“ I had stopped using social media when a boy in my neighbourhood hacked my account after I refused his friendship request. He sent messages to all my friends from my account and I got scared. My family forbade me to use the Internet. After today’s digital security training I think I have my confidence back, I will be back on social media, and will continue to learn and grow.”
Its words like these that I live for. While training low-income, underprivileged women far away from the urban centres of Pakistan on digital skills, safety and security, I know I am playing a part in changing the way these women look at life now- through the digital lens of opportunity.
Pakistan’s gender digital divide is real. It is so stark that a separate term has been used by academics for this- women in Pakistan observe digital purdah– the digital veil. I came across this in my research at the London School of Economics on gender and the third-level digital divide in Pakistan and realised how challenging it is to have access and skills but not the permission or confidence to be online and utilise technology to its fullest.
Starting my career in the journalism/media industry from where I moved on to the development and corporate sectors, I have accumulated 20 years of experience working on gender, communication and policy in both the development and corporate sectors.
Yet, my true passion always has been linked to the best utilisation of information communication technology as an enabler of change and I believe that amidst pointless debates and biased narratives, priority should be accorded to meaningful internet connectivity and a true understanding of the policy issues to make the internet more accessible, available and affordable for all. I am an ardent believer of technology-facilitated opportunity for everyone, especially women, which led me to work towards developing and teaching Pakistan’s first consolidated university-level course on Internet Governance and Technology Policy. This is the avenue that I use to build a strong base of the key concepts and the ethical and policy constructs around internet in the young people of Pakistan. Over the last half-decade of my work with these young university students has inspired them to take up future graduate degrees and careers in this area. I believe building this base is critical for everyone as we all live in the information age and are impacted by business, policy, national and international decisions regarding the internet and technology. This is also an effort to make Internet governance conversations in Pakistan more inclusive to eliminate the current elite capture.
In addition to this, I always felt a platform to undertake practical work for women mentoring and opportunities was still missing though, so I founded the Pakistan Professional Women Forum (PPWF) which provides mentorship and networking opportunities for professional women and it is under this platform that I undertake the digital security and safety training to enable them to use the internet to the fullest.
My work on policy with key government ministries, including the Prime Minister’s office has provided me a with great opportunity to integrate gender into key policy formulation work, especially on the critical work for economic reform. I recently led the gender policy review work of key government policies through a British government programme to add the gender and disaster resilience lens to it with a specific focus on access to and the best use of technology for women for financial inclusion and support during disasters.
I regularly lecture government bureaucrats on internet governance at Pakistan’s public sector training facilities and even though they find this to be a new area of work, their interest and enthusiasm for this topic is very encouraging as they are the policy makers who are to lead formulation of effective policies for bridging Pakistan’s digital divide.
I strongly believe that women and girls will be at the heart of Pakistan’s digital transformation. My work revolves around consolidated interventions to ensure upward mobility of women through technology policy, skills and creating opportunity. Bridging the gender divide online will also help in bridging the development divide offline and that’s a critical point we should all aim to work towards. I am hopeful that Pakistan’s effective and meaningful digital transformation will be ensured through collaborative approaches, strong partnerships and solid policy followed by robust implementation.
Faculty LUMS, Internet Governance and Technology Policy, Founder Pakistan Professional Women Forum
Gulalai Khan is a Gender and Strategic Comms Expert. She is also the Founder of Pakistan Professional Women Forum and Faculty LUMS, Internet Governance and Technology Policy.