barriers and gender norms based on the male-breadwinner model expect women to be confined in their reproductive role. At the global level, one person in two has negative attitudes towards “working mothers”, by thinking that children will suffer if the mother is gainfully working outside the home. One person in six denies women the right to work, declaring that it is not acceptable for a female family member to have paid work outside the home because her role is to take care of both the children and the household. In addition, women devote an average of five hours per day to unpaid care and domestic work, compared to fewer than two hours for men. These facts could explain why female labour-force participation has stagnated over past decades and why women are under-represented in the work force, even in informal, low-paid and part-time jobs;

  • Secondly, patriarchal social institutions often include social-protection schemes that have been designed for working men with an uninterrupted and full-time career in the formal economy. Women are more vulnerable to poverty and dependent on their husbands, family and community because they benefit less from formal safety nets throughout their entire lives. Existing schemes are not “women friendly” and lead by default to huge gender gaps. Being less active on the labour market and lower paid, women contribute less to the contributory social protection programmes and have lower saving levels.

Higher levels of discrimination in social institutions are correlated with lower female shares of beneficiaries and higher gender gaps in social protection. Controlling for income per capita and regional dummy variables, the level of discrimination in social institutions as measured by the SIGI is negatively correlated with women’s share as pension contributors and their percentage as beneficiaries (Figure 2.3). Only 9% of women above statutory pensionable age receive an old-age pension in countries with very high levels of discrimination, compared to 69% in very low-discrimination countries; only 5% of the working-age female population and 16% of the working-age male population are active contributors to a pension scheme in very-high-discrimination countries, compared to 48% and 48%, respectively, in very low-discrimination countries. As a result, the gender gap increases across SIGI’s classification.

Figure 2.3. Gender patterns in pension contributors and beneficiaries by SIGI classification

Note: Gender gaps in social protection is associated with levels of discrimination in social institutions, as measured by the SIGI, controlling for income per capita level and regional dummies.

Source: World Social Protection Report 2017/2018, ILO.

Gender-sensitive social-protection policies offer an opportunity to accelerate the path towards gender equality: applying a gender lens to social protection would better address women’s specific needs from childhood to old age. Evidence shows, for example, that selecting women as the principal beneficiaries of social-protection programmes could enhance their decision-making power within the family, with benefits for children’s nutrition, health and education (Newton, 2016[13]). Similarly, a transformative gender-sensitive pension scheme would reduce elderly women’s poverty, by considering their higher life expectancy, gender disparities in labour participation (wage gaps and access to contributory pension schemes), women’s specificities in savings behaviour and their caring responsibilities (Box 2.2).

Figure 2.4. The vicious circle of discriminatory social institutions and social protection
Box 2.2. Policy recommendations for a transformative gender social protection policy
  • Reduce barriers to women’s labour-market participation;

  • Tackle the gender pay gap;

  • Support the transition to the formal economy;

  • Develop credit periods of care in social security contributions; and

  • Guarantee adequate universal social-protection floors.

Intersectional discrimination

Gender-based discriminatory social institutions do not affect all women in the same way; there is a need for a tailor-made approach that recognises diversity. Women are not a homogeneous group, so blanket, inflexible approaches would not benefit all women and may even marginalise some of them even more. All women have overlapping identities that, in some cases, can compound their inability to break the cycle of inequality. The discrimination women and girls face is exacerbated by intersecting inequalities, such as age and/or ethnicity and can be further increased by conflict and fragility, climate change and/or extreme poverty (Box 2.1). As a cross-cutting issue, however, gender equality-related policy measures can also be a cross-cutting solution (Box 2.3). Discriminatory social institutions can intersect and taking them into account in policy making is important to a comprehensive approach that leaves no woman or girl behind.

