The power of co-designed technology to support Human Rights

Published on: December 10, 2021, Submitted by Laura Becker on: December 10, 2021

On this Human Rights Day, guest author Dr. Sarah-Beth Hopton explores the relationship between human rights and climate, exploring how the inclusion of women in technology design offers a solution. This blog is an excerpt from the forthcoming AI-Driven Climate- Smart Beekeeping (AID-CSB) for Women’s final report, to be released in early 2022.

Access to safe work, shelter, food, and environmental health are fundamental human rights.[1] Yet, these rights are not enjoyed universally because of climate change, which affects Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), vulnerable populations, children, and women disproportionately and exacerbates existing inequalities.[2] For example, during extreme weather events, women are more likely to die than men,[3] due to differences in socioeconomic status, financial and decision-making power to access resources, and a general lack of access to life-saving information. The economic stress induced by extreme weather events can result in spikes of domestic violence against women, or trigger famine and forced migration. On a day-to-day basis in many low-income countries, women are responsible for labor that depends on the climate such as collecting water, a simple act that, in the face of increasingly frequent and severe droughts, becomes more difficult, time-consuming, and dangerous.

Though women can and should play a significant role in solving the climate-related problems that disproportionately affect them, they are often left out of such conversations and negotiations. Close to half the world remains offline and the majority of those without access to internet connection in low-income countries (and thus, the life-saving information they need) are women.[4] According to the International Telecommunication Union, this gap in access is widening.[5] The COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated challenges of affordability, accessibility, and technology use generally, and has been particularly difficult to manage for women in rural communities already living at the economic margins.

Lack of accessibility however, only explains part of the digital gender divide. For the past 30 years, practitioners and scholars working at the intersections of gender and information communication technologies used for development (ICT4D) theorized that digital literacy, cost, and availability of hardware (like cell phones) were the principal reasons for the gender digital divide.[6] Certainly these factors contribute to the divide, but new research suggests that norms have an equal and sometimes greater impact on women’s access to and use of technology.[7] Bluntly put, many poor women have cell phones or access to communication technology because they are allowed to. Millions of women do not have access to tech because of family, community, legal[8] or religious regulations [9] that order women to protect themselves or preserve their dignity by abstaining from use. Even in more relaxed cultural settings, technology is often considered a tool specific to and appropriate for men, and community members sometimes regard women who use technology with suspicion or scorn.[10] Isolation from familial and community groups can seriously threaten women’s health, safety, and economic security. Degendering technology requires development partners to improve digital literacy and skills, decrease access costs, customize delivery mechanisms, and consider the normative values and attitudes associated with gender and technology.

While technology is not a panacea, ICT4D solutions can catalyze and empower women and BIPOC communities, especially in agriculture. Coupling women’s existing knowledge about agriculture and beekeeping with responsively-designed technology could result in a force-multiplier effect in mitigating climate-related problems like pollinator decline. Technology acts as a gateway for women to access information that can radically improve their livelihoods and those of their family and community. Intel’s “Women and the Web” report argues that doubling the number of women online in developing countries has the potential to increase global GDP by an estimated US $13-18 billion.[11]

“As the world continues to move online,” writes USAID, “the cost of digital exclusion is increasing. Without a concerted effort, the social and economic consequences of the gender digital divide will continue to grow.”[12] Technology thoughtfully designed through participatory processes can reduce this divide. However, for this multiplier effect to work, the ICT development community must normalize participatory design, localization, and the de-gendering of tech in their interventions. 

Climate change affects women, men, girls, and boys in different ways. Entrenched and systemic discrimination can lead to gender-differentiated impacts of climate change with respect to health, food security, livelihoods and human mobility. Intersectional forms of discrimination can make some women and girls more vulnerable to climate change. To counter this, women and girls from diverse backgrounds must be informed and involved in the decision-making and participatory design process of the technical solutions that are meant to assist them. Participatory design processes are a cornerstone practice of a rights-based, gender-responsive approach to technology development and climate action. An inclusive approach is not only a legal, ethical and moral obligation, but it is also the surest method by which to ensure technology adoption and effectivity.[13]

To participate in closing the gender digital divide and reversing pollinator declines, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) Monitoring Evaluation and Learning (MEL) team, HiveTracks, and the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe), partnered to make available and localize a beekeeping application for women apiarists in Uzbekistan and Ethiopia called the Beekeeper’s Companion, which helps beekeepers more effectively manage their hives, collects data important to scientific research on pollinator populations, and provides women a low-barrier economic entry point into sustainable agriculture. Use of the application improves women’s digital literacies, normalizes women’s use of technology, and provides economic autonomy.


[1] Boyd, D. (July 19, 2021). “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. United Nations General Assembly. A/76/150. 1-26.

[2] Boyd, D. (July 19, 2021). “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. United Nations General Assembly. A/76/150. 1-26 (page 15).

[3] (September, 2019). “Summary of the panel discussion on women’s rights and climate change: climate action, good practices and lessons learned.” Annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Humans Rights and reports of the Office of the High Commissioner and the Secretary-General. A/HRC/42/26. 1-12.

[4] Iglesias, Carlos. “The gender gap in internet access: using a women-centered method.” Web Foundation, 2020.

[5] International Telecom Union. (July, 2021). “Bridging the Digital Gender Divide.” Link.

[6] Steele, C. (Feb 22, 2019). “What is the gender divide.” Digital Divide Council. Link.

[7] Sterling, R/ Grubbs, L. Koutsky, T (December 15, 2020). Working Paper. “Breaking through the Gender Digital Divide: Technology, Social Norms, and the WomenConnect Challenge. USAID.

[8] Chandran, R. (2016). “Indian villages ban single women from owning 'distracting' mobile phones.” Reuters. LINK.

[9] Grant, M. (2014). “Egyptian Islamic Authority Issues Fatwas Against Selfies and Chatting Online.” Newsweek. LINK.

[10] Bellman, E. and Malhotra, A. (2016). “Why the Vast Majority of Women in India Will Never Own a Smartphone.” Wall Street Journal. LINK.

[11] “Women and the Web: Bridging the Internet gap and creating new global opportunities in low and middle-income countries.” Intel. Link.

[12] United States Agency for International Development. (2020). “The Gender Digital Divide Primer.” LINK.

[13]United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. “Gender-responsive climate action.” Link.



About the author

Sarah-Beth Hopton is at Appalachian State University.