A woman speaks from a podium

Michelle Bekkering, USAID’s Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, speaks at the Solver Symposium where aspiring innovators gathered to network and strengthen ideas to bridge the gender digital divide. Credit: Kevin Koski for USAID

If you are reading this, you are likely doing so on a smartphone, tablet or computer. Today, many of us take for granted how easy it is to stay connected, learn, network or even watch our favorite show, anytime and anywhere. Everything is at our fingertips.

We can take classes online, register our kids for school, make doctor’s appointments, buy groceries and even sell items from the comfort of our homes to destinations all over the world.

Unfortunately, while this is my reality, technology is not readily accessible to millions of women around the world, resulting in a growing gender digital divide.

Almost 2 billion women in low- and middle-income countries still do not own mobile phones. The number of women without access to a computer is even higher.

Barriers such as cost, lack of network coverage, fear on harassment or lack of digital literacy all contribute to the fact that women in developing countries are nearly 25 percent less likely to be online than men—and that number is closer to 50 percent in some countries.

This isn’t just about entertainment or social connections. We need to reduce this divide, so half the world’s population can benefit from life-enhancing information, and commercial networks and financial services which can reduce poverty and drive inclusive economic growth.

At USAID, we are leading efforts to close the gender digital divide and empower women and girls to access and use digital technology to drive improvements in health, and education and economic opportunities for themselves and their families.

Earlier this year, Advisor to the President Ivanka Trump and USAID Administrator Mark Green launched the WomenConnect Challenge to identify and accelerate comprehensive solutions to closing this critical gender digital divide.

The response was amazing. We received more than 500 applications from almost 90 countries in every corner of the world.

This week, we are welcoming the 20 WomenConnect project semi-finalists to Washington, D.C. at a Solver Symposium to hear their ideas for how to bridge this divide. These participants will benefit from the expertise of USAID and our partners in digital solutions as they focus on innovations that can advance women’s access to digital tools in the most underserved regions of the world.

USAID welcomed 20 WomenConnect project semi-finalists to Washington at the Solver Symposium to help them shape proposals for innovative ideas to help bridge the gender digital divide. Credit: Kevin Koski for USAID

The innovative solutions that Solver Symposium participants are proposing will shape the future of women’s empowerment in their respective countries. Their solutions aim to tackle deep-rooted social norms; teach crowdmapping skills; address women’s and girls’ safety on- and off-line; and increase women’s financial knowledge and inclusion through digital financial services and expanded markets.

Participants will learn to make their solutions the strongest possible in hopes of becoming one of 10 finalists that are funded to pilot their projects.

The workshop has another intangible bonus: it provides a platform to build goodwill among the United States and our partners around the world—solvers like these WomenConnect semi-finalists—leading to collective action around some of the world’s toughest problems. It’s about changing the relationship from benefactor and beneficiary, to recognizing we are partners on their development journey to self-reliance. And through WomenConnect, we are poised to get there even faster.

If you would like to join this effort or receive email updates from the WomenConnect team, please visit the WomenConnect Challenge website.


Michelle Bekkering is the USAID Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator of the Economic Growth, Education and Environment Bureau and USAID’s Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment. Follow her @USAIDMBekkering.