Rural, indigenous and migrant women are among the most vulnerable categories, as they are the furthest away from the shared benefits of social, political and economic development. Rural and indigenous women, for example, suffer inherently from multi-dimensional discrimination and poverty, due to inequitable access to resources and infrastructure. Migrant women and girls may suffer from endemic rape and sexual abuse, while their voices are often silenced or ignored, and while they often have limited or no access to many of the protection measures that should be available to all migrants and refugees. Therefore, adopting an intersectional approach to policy making would allow a better understanding of the reality of discrimination and a better design of equality policies.

The lack of attention to intersectional discrimination and the scarcity of data challenge the design of policies targeted to the needs of all women. In terms of official policy responses, South Africa is the only country whose constitution recognises and prohibits intersectional discrimination. In 100 countries, the constitution only prohibits discrimination of a list of precise and mutually exclusive grounds of discrimination, including gender. In 79 countries, the constitution does not contain a clause on discrimination that includes gender at all. All SDG 5 indicators are supposed to be disaggregated by location and some by age cohort to provide a more accurate estimation of the discrimination women face according to where they live, their ethnic group, disability, age, etc. However, measuring intersectionality is challenging. The following examples try to make the case for more disaggregated data.

Box 2.3. Good practices to tackle intersectional discrimination
  • Guatemala has taken action to facilitate access to justice for indigenous women who do not speak Spanish. Since 2013, the judiciary has had an Indigenous Interpretation and Translation Centre to facilitate access to justice, especially for indigenous women and children, in their own language. In 2014, it also developed a guide to sensitise judiciary staff to the specific rights of indigenous women. In addition, the Office for the Defence of Indigenous Women was set up to promote the full realisation of their rights and contribute to the elimination of all forms of violence against indigenous women.

  • The Toolkit on Eliminating Violence against Women and Children with Disabilities in Fiji aims to ensure women and girls with disabilities are included in broader programmes to eliminate violence against women. Developed through a consultative process, the Toolkit provides information on the various forms of discrimination faced by women and girls with disabilities. It also presents approaches that can be used by development actors to include a disability dimension in projects to tackle violence against women and girls.

Source: SIGI country profiles,

Migrant women

Migration attracts policy attention at the international and national levels, but little attention is paid to the particular needs of female migrants, especially of refugees. With an increasing number of people crossing borders in hope of better opportunities, migration policies are high on the global policy agenda. Out of 258 million international migrants, 48% are women (UNDESA, 2017[14]). Yet, migrants are often considered as a homogeneous group and little attention is paid to the specific needs of female migrants. While all migrants are vulnerable to discrimination, especially refugees, female migrants and refugees are disproportionately at risk. This double discrimination is often compounded by other causes of vulnerability, such as ethnicity, language barriers or level of poverty.

Box 2.4. Recommendations to protect the fundamental rights of female migrants
  • Ratify and implement international instruments on the rights of migrants (ILO Convention 97 on migration for employment, ILO Convention 143 on migrant workers, 1990 UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their families, CEDAW General Recommendation No. 26 on women migrant workers).

  • Provide gender-sensitive training to state actors interacting with migrants, such as the police, customs officers or workers in detention centres.

  • Involve migrant women’s rights organisations and other relevant organisations in the formulation and implementation of public policies.

  • Include the protection of female migrants in strategies to tackle violence against women and ensure sexual and reproductive health services are available and accessible to all women.

  • Encourage the creation and support of networks and mechanisms to encourage the socio-economic integration of female migrants in countries of destination: migrant women’s rights associations, information services or money-lending schemes.

Discriminatory social norms in both the origin and the destination countries are additional factors influencing female migration.

  • In countries of origin, discriminatory social institutions influence women’s decisions to emigrate in two ways (Ferrant and Tuccio, 2015[15]). On the one hand, on top of other reasons for emigration (conflict, climate change, poverty…), discriminatory social institutions represent an additional incentive. This may, for instance, be to avoid forced or early marriage, gender-based violence, or when there are de jure or de facto limitations on women’s economic, political or social rights. For example, sex-based discrimination in the labour market has been identified as an important factor driving female North-North migration (Baudassé and Bazillier, 2012[16]). On the other hand, women’s willingness to emigrate might be hampered by highly discriminatory social institutions. Severe discrimination in the family and/or restricted civil liberties often make it impossible for women to migrate or to do so with their children. For example, in ten countries women need permission from their husbands or male guardians to travel. All in all, discriminatory social institutions in countries of origin can be an additional incentive for women to migrate, but only up to a certain threshold, where it becomes an obstacle for female emigration (Figure 2.5) (Ferrant and Tuccio, 2015[15]).

