Internet Access Is Critical to Development

The vision of Global Fund for Women is to create a just, equitable, and sustainable world in which women and girls have the resources, voice, choice, and opportunities to realize their human rights.

Increasing global Internet connectivity is critical to achieving this vision. Connectivity is the foundation that makes voice and choice possible. In a connected world, women and girls can make more informed decisions about their health, access education materials, find new jobs, and learn about their rights.

Because it's such a powerful tool for human advancement, the Internet should be accessible to everyone.

Yet globally only about 3 billion people are online, meaning 4.2 billion people--most people in the world--have never tweeted or "liked" anything, never emailed a photo or read the news online, never looked up facts or directions, or done any of the things we so often and so easily take for granted.

Moreover, there is a stark economic gap between the people who are connected and the people who are not. About 90% of everyone in the world who has never connected to the Internet lives in the developing world, where it can be tough to afford basic goods and services, let alone the cost of access.

This digital divide impacts women the most acutely. In Uganda, for example, women are connected at a rate 46% lower than men. In developing countries overall, there are approximately 200 million fewer women than men online, a divide that is forecast to keep growing.

Improved access helps people everywhere, but it especially helps women who live in places with access to limited opportunities and resources.

For women, access to the Internet means access to critical resources for improving health, safety, and economic opportunities for themselves, their families, and their communities. For example, a simple mobile phone can be used to document and report harassment and violence, to support education and literacy programs, and to connect midwives to expectant mothers and fathers. During times of poor economic growth, a simple Internet connection can serve as a pathway for women to start new businesses and reach new markets.

And that's just the start.

The Global Fund for Women has long understood the power of connectivity to transform lives. That's why we created IGNITE, a global campaign that uses science and technology to advance gender equality. We've kick-started projects that enable women to review and rank public venues based on their safety and that allow young women to access sexual and reproductive health information that would otherwise be unavailable. In February 2015, we ran an International Girls Hackathon that brought together more than 70 girls in five cities around the world to develop their own apps and websites to advance girls' rights.

And we will continue to champion the need for women and girls not only to have access to technology but to shape, define, and control it. This is essential to reducing global poverty and achieving gender equality.

One approach to increasing connectivity is that taken recently by Internet.org, an effort led by Facebook to make it possible for people to access a set of free basic Internet services in areas like health, education, employment, news, and messaging, with the long-term goal of sustainable, global access to the Internet. Internet.org also includes services that significantly benefit women, such as maternal health information.

Recent criticism of Internet.org has called it a distraction from more pressing human development challenges. Others have said it's just a way for Facebook to win over customers, and that making it possible for people who cannot afford the Internet to only access to some basic services, instead of the entire Internet, isn't valuable or fair.

I disagree. Access matters. And gains are gains, even when they're incremental.

I've heard criticisms of our work, and the work of our partners, from similar perspectives. There are people who would have us do nothing, if we can't do everything.

The fact is, we have to do something. The challenge of connectivity and the challenge of global development are closely related. Neither will be solved with a single stroke, but it's better to begin than to stand by and do nothing.

The development community, in cooperation with the private sector and governments, has to find a solution that brings as many people as much connectivity as possible right now.

Efforts like Internet.org are part of the solution. They've already given 9 million people in 15 countries access to a bundle of select Internet services for free.

Now, of course, those 9 million people don't have access to everything on the Internet - and in the end that must be our goal - but now they have something that they never had at all before.

And I know with my many years of development and human rights experience, that once you give a woman new rights or new services, she embraces them, she makes sure that her family benefits--and she fights for more.

If the benefits of connectivity are to extend to everyone, the development community needs to work together with NGOs, governments, and the private sector to find a globally scalable and sustainable way to bring the world's population online. We need to recognize that none of us can do it alone, and none of us can do it all at once.

We should continue to support initiatives like Internet.org--as well as watch them and hold them accountable - as a way of bringing the benefits of connectivity to people who need it most.

The Internet needs to belong to--and be shaped by--everyone, not just those who can afford it now.

Musimbi Kanyoro is a passionate advocate for women and girls' health and human rights, and social change philanthropy and is the current President and CEO of the Global Fund for Women. Dr. Kanyoro is an accomplished leader with three decades of experience managing international non-governmental organizations, global programs, and ecumenical agencies in cross-cultural contexts. She is a strategic leader who inspires people, and mobilizes action and resources. She is the author of dozens of articles, hundreds of speeches and opinion pieces and has written and co-edited 7 books. Musimbi is a frequently sought after public speaker. Dr. Kanyoro also serves on several International Boards and working groups including the Aspen Leaders Council, the UN High level Taskforce for Reproductive Health and the boards of CARE, IntraHealth and CHANGE. Dr. Kanyoro has PhD in Linguistics from the University of Texas, Austin and a Doctorate in Feminist Theology from San Francisco Theological Seminary. She was a visiting scholar of Hebrew and the Old Testament at Harvard University. She has received three honorary doctorates and several recognition awards, including a leadership award from the Kenya Government and most recently she was named as one of the 21 women leaders for the 21st century by Women's E-News.