Gender and Digital Health: Reflections on the Global Digital Health Forum

Kate Plourde is a Senior Technical Officer at FHI 360

Digital health’s ability to reach remote and marginalized populations at scale via cost-effective, confidential, and convenient platforms has the potential to support massive gains in women’s and girls’ empowerment.  Digital tools can provide women and girls access to critical resources that may otherwise be out of reach, such as health information, social support networks, safety information, and violence response services. Yet, gaps in access to mobile phones and other technologies, differential power imbalances between males and females, and technological illiteracy hinder the potential transformative impact of digital health for women and girls. At this year’s Global Digital Health Forum, several presentations highlighted both the opportunities and constraints faced by the field in bridging the digital divide and harnessing the power of technology to improve the lives of women and girls.

During a session titled, “Closing the Gender Gap in Data and Digital Health,” panelist Shaidi Badiee from Open Data Watch highlighted the paucity of gender disaggregated and gender-sensitive indicators in health information and Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS) systems. While the importance of ensuring equity in data collection is indisputable—steps must also be taken to ensure the protection of such data. Panelists from a session titled “Data Privacy and Security” debated the tension between the right to be counted and the right to data privacy—particularly in emergency settings.  William Menson, of the Global Health Initiative, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, discussed gender differences in response rates among participants in a mobile phone survey during a panel titled “Is It Working? Approaches for Measuring Impact of mHealth Interventions.” Dr. Menson found that males were much easier to reach than females, suggesting potential gender discrepancies in phone access and ownership, and possible implications for the reach of digital health programs.

When accessible, mobile phones offer a platform to receive information in private and confidential manner. However, as with any health program, there are risks associated with participation. Messages on health content, if seen by others, lead to potential health status disclosure, exposure of health behaviors that may not be widely accepted such as contraceptive use, or suspicion of extramarital sexual activity by partners. These risks reflect gender norms that dictate beliefs about acceptable behavior and that contribute to the experience of gender-based violence.  Kate Reiss, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, highlighted the potential for unintended consequences for female participants in digital health programs—as well as the paucity of research on this topic. During the panel on closing the gender gap in data and digital health panelists and attendees debated the need to involve men and health care workers in programs to circumvent challenges such as gender differentiated access and the risk of negative outcomes.  This debate highlighted the need to  engage the wider community without reinforcing long standing power imbalances related to the control and distribution of knowledge.  

The opportunities and challenges raised during this conference point to a need for the digital health community to move toward gender transformative research and programming. The urgent need to identify gender data gaps in large scale digital health information systems and to promote gender-sensitive data collection was a common theme.  Gender analysis in the evaluation of digital health programs is sorely lacking and efforts must be made to ensure the inclusion of gender sensitive indicators in data collection and the protection of that data.  Further exploration of the potential negative impacts of digital health programs that may result from unequal power dynamics is also needed.  Finally, concerted efforts are needed to ensure equity in data collection and access to information and tools if we are to harness the full potential of digital tools to improve the lives of women and girls.