The clock is ticking for the attainment of the United Nation Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Some may, however, argue that the Coronavirus global health pandemic (COVID-19) has set the attainment of the SDG agenda back. 

In fact, some argue that the impact of the current health pandemic has intensely led to increased global poverty, unemployment, inequality and the triple scourge has taken an even deeper root in South Africa. 

Therefore, the question is, as we celebrate women’s month in South Africa, where do we find the opportunity in this growing crisis which impacts women the most?   

The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres responds to the question well when he spoke at the end of the 2018 Sustainable Development Summit saying: “Technology has great potential to help deliver the SDGs, but it can also be the root of exclusion and inequality. We need to harness the benefits of advanced technologies for all.”  

Technology can reduce inequality merely by increasing access to basic services such as e-health and online education. It can be used by governments to better connect with citizens through e-government tools and can help improve stakeholder engagement and information management. An increase in broadband coverage can also boost connectivity and prevent digital isolation. 

However, the cost of connectivity remains a barrier and those who can benefit the most from e-services are usually the rural poor who are further marginalised by their lack of access to internet connectivity and the prohibitive costs of tech tools. 

One way which the public and private sectors can approach this challenge is through partnerships across sectors. Government, Telco’s, tech companies, financial services and healthcare providers need to pool their respective capabilities to broaden the reach of their services. And this should not be done through CSI initiatives, but through partnerships that create real shared value models that simultaneously drive revenue, increases customer bases and ultimately also leads to more inclusion and reduces overall inequality.  

Women in Africa are by far the most marginalised from access to basic services, be it healthcare, banking and other financial services including quality education. 

An increased investment into broadening access to education for young women especially has exponential return on investment, both economically and socially. Ensuring that more women receive quality basic education with a focus on STEM, access to critical digital skills, access to job opportunities with equal pay, and the right enabling environment in terms of mentoring and coaching will guarantee a pipeline of women workers and leadership development. 

The inclusive approach will inevitably lead to reduced inequality in the workplace of which women occupy 40% globally ( as well as changing the landscape of jobs that women currently occupy. It is about time that women are helped to move away from tradition gendered roles at the base of the pyramid and start to occupy mainstream leadership roles.      

In respect of healthcare services, access to quality healthcare is a privilege only to those who can afford. Every day in South Africa, women experience hardship in trying to access even basic healthcare services and medication required to treat chronic ailments, old age and scourges like TB, HIV, high blood pressure and diabetes. All of which poor women are especially vulnerable to. 

Whilst South Africa has leveraged technology to increase access to quality healthcare for the middle class, very little seems to be effectively done for the working poor and unemployed. The number of women who die during childbirth still remains high. According to STATSA, for every 1 000 live births, about five women die during pregnancy or within two months after childbirth, (SADHS, 2016). 

The major causes of death include poverty, distance to facilities, lack of information, inadequate and poor quality services as well as cultural beliefs and practices. Mobile technology and thoughtful design of mobile services for women are able to help reduce the numbers of deaths caused as a result of childbirth. One mobile operator in Tanzania has demonstrated this through its program aimed at eradicating fistula. This approach can be used as a blueprint for the integration of healthcare services and mobile technology where challenges such as maternal health information, distance from facilities as well as prohibitive cost are all overcome through the right partnerships- saving lives whilst adding to the bottom line. Whilst these best practices exist, telecommunication companies now need to shift programs from CSI funded initiatives to commercialise such services, in order to ensure true value creation for the greater benefit of society. 

As job losses continue around the world, the financial services sector needs a more intentional approach towards the inclusion of women in banking. Of all the unbanked people, women remain the most unbanked portion of the population. Whilst many women run and manage micro-enterprises from selling fruit and vegetables, clothes, prepare and sell food and engage in other informal trading to eke out a living, many of them are unbanked. As a result, women are excluded from growing their small businesses, building credit histories and are kept locked out and marginalised from mainstream economic activities. South African banks have much to learn from the likes of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and similar banks across the Asian continent, for example where access to banking and micro-finance have lifted millions of women out of poverty and stimulated entrepreneurship and local economic activity. 

Whilst there is much talk about the restructuring of the South African economy, a lot of thought needs to go into ensuring that women’s place is elevated in this new economic paradigm as failure to do so will further marginalize women who bear the brunt of exclusion daily. Where technology and gender converge in the development of goods and services the result is increased in equality, greater inclusion and dignity for all women. For the SDGs to be attained, women need to be placed at the centre of value creation and for women to be fast tracked to close the gender gap, women need to leverage the power of technology.

Opinion piece by Suraya Hamdulay, Executive Partner at Tsa Rona Insight & Analytics.

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