Leaving No One Behind: Advancing the Role of Women and Girls in Science, Technology and Innovation (STI)

June 7, 2016 IMG_0917

By Sachini Perera, Senior Programme Officer, ARROW (@sachinip)

Based on a presentation during a roundtable on “Leaving No One Behind” hosted by the CSO FFD Group, ETC Group, and UN MGCY at the first annual Multi-stakeholder Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for the SDGs (STI Forum).


I’m going to focus on the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of women and girls and on why and how technology transfer could be harnessed to uphold their rights.

Women and girls are not a homogenous group. We are diverse[i] and very often we face multiple discriminations and marginalization depending on that diversity as well as crosscutting issues such as poverty, food insecurity, religious fundamentalism, climate change, etc. And these continue throughout the life cycle.

Challenges in advancing the role of women and girls in STI


While the gender gap in education is decreasing in primary and tertiary education, the fact remains that there is still a gap. Gender stereotyping of subjects and areas of work has resulted in no growth in STEM jobs for women. Women and girls continue to be seen as “users” and “receivers” of technology, even when it comes to technology that directly affects them, and they are not seen as innovators who could contribute to technology design and development.

Traditional roles and social norms

Multiple roles as caregivers and breadwinners mean women have little time to engage with technology, whether as innovators or users. This also results in women not having access to ways to record and pass down informal knowledge. SRHR is essentially about women and girls’ autonomy over their bodies and their lives. Social norms and patriarchal values restrict their autonomy and this extends to technology. An action research I was part of on Women and New Media in the Margins of the Sri Lankan State[ii] showed that many families would not allow girls unsupervised access to ICTs, whether for educational or other purposes, while boys faced no such restrictions.

Financial and infrastructure barriers

In addition to lack of agency, women and girls also often lack financial capacity and necessary infrastructure such as electricity or telecommunications infrastructure in order to access or develop technology.

Opportunities in advancing the role of women and girls in STI

Positive disruption

Technology assessment, including health technology assessment (HTA) must map sectors and issues that can convey rapid and significant benefits to women and girls, especially in developing countries. This would mean disrupting the cycle of technology development and deployment, as we know it[iii]. This would mean putting women at the center of technology development and deployment as innovators and developers and not just as users who are only consulted or included during deployment of technologies.

Implementation of existing commitments

We have been talking about women and girls’ role in science, technology and innovation for decades. It’s a matter of fully implementing the commitments governments have made over the years. For an example, the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA) in 1995 called to “Ensure women’s equal access to economic resources, including land, credit, science and technology, vocational training, information, communication and markets, as a means to further the advancement and empowerment of women and girls, including through the enhancement of their capacities to enjoy the benefits of equal access to these resources”. The Framework of Action of the International Conference of Population and Development (ICPD) similarly makes recommendations on advancing reproductive technologies.

How can the Technology Facilitation Mechanism (TFM) / STI Forum help ensure that no one is left behind in realizing the potential of STI to the achievement of the SDGs?

1) Technology and technology transfer must be understood broadly in order to be inclusive of all types of technology and knowledge and in order to include learning from innovations and best practices regardless of whether they originate from the Global North or the Global South.

Ex – ICPD FoA says the risk of death due to complications of unsafe abortion is decreasing at both global and regional levels and that this improvement is widely attributed to improved technologies and the increased use of the WHO guidelines for safe abortion and post-abortion care. While modern methods of surgical abortion as well as medical abortion through drugs such as misoprostol can clearly be identified as health technologies, it is important to remember that the definition of health technologies also includes organizational and managerial systems such as WHO guidelines and checklists.

2) Put ‘rights’ at the center. Let’s take a proposed global indicator to monitor the SDGs. Targets on universal access to SRH and RR under SDG3 on health and SDG5 on gender equality will use contraceptive prevalence rate[iv] as an indicator. Transfer of existing contraceptive technologies as well as development of new ones will be essential to achieving these targets but rights cannot be forgotten while racing towards meeting targets and indicators.

