The 67th session of the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women (CSW67) took place in March 2023. Three BCS members were delegates and reported on some of the sessions. Marsha Castello MBCS looks at how although an education and career in STEM is one of the fastest routes out of poverty, disproportionate numbers of women are being left behind.
It was a tremendous honour to have been selected as a UN Women UK delegate for the United Nations CSW67.
Founded in 1946, the CSW is the largest global intergovernmental policy-making body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women. Over a period of two weeks from 6th - 17th March, more than 2,000 delegates attended over 400 solution finding seminars, activities, discussions, and events delivered both virtually and in person. This year’s focus centred on how innovation, technology and education in the digital age can and should be tools for the empowerment of women and girls worldwide.
I was thoroughly moved by the courageous narratives of women and girls from around the world as they persevere in their efforts to overcome the chasm of gender inequality in human rights, self-determination, safety, education, access to resources, information, and economic empowerment. Their stories deserve to be heard and have their right to equity realised. I was also inspired by the poignant speeches of global senior officials as they laid firm their respective regions’ commitment to eliminating gender inequality.
One such speech was delivered by the UN Secretary General António Guterres at the CSW67 opening ceremony. It encapsulated the Commission’s themes, and emphasised how without urgent, sustained intervention, the digital revolution will leave women and girls behind.
The role of the Commission on the Status of Women
So why are bodies such as the CSW needed? As a data analyst I am always interested in the stories the data tells, and a closer look at the data gathered by the UN reveals a harrowing story for many women and girls worldwide. Women continue to be overrepresented amongst the world’s extreme poor, with 330 million women and girls living on less than US$1.90 a day. It is therefore little wonder that many cannot afford to access education or even to live in areas with adequate infrastructure and resources for effective schooling.
In fact, 15 million girls worldwide will never learn to read or write, compared to 10 million boys. Education is universally recognised as a key route out of poverty: however, it is often poverty itself which blocks access to this crucial pathway. Even amongst the few women who can access an education, the quality of that education is often hindered by impoverished living conditions such as a lack clean water, sanitation facilities, durable housing, safety and sufficient living space.
Women are not a monolithic vulnerable demographic in society, but an intersectional one representing approximately 50% of the global population. We cannot achieve global sustainable development and a fully productive, successful society by excluding half of the world’s population. This was compellingly summarised by UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, Anne Hathaway at the B20 Indonesia Summit in 2022.
Gender equality and the digital revolution
This canyon in gender equality is set to be cleaved even further by today’s digital revolution. If an education and career in STEM is one of the fastest routes out of poverty and a key vehicle for upward social mobility, then those without access are destined to be left light years behind. For example, the CSW67 event ‘South African Women and Girls Breaking the Digital Glass Ceiling’ demonstrated that despite South Africa being a BRICS country, many of its women and girls are missing out on its digital revolution due to the inequities left behind by the history of apartheid, combined with a lack of resources and infrastructure in rural areas.
In our new digital age, AI is taking the world by storm and will shape the future, into which magical innovations such as Chat-GPT provide a glimpse; yet only one in five people employed in AI are women, further skewing our progress towards the needs and rights of men only, as the data that underpins AI will be inevitably biased.
Online access and accessible education
As a woman in tech and member of BCS, I have been fortunate enough to experience the wonders of the digital age first hand. Over the last nine months I have been adding to my substantial commercial experience in data analysis and advancing towards a career in data science/software engineering. I have upskilled in advanced data analysis, Python, SQL, AI & ML, Azure, Power BI, Tableau, and advanced Excel tools including Power Query. I am now completing a Software Engineering Bootcamp where I am learning even more highly complex elements of software engineering.
The ability to access flexible, affordable online courses that facilitate working around my full-time role and other life commitments made this possible. Access to the internet and a computer has made an increasing number of organisations such as BCS, CodeFirstGirls, WomenWhoCode, Niyo Bootcamps and BlackGirlsInTech, easily accessible. These organisations are actively working towards closing the gender and diversity gap by catering for and supporting the upskilling of women and girls.
In this regard the internet is a panacea to any information gap, instantly disseminating encyclopaedic knowledge and education to all parts of the world 24 hours a day — but only for those who have access, and this is key. In response, UN Women have set four goals to create an equal digital future, in line with their CSW67 priority theme of innovation and technological advancement. These are:
- Remove all barriers to access the digital world
- Educate and train women and girls in STEM
- Enable women to create tech that meets their needs
- Eliminate online gender-based violence
The dark side of digital access
For all its promise and potential, there are sinister sides to the internet and current digital revolution. On the other side of the coin to those without access to technology, there are those whose access is marred by vulnerability to sexual exploitation, violence, stalking, hacking, harassment, trolling, zoom-bombing and unwanted exposure to indecent imagery through smartphones, the internet, social media and email. It is even advised to use privacy covers for all smart device cameras at all times, as they can be discreetly hacked by predators even when seemingly offline.
While these issues are not exclusive to women and girls, it is women and girls who are targeted the most. The data reveals the magnitude to which the safety of women and girls is a grave concern: over 70% of women in the UK say they have experienced sexual harassment in a public space, and only 3-4% of the 18-24-year-old women surveyed were able to say that they had never experienced any form of sexual harassment. Harrowingly, every 10 minutes somewhere in the world an adolescent girl is violently murdered.
Unfortunately, our digital world reflects the disparities and depravities present in our physical world, and with the addition of anonymity (which can encourage behaviours that would otherwise be deterred by the public or professional gaze), such ills are often exacerbated, as the vulnerable become increasingly accessible and predators find innovative ways to cloak their identities and activities.
