August 13, 2020

Digital Isolation: Exploring the digital divide for COVID related Information

Students in Waziristan, did not think that they would be holding protests during the lockdown – yet it was the lockdown itself that ended up shining a light on their problem.

While the Government directed all educational institutions to hold online classes, students who lived in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Balochistan could not imagine attending these classes since a majority of them do not even have access to the internet. This was especially so in the merged tribal districts of KP, where the students were protesting. 

The lockdown across Pakistan ended up emphasizing that not everyone could access information about COVID-19 itself, leaving several thousands – even millions – in an ‘information blackhole’, creating serious implications for access and attitude to healthcare.

Hassan Turi, is a teacher from lower Kurram and has experienced first hand the impact of this information blackhole. He says that during the lockdown period, no one in his locality even knew about the Coronavirus and its effects.

“They are so unaware about the whole situation, that they did not even know why people were wearing masks, and laughed at some city dwellers seeing them panic,” Hassan says.

Amongst the four main towns of Kurram, there is only one telephone exchange located in Alizai. Even this becomes hard to reach because two of the towns are separated by the Kurram River in the middle. 

The WiFi here and in other places is non-existent; most of the internet available is through LAN connections but their quality is terrible.

“What is laughable is that we have been repeatedly told that it is unsafe and insecure to open up these services because we are near the border,” says Hassan. “And yet our village people occasionally get internet signals from the Afghanistan side. That is what we often use, Afghan internet.”

According to Hassan, all the tribal agencies and districts have been deprived of important information that could have serious impacts on their health.

“They are so unaware about the whole situation, that they did not even know why people were wearing masks, and laughed at some city dwellers seeing them panic."

- Hassan Turi

Meanwhile Minal, who lives in Islamabad and originally hails from Bajaur agency of former FATA, says there is a huge rift between the public in the two places in terms of internet usage.

“Yes TV is giving out information and awareness regarding Coronavirus, but not in every aspect like the internet is,” Minal  says. “TV news tends to be filtered and is mostly centred on Pakistan, whereas it is equally important to receive information from the rest of the world.”

She says that social media, while spreading a lot of false news, it also gives a lot of credible news and is extremely important for the public in times like these. 

“In Bajaur and other [tribal] areas, people are still not taking the COVID situation seriously, and lockdown is a joke [here],” she agrees with Hassan. “The lockdown has also affected women’s health,” she says adding, “My cousin was pregnant and she could not see the doctor regularly. Her baby was born premature at six months and is now in the hospital incubator. For a long time, doctors had to guide her on the phone, because there was no video available, and it was extremely difficult.”

Often her family members residing in Bajaur ask her to help out with information. “Only recently I went online to search for doctors for someone and to research about medications for them,” she said. “Access to health care is very difficult nowadays so the internet has to be used for it. Some one even called me to ask me about the virus, whether it is true that it is so deadly.”

“The lockdown has also affected women’s health. My cousin was pregnant and she could not see the doctor regularly."

- Minal

 Where access to the internet is a challenge in these regions, conservative mindset actively stops women from accessing the internet. “Most people listen to radio, that too [only] local channels,” Minal says. 

Women Worse Off

It is still relatively easier for the men to travel long distances to access the internet or some form of communication. For women who live in these areas, this is entirely impossible to do. 

Naila Altaf, a woman from Kurram district, says that she has to travel to and from work every day and occasionally loses all signals even to her cellular services, let alone the internet.

“For women the situation is ten times worse,” she says. “Most of us are bound inside and we cannot communicate, or research. It is also impossible for a woman to do some kind of employment online.”

Farkhanda, a teacher from Waziristan, says that whether there is war or peace, it is women who have to face the brunt of it, especially in terms of progress and development.

"For women the situation is ten times worse."

- Naila Altaf

“Men are also in a bad situation, but they still have the option of roaming around; we continue to be bound by social restrictions, and sometimes it is actually unsafe for us to travel around desolate places with no communication,” she said. 

In 2018, globally around 250 million fewer women are online than men; the internet user gap between genders increased to 12 percent in 2016. In developing countries, the gap is reportedly 31 percent.

It was reported that internet penetration has risen to 68 million, with an increase of 33 percent users out of which 21 percent are men and 12 percent are women.  Whereas the same year, Dawn reported that out of 35 million social media users in Pakistan, only 23 percent are female.

Geographically most internet users in Pakistan are based in cities. In 2016, it was recorded that 17.8 percent of the total population were users of the internet, which was an increase from 1.2 percent since 2015. 

"We continue to be bound by social restrictions, and sometimes it is actually unsafe for us to travel around desolate places with no communication."

- Farkhanda

Kainat Kamal – a university student from Kohat says that there are two different types of scenarios. “There are those women who are educated and computer literate, but have no access to the net, and then there are those who are not even trained to use the internet,” she says. “In some of the areas, accessing the internet is completely impossible, and for female students this means no studying or research.”

Kainat says that in many areas, a male student can still go to his friend’s house to use the internet. For a woman this is next to impossible. “For men, it is easier because there are no societal norms imposed; there is also no social distancing being observed especially among men.”

Meanwhile she says for almost every woman, under the COVID lockdown, access to healthcare is an issue, especially where women’s health is concerned. “Most doctors have shifted to online examinations including for mental health and natal health,” she says. “My sister used to get regular checkups when she was in Islamabad, now, she has to shift online for it and it is causing great stress because there is no [internet] access.”

