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Blockchain technology as a tool to address gender inequality

The International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women has already passed, but I would like to share with you some passages from my Master thesis about Blockchain and the possibilities it offers to boost gender equality. I also enjoy writing in English for a change! 

The term “gender” has been gaining momentum in the last decades, but there still is much uncertainty when it comes to defining it and fully comprehending the obstacles and challenges related to gender inequality. Gender refers to the differences and the relationships between females and males. These differences are usually socially constructed and influence roles, responsibilities and power of women and men in society. Social privileges and duties are also affected by other factors, such as social class, race, religious background, wealth and disability.
Gender inequality creates huge challenges for women and girls, such as the so-called gender pay gap: women tend to earn less than men all around the world and in nearly all low and middle-income countries land ownership is more often in the hands of men. Furthermore, women often have very little control over their personal earned income and money, and they are more likely to be victims of human trafficking for the purpose of sexual and economic exploitation, especially prostitution and pornography, modern slavery and arranged marriages. There are many ways to deal with such significant problems, and technology can be one of them. Technology can improve daily life, connect people around the world and drive development, but it can also be a powerful tool that could be used to massively improve gender inequality.

Especially right now, the Internet has a huge economic and innovative impact on nations and societies. It can connect individuals and provide access to information, education and financial systems. There still are many countries that do not have the same online benefits as others though. In the last decade, mobile-Internet coverage and utility has been expanded and there has been a significant urbanization in many areas. From 2004 to 2014 approximately 1.8 billion people have come online. However, Internet access often refers to the current state of development in relation to communication networks. According to McKinsey and Company (2014), in December 2017 there were approximately 772 million Internet users in China anda total of 312 million Internet users in the United States. Still, broadband internet usage is not equally available in many countries. It is also estimated that “[a]bout 75 percent of the offline population is concentrated in 20 countries and is disproportionately rural, low income, elderly, illiterate, and female.”.
As technology advances, women are left behind in digital divide. “Digital divide” is a term which describes the gap between those who have ready access to computers and the Internet and those who do not. In this case, women and girls with poor digital literacy will struggle to find safe employment and will endeavour to benefit from digital technologies. If digital transformation can provide new channels for the economic empowerment of women and can contribute to greater gender equality, how come that approximately 327 million fewer women than men have a smartphone and can access the mobile Internet worldwide?

Blockchain technology could play a pivotal role for women worldwide. But what is it exactly? Although Blockchain and Bitcoin are often confused, they are not the same: Blockchain is the technology on which Bitcoin is based. Bitcoin was also the first practical example of this technology in action, and without Blockchain, Bitcoin would not exist. Bitcoin is a decentralized digital currency or electronic peer-to-peer payment system where users can transfer Bitcoins anonymously and without third party authorities such as banks and governments, but it is only one example of a crypto-currency; there are others based on Blockchain technology. However, Blockchain is more than that; this technology is a distributed database with many different applications.

Bitcoin is about the transfer of currency between users, while Blockchain can be used to transfer all kinds of things, including information, contracts or property rights.
Cryptography is the technology behind Blockchain. As its name suggests, a Blockchain is a chain of blocks that contains information. Blockchain was originally created in 1991 to timestamp digital documents to prevent them from being backdated or tampered. Furthermore, it is an immutable, universally distributed open ledger. This term literally means “lying open”, like a book in an office that we can use to keep track of transactions. Ledgers became more and more sophisticated with the passing of time. You cannot delete anything, but you can add to it, and every single person in the network has access to the ledger. One person can initiate a transaction by creating a block, which will be verified by a multitude of computers distributed around the net. This block is added to a chain stored across the net, which creates a unique record with a unique history. Falsifying a single record would mean falsifying the entire chain, which is virtually impossible.

But how can Blockchain be used to address gender inequality?
Financial services are a fundamental tool when it comes to development in many different facets. They can help people to invest in their health, education, and business, and they can be useful in case of a financial emergency, like a job loss. Unfortunately, there still are plenty of people around the world who lack bank accounts and digital payments and can only rely on cash, which can be unsafe and not easy to manage. With the help of digital financial services, people can increase their savings, they can reduce the cost of receiving payments and collecting money becomes easier. There are about 1.7 billion adults around the world who remain unbanked, without any bank account and mobile money providers.
Blockchain technology is based on peer-to-peer transactions. On the Blockchain, banking transactions function without an intermediary party and many cryptocurrencies offer free transactions. This could have a huge impact on women in rural areas, who would not need to go through several bureaucratic stages and employees who they may not trust in a traditional bank system to open a bank account. Furthermore, there are no costs for opening a cryptocurrency wallet, which would represent a huge advantage for many women who are less likely to afford maintenance fees in comparison to men.

Moreover, according to Giacomini & Rossi, Blockchain smart contracts can be very useful for women, who have their own private key to access the funds received. Blockchain is also a powerful tool to bring together women sharing similar experiences and supporting the gender cause: for example, activists in China have used this platform to document stories of sexual assaults, ensuring that the government and other censoring bodies cannot delete or filter out such stories. Unfortunately, it is still possible to ban the website that displays the stories and the evidence shared on the Blockchain, but it still represents the begin of the use of a tool which could be revolutionary.

In addition, Kumar Sharma showed that there are several campaigns related to Blockchain as a tool to promote social impact, for example the so-called Decade of Women campaign, which aims at improving women’s lives worldwide using the power of emerging technologies related to Blockchain and digital assets. Also, this technology could be used to reduce human trafficking. Without any ID documents, a child becomes invisible. A girl child who has been trafficked experiences migration without parents or relatives, breakdown of social networks, discrimination, prejudice, no education, housing and/or health services. She is completely overpowered by the traffickers and loses valuable childhood years in which she could have developed her skills and economic and social situation. Blockchain technology could eradicate women trafficking because women and children with recorded identification on a Blockchain would have an instant and permanent way of proving their identities.

Now it is your turn: Have you ever thought of technology as a tool to address social inequalities? How do you use it in your daily life? Did you already know the Blockchain world?

P.S. If you are interested in reading the whole paper, you can find it here.

Picture: (C) Hitesh Choudhary

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  • Ashley
    Novembre 30, 2020 at 8:23 pm

    Thank you, Camilla, for introducing me to this subject. I think I’m probably too old for these new ideas to have an impact on my life but anything that helps to put women and girls on an equal footing with men and boys is to be welcomed. I had not thought about technology being able to address the issue.
    In fact, some of the advances in the use of the internet actually frighten me because there are just so many different, unknown people involved. Please forgive my negative thoughts. I hope you receive more positive comments about your ideas soon. Best wishes. Ashley

    • Camilla Vai
      Dicembre 7, 2020 at 4:43 pm

      Thank you Ashley, as always, for your nice and very much appreciated feedback! I think the Internet is a double-edged sword, like so many things created by people. If everyone used it in a proper and efficient way, it would be a revolutionary tool. It already is, but unfortunately too many people are evil and abuse it or other people they find through it. Let’s hope the “positive” technology will overcome the negative one though! Best wishes from Italy!


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