In 2018, one in five women were subjected to online harassment in Canada. In Pakistan, 40% of female college students experienced online harassment in 2016, and online abuse and trolling has cost the Australian economy up to $3.7 billion to date. During lockdown, online and digitally facilitated violence and abuse dramatically escalated. Over the course of one month, online abuse had skyrocketed by 50% in Australia.
In the UK, reports to government helplines of adult intimate image abuse had doubled in the week of 23 March 2020. Northern York County, Pennsylvania experienced a shockingly dramatic 700% spike in online harassment during the period of 1st-20th April 2020 compared to the same period in the previous year.
The role of the internet in human trafficking
Perhaps one of the most heinous practices of sexual violence manifests as human trafficking and modern-day slavery, the scale and reach of which is immense — with the internet acting as a digital hunting ground. Stopthetraffik.org (a great resource for information and support) estimates that there are as many as 40.3 million victims trapped in modern-day slavery, although the number could be much higher as victims often go undetected.
The 2009 UNODC report on human trafficking offered the first global assessment of the scope of human trafficking and what is being done to fight it. Based on data from 155 countries, the report found that 79% of human trafficking is for reasons of sexual exploitation. The majority of the victims were women and girls. The 2022 edition of the same report found that the pandemic, with the closure of public spaces, pushed this illegal activity further underground, making victims harder to trace and rescue. Women and children suffer greater violence at the hands of traffickers and are particularly vulnerable following wars and disasters such as recent catastrophes in Sudan, Syria, Turkey, and Ukraine.
Technology against human trafficking
The landscape is not completely bleak, however, because although technological innovation in the wrong hands can be exploited to target victims, in the right hands it can be deployed to combat such abuse. The CSW67 event ‘Using Technology to Fight Modern-Day Slavery of Women and Girls’ explored innovative partnerships formed to address human trafficking of women and girls through interdisciplinary, multi-agency collaboration employing technology. The discussion featured organisations such as the San Francisco Collaborative Against Human Trafficking (SFCAHT), 3Strands Global Foundation and ResourceFull, an innovative app for the support of human trafficking survivors.
SFCAHT are committed to ending human trafficking through collaboration, education, outreach, and advocacy. They actively support survivors of human trafficking by taking a zero-tolerance stance on exploitation, violence, and trafficking and by building a strong group of anti-trafficking advocates and experts in the Bay area. They aim to raise public awareness on human trafficking while strengthening and developing the partnership between San Francisco's service providers, law enforcement agencies, policy advocates, and community activists seeking to end human trafficking.
The 3Strands Global Foundation was founded in response to a horrific eight-day trafficking incident of a young girl, which rocked a close-knit Californian community and highlighted the need for major increases in the number of accessible, tailored resources and support for survivors and those who face barriers to sustainable economic opportunities. To tackle this issue 3SGF launched the Employ + Empower program, which has helped support and economically empower hundreds of individuals.
The ResourceFull app: a case study of UN Women’s goals
The ResourceFull app is a product of AnnieCannons Inc., and is accessible via both desktop and mobile. It is an encrypted portal for both survivors of human trafficking and providers of support services for survivors. It brings together providers including SFCAHT, 3Strands and multiple others in an innovative hub — it is an effective tool, providing immediate help in the palm of the hand or at the click of a mouse. Survivors can discreetly access the app on their mobiles or desktops here. Mobiles are often donated by supporters.
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Using the app, survivors can filter a database of support providers through various categories and from there choose the right resources for their needs. They then submit a single application which is sent to all suitable providers, limiting the need for survivors to go through the ordeal of making a separate application to each provider. Survivors are then directly connected to providers who can offer the support services they need, which can range from housing, employment, and financial support to counselling and health services.
The ResourceFull app is currently only available in the San Francisco area, but it provides a perfect prototype and opportunity for collaboration with similar apps in other regions to create a global resource. With the appropriate software modifications, such an app could potentially provide a direct link to support services in a survivor’s immediate vicinity anywhere in the world and be a vital lifeline.
From a data science perspective, another great way to expand the scope of the app would be to include data propensity models to sensitively statistically analyse the data gathered from survivors and build a profile of each to predict which users are more vulnerable to falling back into the life of human trafficking, and therefore would benefit from extra support and safeguarding.
The ResourceFull app is a perfect example of UN Women’s four innovation and technological goals, introduced at the beginning of this article. It provides a portal to and removes all barriers from digital access, enabling users to easily reach appropriate support services. It can be used to raise awareness of human trafficking and the support services available, including retraining opportunities for survivors.
Through technological innovation, the creators and partners of ResourceFull have empowered women and girls in desperate situations to find support. By drawing together services in one central location, the app contributes to the elimination of both offline and online gender-based violence. In this vein the ResourceFull App is a prime example of how innovation, technology and education/ awareness in the digital age can and should be tools for the empowerment of women and girls.
You can find out more about becoming a provider on the app, access its services or become a general supporter.
CSW67 has been a monumental occasion, from which I hope real and sustained change will follow. After I raised awareness, I was proud of the number of women’s rights advocates and allies in my network who joined the commission in support. Though this year’s session has drawn to a close, I look forward to the several post CSW67 events on the horizon, as the quest for equity is far from over — in fact it will take an incredible 300 hundred years to become a reality, unless urgent and enduring action is taken. I look forward to continuing to be active in this space and to support UN Women’s ongoing efforts.
Find out more
Find out more and how you can also support UN Women and join next year’s CSW.
You can also get involved with UN Women’s most recent calls to action, which are:
If you would like to access help for or report a case of human trafficking, support can be accessed from the following international helplines.