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Helvi Sipilä Keynote Address: Women’s human rights and technological innovations

Equality Now’s Global Executive Director, S. Mona Sinha gave the following remarks as the keynote address at the 17th International Helvi Sipilä Seminar on Thursday, March 9th at the Permanent Mission of Finland in New York.

Many countries limit or even deny their citizens access to the internet, preventing women from enjoying their full human rights. The 2023 Commission on the Status of Women (CSW67) focuses on the rights of women and girls online, including equal and safe access to the Internet and technological innovations worldwide. CSW67 brings insights from across the globe on factors supporting women’s empowerment and generational equality, which hopes to embed a future of technology that is harnessed in support of women’s rights.

I remember the excitement in my post-college days when we were discovering the power of technology – a social platform developed by a twenty-something in a garage that allowed millions of people worldwide to share experiences online. And just like that, I found friends online from my childhood in Calcutta, who I had lost touch with as I began my new life in New York. I saw photos of their families and posts about their careers and felt connected again. As search functions developed, I could type in a few words and have vast amounts of information at my fingertips without walking to a library or opening a single page of Encyclopedia Britannica. 

Today, ChatGPT can write an entire term paper or government policy to end gender-based violence through AI analysis that synthesizes available “intelligence.”

The transformative technological evolution that has followed reflects the ability of human beings to find new spaces to flourish and connect – and the results have been groundbreaking:

  • Technology allowed for the elimination of the middleman in many economies, enabling the expansion of markets to directly reach farmers and corners of villages. 
  • The explosive growth of social media has allowed movements such as the #MeToo movement and Arab Spring to snowball and push back against autocrats who stymied democracy. 
  • Millions of women-led movements have helped suppress some of the world’s most repressive dictatorships from tea sellers in the Sudan and grandmothers in Algeria to sisters and wives in Chile.
  • Rapid innovation can help us not only imagine a stronger future in which we ALL are inextricably linked and thriving, but it can actually help us create it! 

The digital economy accounts for 16% of global growth, growing at 2.5x faster than the rest of the world economy. Everything we do today, from education to entertainment to career development, even healthcare, is linked to AI. Technology continues its march to the core of every industry and human endeavor, such as how we brush our teeth and meet potential partners in business and life. The COVID 19 pandemic only deepened this reality, allowing us to be more fluent in technology and dependent upon it. 

Who controls the power in the digital world?

The digital world is powerful and largely unregulated. The fundamental issue with the rapid development of technology is that not enough women had a voice in designing the frameworks under which early digital platforms were developed. 

In the 1970s, women made up just 8 percent of data scientists and experts in computer engineering, and as a result, the rules were established by and credited to men. Most of us don’t remember or have never heard of Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, or Dorothy Vaughn, who were computing pioneers but Mark Zuckerberg is a household name. As untold wealth was accumulated in this arena, that space became even more exclusive. Today we see that same pattern repeats itself in the development of Web3, where only 13 percent of Web3 founding teams include a woman, and only seven percent of founders are women

Like in real life, the gender divide is played out digitally. Around the world, access to digital platforms is not unilateral. Women and marginalized groups are underrepresented in the frameworks and governance of the digital world and rarely participate in designing innovative systems or the leadership that regulates tech. Furthermore, approximately one billion women do not have access to digital financial services, which denies them the power to fully participate in their own economic security. We have heard countless stories of women not having access to computers and cell phones and therefore being unable to protect their families during the pandemic. 

As we know, women face myriad forms of discrimination online, from privacy concerns, harassment, sexual exploitation, and horrific violence such as trafficking and image-based sexual abuse, particularly on social media. The global prevalence of online violence against women is 85 percent. Those figures can be broken down to 45 percent of women Millennials and 31 percent of women Baby Boomers experiencing sexual harassment. 

In the Middle East, 98% of women have been targeted. Prominent political figures such as Jacinda Arden and Nicola Sturgeon were relentlessly attacked online and ultimately, they opted out of their leadership. As women opt out, gender equality suffers disproportionately as women lose economic agency, safety, mental health security and political power. 