  • Discriminatory social institutions also influence migrant women’s choice of destination. Female migrants are attracted by countries with low levels of gender-based discrimination. Women tend to migrate to countries where they can enjoy greater freedom and rights. For example, 62% of the main destination countries for women from low discriminatory countries also have a low level of discrimination (Ferrant and Tuccio, 2015[15]).

Figure 2.5. Discriminatory social institutions in origin countries are both an incentive for and a constraint on female migration

Note: The chart shows the relationship between the SIGI 2012 in origin countries and the predicted value of female migration flows. The SIGI ranges from 0% for no discrimination to 100% for absolute discrimination. Additional controls are GDP per capita, income differential, distance, contiguity, language differential, population size and unemployment rates for origin and destination country, civil liberties, conflict, network and male migration flows. All coefficients are significant at the 5% level with the expected sign.

Source: Ferrant and Tuccio (2015), “South-south migration and discrimination against women in social institutions: A two-way Relationship”, World Development, Vol. 72, pp. 240-254.

Women migrants’ wellbeing in both transit and destination countries is highly affected by intersectionality: discriminatory social norms are even more binding on women migrants than they are for men.

  • In transit countries, migrant women are particularly vulnerable to violations of their physical integrity stemming from pervasive discriminatory social norms. No woman in the world lives in an environment guaranteeing her physical integrity and this is particularly true for migrant women (IOM, 2013[17]). When travelling or residing in camps, women often lack access to adequate infrastructure or live in overcrowded surroundings where the rates of violence, including sexual exploitation and trafficking, are disproportionately high. Furthermore, migrant women in transit countries often do not have access to sexual and reproductive health services, such as family planning or maternal-health services.

  • In destination countries, economic empowerment opportunities are disproportionately restricted for female migrants. Discriminatory social norms defining which jobs are suitable for women mean that labour markets in destination countries are segmented and female migrants are primarily offered low-skilled and low-paid jobs (IOM, 2013[17]). In addition, these opportunities are often located in unregulated sectors of the economy where women do not benefit from social protection, in particular maternity leave and health coverage, where their collective bargaining rights are neglected and where they are at risk of exploitation.

  • Migration is not always an effective way for women and girls to escape discriminatory social norms and practices. Women may prefer to migrate to avoid early marriage, female genital mutilation or fear (or even experiences) of gender-based violence. There is evidence from South-east Asia of women migrating in order to avoid involuntary marriages (Lam and Hoang, 2010[18]); in Ethiopia, 23% of migrant adolescent girls reported that they migrated to escape early marriage (Erulkar et al., 2006[19]). However, poor migrant families may adopt coping mechanisms, such as marrying off their daughters, in the hope of improving their situation (Girls not Brides, 2018[20]). Moreover, they often face tremendous difficulties in seeking judicial redress for violation of their rights (UN Women, 2011[21]).

Rural women

Rural women provide another example of intersectionality: they face both specific challenges related to rural settings and endemic women’s deprivation. People living in rural areas have generally less access to infrastructure (energy, water and sanitation), basic services (health and education), decent employment opportunities and social protection. This has specific effects on women and girls because discriminatory social norms are more prevalent, more important for the community and the anonymity offered by big cities is not an option. For example, while one third of Burkinabés thinks there is no need for a bride to give her consent to be married, the proportion drops to a fifth in urban areas, but it is up to almost half in the remote areas of the Sahel (OECD Development Centre, 2018[22]).