Ex – There is a current push to providing long-acting reversible contraceptions (LARCS) to young women[v]. For one, these may not meet their needs or relationship patterns and will only protect against pregnancy. Also, they are not given the information and tools to make an informed choice, including comprehensive sexuality education.

3) Technology transfer alone is not enough. Government policies and local contexts need to align and be rights-based if the transfer is to be successful. The TFM needs to be congnizant of this and engage with such aspects as well.

Ex- In 2014 in Chattisgarh India 11 women died and 50 women were left in critical condition due to a botched-up sterilization operation camp organized by a private hospital under the National Family Planning Programme. During this camp, 83 women were subject to surgeries in a short span of 5 to 6 hours. This incident was a gross violation of the reproductive and health rights of the women and a major role was played by the policies and practices of the governments in the area of family planning services. Such camps continue to be routinely organized everywhere in India in an irresponsible manner, mostly because health providers are under heavy pressure to fulfill unwritten targets coming from the above. The state still focuses on permanent methods of family planning rather than temporary methods and the two-child norm in the country significantly contributes to the pressures for sterilization.

4) We have to think and work intersectionally if the TFM is to leave no one behind. Our work on the intersections between SRHR and other development issues such as food security, nutrition, climate change and migration show that the SDGs cannot be achieved without addressing the larger global health issues and structural issues. The same applies to using STI towards the achievement of sustainable development.

Ex – Reducing maternal mortality is not always just about having a skilled/trained birth attendant or ensuring that advances in technology reach the marginalized women such as Emergency Obstetric services. Other factors include nutrition, transport to reach the nearest health facility during labor or complications, access to information (digital or otherwise) as well as communication technologies.

5) The proliferation of ICTs has enabled rapid information sharing within and amongst communities, new ways for people to network, mobilise, organise and campaign, and to bypass third parties to hold governments and other stakeholders accountable. This in turn has resulted in censorship and surveillence of ICT platforms and restriction and criminalisation of free speech online, both by the state as well as private tech companies. We also see further perpetuation of patriarchal values in online spaces with women’s bodies and sexuality being controlled and restricted through censorship. Violence against women and girls[vi] as well as the SOGIE community unfolds in various ways on ICT platforms.

Advances in ICTs have resulted in huge amounts of data being collected (big data) and being used, including to monitor development goals and targets. However regulatory mechanisms for big data seems to be inadequate and can result in violation of rights and privacy of marginalized populations like people living with and affected by HIV, LGBTIQ, MSM, sex workers and others.

If these issues are not recognized and addressed, the TFM will be yet another platform or mechanism that marginalizes women and girls. Therefore a human rights-based approach is essential in order to uphold privacy, confidentiality and human rights of marginalized groups.

6) The TFM and as well as STI action plans/roadmaps have to be inclusive of various stakeholders that form the global partnership for sustainable development. It is crucial that all stakeholders take ownership of this mechanism and harness it to achieve or to contribute towards achieving the targets set by the SDGs.

Technology is often viewed as falling within the purview of business and the private sector or academia but given that the mandate of the TFM is to benefit communities whom the SDGs are for, it is imperative that civil society organizations, including women’s rights and feminist organizations, come to the forefront of the processes around the TFM rather than letting other stakeholders lead the process.

[i] Such groups include lesbian, bisexual, and transwomen, women living with disabilities, sex workers, women in informal and precarious work, women living with and affected by HIV and AIDS, urban poor, those living in informal settlements, farmers, fisher folk, rural and remote women, indigenous women, dalits, migrants, widows, the girl child, young women, older women, heterosexual women, and women who head households, at all stages of their lives.
[ii] http://www.gender-is-citizenship.net/sites/default/files/citigen/uploads/SLDraft_cover.pdf
[iii] https://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg3/en/tssts-ts-2-6-technology-research.html
[iv] The contraceptive prevalence rate is defined as the percentage of women of reproductive age who use (or whose partners use) a contraceptive method at a given point in time.
[v] http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/publications/publications-a-z/2084-young-women-and-long-acting-reversible-contraception-
[vi] http://www.genderit.org/content/cultivating-violence-through-technology-exploring-connections-between-internet-communication