Given the speed with which tech is developing, governments have simply not been able to keep pace, something has to change now. The UN-backed Global Digital Compact, set to be adopted by 2024, offers us all the chance to make that change happen, starting right now. 

Multi-stakeholder coordinated action is critical for systemic change 

Equality Now has a long history of using legal reform to deliver systemic change for women and girls. As with so many things, we can’t do this on our own and this challenge is one of the biggest we have taken on. Which is why it is so heartening to be invited by the Finnish government, who we regard as key allies in the road to gender equality, to talk with you about this urgent imperative of securing a just digital future. 

Last year, Equality Now, together with Women in AI, launched the Alliance for Universal Digital Rights to establish an ambitious campaign to promote universal digital rights based on nine principles. AUDRi believes these principles will inform global efforts toward a future where all citizens of the global digital ecosystem, no matter where they are or where they live, can enjoy equal rights to safety, freedom, and dignity. This framework rooted in human rights law is underpinned by an intersectional feminist anti-discrimination analysis. 

We believe in:

  • Equal protection from persecution, oppression and abuse 
  • Equal access to information, opportunity and community 
  • Equal respect for privacy, identity and self-expression 

The future of digital rights

As we know, the digital environment transcends borders. This future can only become reality if governments and leaders put in place mutual and binding agreements to uphold these rights, minimize infringements and develop mechanisms to hold violators to account. And just as the efforts of individual nations alone cannot solve a global climate crisis, we cannot depend on separate national laws and policies to guide, regulate and care for our global digital ecosystem. To achieve universal equality of safety, freedom and dignity, we must institute a universal approach to defining, upholding, and advancing global digital rights for everyone. This framework rooted in human rights law is underpinned by an intersectional feminist, anti-discrimination analysis. 

The Gender Equality Action Coalition on Technology and Innovation for Gender Equality, organized under the auspices of U.N. Women in partnership with the Mexican and French governments, are making progress toward this end. This coalition includes the governments of Finland, Chile, Tunisia, Armenia, and Rwanda; major tech platforms such as Microsoft and Salesforce; multinational institutions, including UNICEF and the International Telecommunication Union; and civil society organizations and foundations, including the Global Fund for Women, Digital Grassroots, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Their agreed-upon goals include making digital space safer for women, fast-tracking women’s tech leadership and supporting the entry of women and girls into the tech industry. 

AUDRi demonstrates Equality Now and our partners’ Generation Equality commitment to mobilizing international action towards a global, intersectional feminist framework that would level the digital playing field for women worldwide. 

Women need to own and redesign this future. 

Creating a more equal and represented digital future will enable us to build an inclusive ecosystem that can unlock the true potential of a gender-equal world. Funding innovation, upping women’s participation, and taking back our power as creators and solutionists is my call to action to you all today. It is essential that women’s voices be brought to the center of the discussions and decision-making to ensure that the Global Digital Compact intended to inform and guide the digital future, reflect women’s diverse needs and ideas. 

So what can YOU do? 

  • Everyone interested in the future of inclusive digital rights can take action to move this work forward. Follow the work of AUDRi online and on LinkedIn and share it widely on media channels and in your conversations. 
  • Help us spread the word and resource the work – connect the dots around governments, institutions, corporates, and individuals to have all of us in this together – we need resources and champions. UN Member States, please support this work and bring these digital principles to life. 

I invite everyone to join us on this journey to seize the opportunity to transform the digital world as a centerpiece in the movement for advancing gender rights. To those of you who might say, there is so much else to be done; perhaps now is not the time, I offer the words of Susan Wojcicki, one of the founders of Google who is now the CEO of YouTube:

“Life doesn’t always present you with the perfect opportunity at the perfect time….Opportunities, the good ones, they’re messy and confusing and hard to recognize. They’re risky. They challenge you.” 

What better challenge to tackle together than this one, at this time? Not only does the future for gender equality stand to benefit, the future of global innovation will as well. 

Learn more about the Alliance for Universal Digital Rights