Even if rural communities need women’s economic contributions, they relegate women to less valuable activities. Women significantly contribute to agricultural and food production as producers, family labourers and food processors. Globally, women average 43% of the agricultural labour force but only constitute 16% of agricultural land owners (Figure 2.6).Women make up almost half of the agricultural labour force in the developing world and the share continues to rise in several countries in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa because a growing number of men are migrating to urban areas and overseas. The proportion of women employed in the agricultural sector in North Africa increased from about 30% in 1980 to 43% in 2010. Nevertheless, women’s jobs in agriculture tend to be more precarious; women are over-represented in seasonal, part-time and low-wage work and the informal sector constitutes the primary source of employment for rural women (FAO, 2012[23])

Figure 2.6. Women’s share as agricultural landholders and workers

Note: Average female share of agricultural workers in Asia excludes Japan and in Americas excludes the United States and Canada.

Source: FAO (2018), Gender and Land Rights Database, and FAO (2011), The State of Food and Agriculture 2010-2011.

Women and girls living in rural areas face structural barriers to their empowerment. They suffer from the effects of the marginalisation of the territories where they live. The SIGI country study in Burkina Faso shows, for example, that 44% of rural women live more than an hour away from basic water infrastructures (OECD Development Centre, 2018[22]). They are also particularly affected by natural disasters and the effects of climate change on agriculture and are the first to “absorb the shocks” of food crises. In 1991, during the cyclone disasters in Bangladesh, 90% of victims were women (Neumayer and Plümper, 2007[24]). After droughts hit in India, girls were more likely to be malnourished and stunned compared to their peer boys in Andhra Pradesh (FAO, 2018[25]). Moreover, they are under-represented in organisations and institutions that play a key role in governing rural areas. For example, only 1.6% of women have been elected as representatives in rural councils in Sri Lanka and 31% in Pakistan (UNDP, 2010[26]).

Rural women have multiple overlapping identities and endure intersecting forms of discrimination. For instance, in Latin America and the Caribbean, indigenous and afro-descendant women who live in rural settings often encounter forms of discrimination based on their ethnicity, language and way of life. Rural women who belong to other ethnic minority and religious groups, as well as single-female-headed households, are more vulnerable to social exclusion, stigmatisation and higher levels of poverty. Women working in rural settings, including livestock keepers, farmers, pastoralists, peasants and fishers, equally suffer from discrimination on different grounds. Furthermore, women with disabilities living in rural areas face specific challenges related to the lack of adequate health-care facilities and services. In addition, older women, widows and women affected by HIV/AIDS living in rural areas may face stigmatisation, deprivation and social isolation, exposing them to greater risks of illness and mortality.

These challenges are further compounded in rural areas by women’s triple burden of work. Across all countries, rural women’s time is constrained by their productive (income generating activities), reproductive (household duties) and community roles (organisation of weddings, celebrations, etc.). Rural women might also have to juggle their household responsibilities with work in the fields. In this case, their ability to dedicate time to paid agricultural activities is severely limited. Therefore, rural women often engage in informal jobs to balance their paid and unpaid responsibilities better. The female burden of unpaid care work is exacerbated by reduced access to basic infrastructure and deeply embedded social expectations of female reproductive roles. For instance, in Burkina Faso rural women spend more than twice the time collecting wood and water per week than their counterparts in urban areas (OECD Development Centre, 2018[22]).

Digitalisation: A double-edged sword for women’s empowerment

Digitalisation could either be an opportunity to achieve SDG 5 or a major threat to the gains of the past decades. Applying a social norm lens to the digitalisation and women’s empowerment nexus increases the complexity of the issue: discriminatory social norms and the digital revolution have an ambiguous relationship of reverse causality:

  • On one hand, digitalisation theoretically opens new doors for women to overcome institutional barriers to their empowerment. However, given the gender digital divide, the increasing role of digitalisation in the global economy can exacerbate gender inequalities and reinforce discriminatory gender norms.

