Even the Internet Can't Escape the Gender Gap

A new report shows widespread failure to advance gender equality, including online. Yuri Maltsev/Reuters

Women in low- and middle-income countries are 21 percent less likely to have a mobile phone than men, according to a new report on gender equality by the United Nations, while overall only 36 percent of women (and 41 percent of men) have access to the Internet.

The U.N. Women report, to be presented to the United Nations by Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to U.N. member states on Monday, does note that women represent half of all social media users worldwide and three-fifths of bloggers.

So while some progress has been made toward gender parity, such as the adoption of legislation promoting equality and criminalizing gender-based violence, the report—released on Friday to coincide with International Women's Day (which is Sunday) and the 59th Commission on the Status of Women—also details specific areas of failure in 167 countries.

Women are at greater risk than men online, the report says, as "technology is also being used for harmful purposes, for example, to perpetrate online harassment and abuse, especially towards young women."

Recent examples include the so-called GamerGate debacle that saw women journalists, developers and critics receiving rape and death threats online, and the case of Canadian teenager Rehtaeh Parsons, who committed suicide after enduring vicious cyberbullying over photos of an alleged sexual assault that wound up online.

In terms of violence against women, there's "still a long way to go to have the impact we desire," said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of U.N. Women, during a press briefing at the U.N. headquarters in New York on Friday. Worldwide, 35 percent of women report facing some form of physical or sexual violence from intimate partners.

"We cannot say that there has not been a lot of initiatives by governments, by civil society, and recently by the private sector, but a lot of initiatives don't equal progress," she said.

Sexual violence continues to disrupt the progress being made on women's rights in certain areas of the world, and the rise of the extremist group Islamic State over the past year has put women in "the eye of the storm" of horrific violence and repression, said Mlambo-Ngcuka.

"The nature of the conflict now has actually changed for women," she said.

"It is even worse and more cruel now. It is indeed, in many parts of the world, more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier," she said.

Hundreds of schoolgirls kidnapped by another extremist group, Boko Haram, remain missing and many women and girls belonging to the Yazidi minority group were forced into sexual slavery by Islamic State (ISIS) last year. And Human Rights Watch recently confirmed that more than 200 women and girls were raped by Sudanese army forces over a 36-hour period in north Darfur in 2014.

Meanwhile, India's Daughter, a BBC documentary about Jyoti Singh, an Indian student who was raped and killed in a Delhi bus, was banned in India this week even as its broadcast had sparked international outcry and interest.

The report finds that the world's governments have collectively failed to support gender equality, Mlambo-Ngcuka said.

While areas of progress include a decrease in the mortality rate of infants and their mothers, better access to contraception and increased attention being given to the plight of the female children, the report is a "wake-up call" to the lack of progress made in the 20 years since 189 countries gathered in Beijing and committed to furthering gender equality in a landmark statement.

On Thursday, Mlambo-Ngcuka said no country in the world can claim to have gender equality.

Women's participation in the labor force actually decreased to 50 percent in 2013 from 52 percent in 1990. While the largest gain was seen in the Caribbean and Latin America, where 54 percent of women were employed in 2013 compared to 40 percent in 1990, the rate of participation fell in the Middle East and North Africa, South Asia, Central Asia and developed regions. A wage gaps persists throughout the the world and could take 70 years to close at the current rate of change, according to a report published Thursday by the U.N.'s International Labour Organization.