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Some 90% of young women and teenage girls in the world's poorest countries have no access to the internet, according to a recently published United Nations report.

The UNICEF report, Bridging the Digital Divide: Challenges and an Urgent Call for Action for Equitable Digital Skills Development, assesses the gender digital divide among young people aged 15-24 years by analyzing available data on internet use, mobile phone ownership and digital skills in mostly low- and lower-middle-income as well as some middle-income economies.

The report acknowledges the need for more gender-disaggregated data to better monitor, understand and work toward digital inclusion and finds that girls are being left behind in an increasingly digital and connected world.

Adolescent girls and young women are being "shut out when it comes to digital skills," it said.

By contrast, about 78% of young men and teenage boys in the poorest countries are offline, according to UNICEF, which in its report examined data usage in 54 mostly low-income nations.

This translates to about 65 million adolescent girls and young women aged 15-24 who don't have access to the internet, versus some 57 million of their male peers.

"Closing the digital divide between girls and boys is about more than just having access to the internet and technology. It's about empowering girls to become innovators, creators and leaders," Robert Jenkins, UNICEF director of education, said in a statement.

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"If we want to tackle gender gaps in the labor market, especially in science, technology, engineering and math fields, we must start now by helping young people, especially girls, gain digital skills."

Even in cases where girls had equitable access to traditional educational opportunities, such as math and reading, the report warned, "it does not always translate to digital skills."

Disparities in access to technology persist even within the same household.

In a study of 41 countries, UNICEF found that "households are much more likely to provide mobile phones for boys than girls."

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Female youth are 13% less likely to own a mobile phone, UNICEF said, "limiting their ability to participate in the digital world."

UNICEF has urged governments and partners to close the gender divide and ensure that girls have the opportunities to succeed in a digital world through the following:

  • Teaching digital skills to girls and boys in and out of school, including community programs
  • Protecting girls' safety online through virtual safe spaces, policies and laws, and education
  • Promoting girls' access to peer learning, mentoring, internships and job shadowing in the digital/STEM world
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