  • On the other hand, social and cultural obstacles prevent or limit women’s access to, use of, and benefits from ICTs, increasing the gender digital divide.

When women are able to engage with digital technology, a wide range of personal, family and community benefits become possible, whatever the social expectations of women’s roles. Digitalisation increases the opportunities for women’s voices to be heard and for their access to knowledge and employment, outdating discriminatory social norms that negatively influence women’s rights. For example, technology has offered new ways of communication for women’s rights movements in countries where women’s freedom of expression and association were limited by social and customary practices. Similarly, the digital revolution has transformed the way women and girls can access education and employment. Access to knowledge no longer depends on a girl’s freedom of movement, but on her physical access to technology. The distance to school, threats on their physical integrity at school and vulnerability while en route to school have no impact on girls’ access to online training or courses. Similarly, the “gig economy” may offer more flexible working hours, improving women’s work-life balance and overcoming some stereotypes against working mothers (Hunt and Samman, 2019[27]). Indeed, half of the global population still thinks that children will suffer when their mother is in paid employment outside the home and this figure rises to two thirds in Northern Africa. One person in six people thinks that it is not acceptable for a woman family member to have a paid job outside the home, because her perceived role is to take care of both the children and the household; this proportion rises to one in three in Southern Asia.

Digitalisation appears as an innovative way to challenge discriminatory social norms by unlocking women’s empowerment opportunities and disseminating information about women’s rights. Social transformation is a complex process that the digital revolution has made easier (Chapter 1, Box 1.2). With the #meetoo movement, technology firmly established itself as a means of challenging social norms. This has been not only an effective way to raise awareness of violence against women but also to break the norm of acceptance and silence, to show to survivors of sexual violence they are not alone and to warn would-be and actual perpetrators that they could be socially held responsible and legally prosecuted. This has also resulted in a new political commitment to enact laws protecting women from violence (in France, for example). In March 2014, the NGO Shoft Taharosh (“Harassment Seen”) released footage online of the harassment of a female student in an Egyptian University that resulted in the implementation of a new anti-sexual harassment policy. Similarly, social, political and economic empowerment resulted from new digital opportunities that provided women with the “power” to challenge discriminatory social norms that imprison them in an artificial social straitjacket. Mobile-money accounts, for example, offer an effective way to boost women’s financial inclusion and to challenge social norms preventing women from access to finance.

Digitalisation appears to open new opportunities for women’s financial inclusion. The use of technology in the financial sphere seems to improve the gender-responsiveness of the financial system, addressing women’s specific needs. Increasing evidence shows that mobile-money accounts might be helping to narrow the gender gap in financial inclusion. In Côte d’Ivoire, for example, men are twice as likely as women to have a bank account but have the same likelihood of holding only a mobile-money account (World Bank, 2017[28]).

The gender-transformative impact of digitalisation is not automatic. The digital divide between women and men and among women has exacerbated the marginalisation of some women, reinforcing the negative influence of discriminatory gender norms. The gender digital divide includes several gaps in one. Women and girls enjoy less access to information technology than men and boys, especially in developing countries, because of technological, skill and content inequalities. In addition to infrastructure issues, the gender-digital divide also refers to the differences in resources and capabilities to access and effectively use technology: a lot of web-based information is simply not relevant to the real needs of women in developing countries, and most of the websites are in English. While digitalisation offers new ways of development, excluding women makes them even more vulnerable to discriminatory social norms and reinforces the male bread-winner model. Conservative gender roles become even more entrenched due to lack of exposure to alternative perspectives and women become increasingly marginalised as social connections are increasingly fostered and maintained online. On average, women are 26% less likely than men to have a smartphone and access mobile internet, a percentage that rises to 70% in South Asia (OECD, 2018[29]).