Mental health, and pregnancy are two healthcare areas where patients need regular check ups, and bad quality or no internet has made it a great hurdle. 

Kainat adds that the internet is one of the biggest sources of information. “Reliance on the internet is much more than the reliance on information through TV. This is especially true for women who remain at home the whole day.”

"Most doctors have shifted to online examinations including for mental health and natal health. My sister used to get regular checkups when she was in Islamabad, now, she has to shift online for it and it is causing great stress because there is no [internet] access.”

- Kainat Kamal

Shahida Shah, a Peshawar based women’s rights activist who is currently the KP coordinator for a Ministry of Human Rights project informs that those women who live in the rural areas are the ones who suffer most. These women have absolutely no access to WhatsApp services for domestic violence, nor can they see, hear or read anything related to the ongoing crisis of the Coronavirus. 

“Cities are better, but rural areas are terrible in these terms. It’s a patriarchal situation, where women are not even allowed to leave home,” she concluded. The wide gap between the privileged and the underprivileged in terms of digital access can be seen best in the rural settings. As reported by the World Bank Collection of Development Indicators in 2016, Pakistan , is said to have 60.78 percent rural population density.

A similar situation is in some of the feudally controlled areas of Sindh, where women are also not allowed to use the internet.

A source informs that women within the feudal family are ‘banned’ from the internet.

In towns like Khandu in Sindh, there are many educated young girls and women who know how to use the internet.

Nisar, a resident of the area, says that the girls use Whatsapp groups a lot, for information. But in another village Jamal Dehri, on top of illiteracy among women,  they are not allowed to use the internet as well.They must go through a man, even if they require information regarding healthcare during lockdown. 

Challenges apart from healthcare

KP based social activist Khushal Khattak, says with the spread of e-commerce and small businesses, without the participation of women, it would be a huge loss for economic development, but also a hurdle in helping women in sharpening and excelling their skills.

“We are not talking about a small population: the merged districts [of former FATA] have a population of around eight million, most of them young people,” he says. 

For farmers, it is integral that they get daily weather updates so they can do whatever it takes to protect their crops. But the only news they can receive is on the radio, and that too not always in detail.

The Pakistan Meteorological Department has initiated a YouTube channel where farmers from all regions can watch enacted videos where the upcoming weather is discussed and forecasts are made. But how many of these farmers even have access to the internet, questions Aamer Hayat Bhandara, a Pakpattan based progressive farmer, who was also an elected member of the district council from 2016-18.

Bhandara says that there are some areas so remote, especially those close to the borders, that the farmers are decades behind and often rely on traditional methods instead of being able to access news and updates.

"The internet facility has been closed down since 2017, due to military operations. This is a huge cause of concern for students for their research, and especially now when the authorities want us to take our classes online."

- Sayed Mohammad

A campaign to encourage farmers to use phones may have begun to bridge the divide, but many of the areas do not have cell phone signals either.

In the same way, women in the rural areas are affected too. Home based workers who work in a number of industries are bereft of digital access, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation.

Nighat Dad, a lawyer and Executive Director of Digital Rights Foundation, says, “[The] Internet is something that must not be accessible to only an exclusive few.”

According to the Constitution at least three articles promise this civil right –  Article 4 promises that every individual will be dealt with in accordance to law, Article 19 ensures access to information and Article 25 guarantees the right to education. “In any case, [the] internet is not for only those who live in urban areas and are socio-economically privileged. The digital divide must end,” Nighat says. Her organisation set up ‘Hamara Internet’ in 2017 that addresses digital violence against women.

Digital Alienation

On April 14, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) directed the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) to restore 3G and 4G services in the former FATA region. Justice Athar Minallah declared that the Internet was a basic right of every citizen, and asked the services to be reinstated.

Sayed Mohammad, a resident of Upper Kurram District, was also one of the students affected by the internet shutdown in former FATA. It was he who filed a writ petition at the IHC. “The internet facility has been closed down since 2017, due to military operations,” he says. “This is a huge cause of concern for students for their research, and especially now when the authorities want us to take our classes online. It has affected thousands of students in the former FATA areas. This is nothing but infringement of our digital rights, and our socio-political freedom.”

But it has also affected their health rights.

It is the same in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) and Azad Jammu and Kashmir. The Special Communications Organization (SCO) which is run by the military, has complete control over the provision of both telecom and the internet. While the IHC has directed PTA to restore services, in April 2018 the SCO challenged the PTA’s decision to launch 3G/4G services in GB. 

Balochistan is not far behind when it comes to being part of the digital divide for both men and women. Student Jaffar Khan Kakar, who lives in Quetta, says that most of the conflict zones in the region have absolutely no access to 3G/4G services or WiFi. 

"Our village people occasionally get internet signals from the Afghanistan side. That is what we often use, Afghan internet.”

- Hassan Turi

“The other areas except a few cities including Pishin, Muslimbagh, Zhob and Khuzdar, have very low accessibility,” Jaffar informs. “The speed is so slow that sometimes it is impossible to even open a single webpage. Mobile networks have very low signals while there are added factors of low connectivity.”

Hassan mourns the lack of opportunities that the people of his area can explore with proper internet access. “When I use the internet, my local people ask me about things, because they can’t access it themselves… so much more could have been done ”

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