Digital literacy, internet access and women’s financial independence in a COVID-19 world

This op-ed is part of AASYP’s Digital Dialogues 2021, which is a programme that aims to provide a platform and forum for future leaders from across the region to contribute to the policymaking and diplomacy sphere by engaging in issues relating to Gender and Diversity, Green Recovery, and Emerging Economies.

Prior to the pandemic, digital literacy, internet access and women’s financial independence were matters dealt with separately in Indonesia. Initiatives were put in place to address digital literacy at a school level, however, the Indonesian government later removed Information and Communication Technology (ICT) from the national curriculum and schools were forced to drop the subject (CIPS Indonesia Digital Literacy). This year, we are now seeing how these three issues intertwine and how digital literacy and internet access is a privilege that many women and rural families cannot afford in spite of the government’s efforts. 

It all begins with education, or the lack thereof. Schools were shut down in March 2020 and students were required to learn online. In order to do that, internet access was needed, the availability of which varies from region to region in Indonesia, with metropolitan areas having stronger internet access than their rural counterparts. For example, 93 percent of Jakarta households have internet access, whereas only 58 percent of households in the Malaku region have access to the internet (CIPS Indonesia Digital Literacy). With these statistics, one can only imagine the difficulties that rural students faced in the wake of lockdowns and restrictions. Rural children, especially girls and children with disabilities, would miss out on education entirely with most having no internet access or digital devices to complete their classes online (UNICEF Children in Indonesia). 

There are already enough barriers in place when it comes to rural children accessing school without adding online learning into the mix (Indonesia UNFPA). Previous efforts to break them down have led to an increase in school participation by girls but the COVID-19 pandemic has set back many of those efforts. If girls do not receive proper education, especially in digital literacy, it will have a cascading effect on their future university and career aspects (Bridging the Digital Literacy Gap). This in turn impacts how they survive financially in a world where COVID-19 has plunged many individuals into poverty and shut down numerous small businesses. 

In early 2020, the Indonesian government provided financial assistance packages to those that were heavily impacted by the lockdowns and restrictions put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (New Mandala Indonesia’s response to COVID-19). Financial packages such as Bantuan Sosial, and the Program Kartu Prakerja, a scheme that encouraged people to increase their productivity skills with financial incentives, did not discriminate against women but failed to address how 1.63 million women have been impacted during the pandemic (Job Losses Indonesia 2021). It was not until August 2020 that women’s needs and wellbeing were taken into consideration when a round of social assistance packages were established for women who run small to medium enterprises (SMEs) or are the sole income providers for their family (New Mandala Indonesia’s response to COVID-19).

What these packages fail to acknowledge is that the women who fall under these categories experience difficulties in attaining these benefits. One of the reasons for this is digital literacy and internet access. In the schemes mentioned above, women are required to do online training and other tasks before they can receive financial incentives. Even in regions that have strong internet connection, women who own small businesses or are sole income earners for their family are still the most vulnerable. A report in 2018 stated that around 20% of Indonesian women had access to the internet (Web Foundation: Women’s Rights Online) and even less understood how to navigate the online world where online abuse and harm is targeted mainly towards women. Again, rural women and girls experience this issue at a much deeper level, with less than 1% of rural women being able to attain mobile banking services and only 52% of Indonesia’s secondary schools having access to the internet (Web Foundation: Women’s Rights Online). 

The link between digital literacy, internet access and women being able to support themselves or their family is glaringly obvious. Covid-19 has highlighted the inequalities that young girls and women face, especially in rural areas. The Indonesian government must implement effective policy that takes into account the unique settings of rural regions. Information and Communication Technology (ICT) must be mandatorily taught at all schools and be offered as a community class to adults. While ICT was introduced to some Indonesian schools in the early 2000’s, the subject could not be taught after the government removed it from the national curriculum (Bridging the Digital Literacy Gap). This is an important start in ensuring that people become digitally literate, but it cannot be done without the government implementing the proper infrastructure and support across all regions so that people can access online learning or financial assistance packages as needed. 

In a world where the pandemic has pushed many areas online, we should not leave anyone behind, especially women who make important contributions to their community and economy. With Australia having successfully implemented ICT in all levels of schooling and even offering classes for local communities, the Indonesian government must follow suit so that young girls and women can remain in education and attain financial independence. 

This article was written by Vanessa Taylah Bourne, edited by Nabila Aisyah, and reviewed by the AASYP Publications Team.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the writer and in no way represent nor reflect the position of AASYP and members of the AASYP Publications Team. The AASYP Horizons Blog provides a platform for the free expression of opinions and intellectual discourse.

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