Digitalisation also creates new threats to women’s rights, such as online violence, reinforcing offline discrimination. Specific violence facilitated by ICT includes, among other things, stalking, threats, hate speech, breaches of privacy, blackmail, non-consensual sharing of explicit images, human trafficking and prostitution. In the United States, 26% of women aged 18-24 have been stalked online (Pew Research Center, 2015[30]); in European countries, 9% of young women and 9% of 15-year-old girls have been victims of online harassment or unauthorised image sharing (Figure 2.7). Online violence perpetuates existing offline gender inequality, spanning the continuum from physical to digital spaces. For example, in-person stalking is often accompanied by stalking online. Online violence against women also limits their ability to take advantage of the opportunities that ICT provides for the full realisation of women’s rights, including freedom of expression. Online violence uses the same pattern as offline violence to silence, control and keep women out of public spaces. Women’s rights defenders face particular threats online, including cyberstalking (Aziz, 2017[31]).

Figure 2.7. Online threats to young women in Europe

Note: “Online harassment” refers to young women and men aged 15-24 in the EU-28; “Sharing images” refers to 15-year old girls.

Source: Eurobarometer 2013.

Legal loopholes and the private sector’s inadequate responses reinforce women’s vulnerability to online violence. The SIGI country notes show that very few countries have a legal framework to address online violence. Even when it exists, law enforcement structures and the courts are not taking appropriate action when web-enabled technology is used to commit acts of violence against women. The role of the private sector, especially of internet service providers, is held to be limited. Finally, national laws fail to recognise the continuum of violence that women experience offline and online (Aziz, 2017[31]). As a result, a culture of impunity has prevailed and access to the internet has, in itself, enabled perpetrators to aggress women anonymously.

Deeply entrenched discriminatory social norms exacerbate the gender digital divide, creating a vicious circle. Discriminatory social norms reduce women’s opportunities and skills to use technology effectively. In countries where the level of discrimination in social institutions is higher, as measured by the SIGI, women’s access to education is lower, reducing, by definition, their skill and their capacity to benefit from digitalisation, notably because the content of information is designed for English-speaking educated individuals. Hence, by widening gender gaps in access to education and technological knowledge, discriminatory social norms exacerbate the technological divide. In India for example, 51% of women can read compared to 75% of men, yet, without this fundamental skill digital technology and its benefits remain out of reach. Even literate women often have restricted digital literacy skills that are defined by social norms as a male prerogative. In India and Egypt, for example, 40% of women give a lack of familiarity with technology as a reason for not using the Internet. Discriminatory attitudes also restrict women’s access to information and communication technology, even when they have the literacy skills. For example, one in five women in India and Egypt believe that the Internet is not appropriate for them, or that their families would disapprove (Dalberg Global Intel, 2013[32]). Often, telecentres are not open to women and, in several cultures, women’s use of such facilities and their interaction with men in public locations is frowned upon.

Technology remains a male domain. Social norms still define technologies to be within the purview of men. As a result, women exclude themselves from STEM education and employment opportunities in ICT. In OECD countries, for example, fewer than 1% of girls aged 15 see a career as an ICT professional, compared to 5% of boys, and only 25% of graduates in ICTs were women (OECD, 2018[29]). Therefore, the content associated with technologies is largely male-centric, reinforcing the view that technologies are for men (Antonio and Tuffley, 2014[33]).

Identifying the role of social norms is critical for defining development policies increasing the benefits for women from digitalisation. “Use presumes access but not vice-versa” (Ono and Zavodny, 2007, p. 1137[34]). So, among the women non-users there is a need to know whether this is a freely made choice or whether this choice has been influenced by social norms. If a woman is not using technology because of lack of infrastructure or skills, we need to provide her with a computer and internet access and improve her digital education. However, if this choice is related to discriminatory social norms, this calls for a transformative gender policy, which is much more complex. Gender neutrality does not pay off: a gender-sensitive approach to digitalisation is necessary to reduce the gender digital divide and benefit from the new opportunities offered by digitalisation. For example, opening telecentres adapted to women’s needs has narrowed the gender digital divide in South Africa’s Western Cape Province (Alao, Lwoga and Chigona, 2017[35]).


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