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The session sought to discuss how the digitalisation of the economy is creating new opportunities for women in developing countries. The moderator, Mr Torbjorn Fredriksson (Chief of the ICT Policy Session, UNCTAD) mentioned in what ways the COVID-19 pandemic might be impacting e-commerce and actually creating new opportunities, and that the policies that countries adopt have an important role in facilitating the creation of these opportunities.
The digital economy and digital trade are not new, and there has always been a gap between men and women, the rich and the poor, developed and undeveloped countries, and those connected and not connected. However, although the COVID-19 pandemic might indeed create new opportunities for e-commerce and digital business for women in the developing world, there is also a danger that it could increase the digital gap, if not properly addressed, stated Ms Isabelle Durant (Deputy Secretary-General, UNCTAD). As an example, she cited the fact that because of existing gender bias, women in developing countries often have to pretend not to be the owners of their own businesses, in order for them to prosper. This issue could hinder digitalisation for women entrepreneurs if not tackled.
The importance of digitalisation has grown during the COVID-19 pandemic; it therefore represents an opportunity for the sustainable growth of digital business models, increasing the potential for developing countries to benefit from digital trade. According to Amb. Monique T.G. Van Daalen (Ambassador and Permanent Representative of The Netherlands to the UN), The Netherlands has been supporting developing countries in achieving digitalisation. The impacts of COVID-19 on trade flows, supply chains, and on the global economy are forcing countries to adopt digital solutions to save their economies. These digital solutions are also instrumental in recovering the economy in the aftermath of the crisis.
The high demand for digital serves represents opportunities for women engaged in e-commerce. According to Ms Nina Angelovska (Minister of Finance in North Macedonia), the number of new e-shops that opened in March 2020 alone, is greater than the number opened during the whole of 2019. Regular establishments have been selling online in record numbers, and already established e-commerce businesses have flourished greatly. Social distancing and isolation have also encouraged people to switch to card payments, forcing people that would only resort to cash withdrawals to try new forms of payment. This huge change in digital trade forced by COVID-19 might become permanent and actually result in a smarter and more digitalised world after the pandemic.
The eTrade for Women Masterclasses have played a significant role in empowering women in developing countries. According to Ms Youma Dieng Fall (Co-founder of PayDunya), these events have enabled her to access work tools that have allowed her and many others to grow as entrepreneurs. Beside the lessons, networking has also helped women at these events to exchange experiences.
The pandemic is not gender neutral. Although women are less affected physically, they are much more affected economically. They are at a higher risk of losing their jobs due to the often precarious nature of their employment (temporary, part-time, or informal). They are also more affected by confinement, as they tend to be responsible for housekeeping and childcare. In the developing world, they often have to choose between confinement or working for a wage and exposing themselves to disease, explained Durant.
The digital divide still exists. Women are less connected than men in developing countries. They have less opportunities in the digital economy. Digitalisation also impacts education and training. If nothing is done, COVID-19 will reinforce these inequalities as the importance of digitalisation grows. According to Ms Marija Riskova, (Representative of the North Macedonian e-Commerce Association), the change in consumer habits represents an opportunity for retailers to change their businesses as well, as it encourages people to buy online.
By Pedro Vilela