While people across the globe are locked down under the COVID-19 pandemic and face-to-face learning has been curtailed, UNITAR Division of Prosperity is leveraging our extensive experience delivering innovative mobile-based learning to reach an increased number of women in spite of disruptions.

By quickly ramping up and expanding our online presence, UNITAR Prosperity continues to provide these women with the leadership, entrepreneurial, and financial literacy skills they need to improve their livelihoods in the face of the pandemic, challenge gender norms, and transform their societies.

Women are hardest hit by the pandemic’s socioeconomic impact

Economically, lockdowns have directly struck women’s small and medium businesses, the industries in which women are more likely to be employed, and the informal economy where they make up a disproportionate percentage of workers.

Even if the pandemic is brought under control in the short term, the devastating effects on women’s livelihoods are projected to persist for years to come. A recent UN Women report shows that the pandemic will push 96 million people into extreme poverty by 2021, 47 million of whom are women and girls. This will bring the total number of women and girls living on less than USD1.90 a day to 435 million (“From insights to action: Gender equality in the wake of COVID-19”).

The pandemic has also made it clear that access to information technology can make the difference between survival and financial devastation. Access to information technology is still strongly gendered. Globally, the proportion of women using the Internet in 2019 was 17 per cent lower than the proportion of men using the Internet, according to the International Telecommunication Union. This Internet gender gap is larger in developing countries, especially in least developed countries, and rapidly growing.

UNITAR shifts to and expands mobile learning to reach more hard-to-reach women

Nonetheless, the proliferation of mobile devices over the last decades – even in remote regions – gives us the opportunity to reach more women in countries facing social unrest, in remote and difficult-to-reach places, and while under pandemic lockdown than with our live programmes.

“In developing countries, more people use cell phones than computers. Through mobile-first learning, we are able to increase the number of people accessing our training to gain new skills and knowledge on diverse topics. Particularly, we hope to be able to reach and support increasing numbers of women and other people who have been left behind.” – Mihoko Kumamoto, Director, UNITAR Division for Prosperity

Prior to the pandemic, UNITAR Prosperity combined live sessions with cutting-edge online training through mobile devices. When it became clear that the pandemic was shutting down the world and that women were going to be among those hardest hit, the Division quickly responded, seamlessly shifting our training programmes fully online. The transition to all-virtual learning took approximately seven months, only a month longer than the average time needed to coordinate live trainings.

One programme poised to benefit from the shift is Empowering Women in Afghanistan for the Future of Work through Digital Reskilling which is supported by the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA). To be launched in 2021, the new programme is designed to help primarily rural women break free of the social constraints that have limited their educational and professional progress. It seeks to address the gender wage and skills gap, especially in technology, by equipping rural women with technical digital skills – including coding and machine learning – alongside leadership skills, so they can actively engage with the 4th Industrial Revolution.

Planning for the training began pre-COVID-19 and originally targeted 50 women. But with the shift to full online programming, UNITAR has increased the number of participants, initially to 500 and ultimately to 1,000 – a dramatic 20-fold increase in reach across the country.

Delivered in partnership with EdApp, a mobile online learning platform, the EdApp courses are comprised of bite-sized micro-lessons that can be downloaded whenever learners have Internet for later offline access and completed in 5-10 minutes. The format ensures women can work through the courses from anywhere during the pockets of time they can find in their busy days.

UNITAR Prosperity is also utilizing advanced technology tools to stand in for live activities and increase the number of women who can take part. The Women’s Leadership: Tsunami-based Disaster Risk Reduction Training programme, which took women leaders on site visits in Japan to learn about disaster risk reduction strategies, had traditionally been limited to 30 participants per cycle. But because in-person visits have been ruled out this year, the Government of Japan–supported programme has introduced virtual-reality study tours for its fifth cycle. This shift has allowed us to more than double the number of participants to 70. Virtual-reality goggles have been shipped to participants in 14 Pacific small island developing states so that they will be able to experience the site visits from wherever they were taking the class. The programme is supported by the Government and the People of Japan.

UNITAR programmes are being replicated on the ground

Tamana Farewar, UNITAR training alumna. Photo courtesy of Tamana

While COVID-19 may have affected the learning experience of many programmes, it spurred some UNITAR training alum to replicate our programme in their communities, extending the programme’s impact. In early 2020, prior to the pandemic, UNITAR trained 32 women entrepreneurs from Afghanistan and Iraq in our Frontier Technologies for Sustainable Development: Unlocking Women’s Entrepreneurship through Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Afghanistan and Iraq Programme. The programme is also supported (SIDA).

Empowered by what she had learned in the programme and concerned about COVID-19’s impact on women business owners, programme alumna Tamana Farewar took it upon herself to lead a week-long training on digital marketing for 20 women entrepreneurs in Balkh Province of Afghanistan.

“The Afghan female-led small and medium enterprises [are] experiencing a breakdown in their operation system. Thus, we needed to take urgent action to keep them moving forward... We are trying to help women-led businesses continue their activities in this hard time.” – Tamana Farewar, UNITAR training alumna

Partnerships are vital

Throughout, partnerships remain a vital resource. To boost access to e-learning and address the digital gap, UNITAR works with local institutions to provide “learning labs” where women can come to take the courses. To reach a wider group of women, the courses are announced through radio and local organizations, local governments as well as UNITAR training alumni networks. And we are exploring partnerships with more leading tech companies to broaden the content and services on offer.

Building on our extensive experience with e-learning, UNITAR Division of Prosperity will continue and expand our work to deliver practical, relevant, and innovative training to women in difficult circumstances. By so doing, UNITAR seeks to empower the most vulnerable, confront gender digital gaps, and make sure no one is “left behind.”

For learn more or support these programmes and the work of UNITAR Division of Prosperity, please contact us at prosperity@unitar.org.   

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