Interview Boutheina Guermazi « Women and men must have the same opportunities to access digital technology”
Tunisian Boutheina Guermazi is what one might call “Ms. Digital” of the World Bank, an institution she joined in 2004. In this interview, she talks about her experience in the digital sector, her mission within the World Bank, and especially the importance the Bank places on the digital inclusion of women, poor populations and rural communities. Interview.
Before talking about women in digital, tell us about yourself: your career and your mission in the digital development department at the World Bank?
I was born and grew up in Tunisia, a country that is now relying heavily on digital transformation. As early as 1999, Tunisia had created a national commission for electronic commerce. A decade later, in 2018, the country adopted the “Startup Act”, a new regulatory framework to promote digital entrepreneurship. Yet, the Middle East and North Africa region, where 280 million people still do not have the opportunity to take advantage of digital technologies, still has some way to go to promote digital inclusion. The pandemic has shown us how important digital access is.
When I was a student, the Internet was in its infancy, and I set my sights on public law. It was during my studies that I developed my interest in telecommunications regulation, a field I furthered by completing my PhD at McGill.
« My teams support the governments of developing countries to accelerate their digital transformation”
After a stint at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), I joined the World Bank in 2004 as an ICT policy specialist. Specifically, my role was to support African governments in their plans to expand access to mobile telephony and the Internet for all. At the time, this literally meant connecting some countries to the World Wide Web.
I gradually moved into management roles until I became the director of digital development. Within a few years, our approach changed to keep up with the changes in the sector. Moreover, it’s more accurate to talk about the digital economy than the digital sector, since all sectors are now “irrigated” by digital innovation.
My teams support the governments of developing countries to accelerate their digital transformation, while emphasizing digital inclusion, especially for women, the poorest populations, rural communities, youth and people with disabilities.
Do you have a program for women digital entrepreneurs, as part of your mission? What challenges do these women face and how can you better support them? How do you, through the World Bank, support them?
Promoting access to digital technology for women and girls is at the heart of our mission, and our projects systematically seek to include the gender dimension. In fact, we have just finalized our strategy on women’s access to digital technology, which emphasizes the importance of digital skills to promote women’s entrepreneurship. This is all the more important in the current context where digital technology plays an absolutely fundamental role in facilitating access to essential services such as education, health or monetary allowances.
For example, in Nigeria, in Kaduna State, Click-on Kaduna, a pilot program funded by the World Bank with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation, has offered digital skills training to young women. They also had access to free meals and childcare, as it is essential to take into account the social context that often prevents women from taking such training.
During the pandemic, we found that many of the young women who had completed this program were able to continue working with their newly acquired skills. This program was so successful that it will be expanded.
A similar program has also been set up in Kosovo under the WoW (Women in online Work) program.
Finally, we have established a partnership with CES, the major technology trade show, and launched the Global Tech Challenge: Solutions for Women, which aims to reduce the digital divide between men and women. The winners of this tech challenge are three organizations that have succeeded in democratizing Internet access and boosting women’s entrepreneurship: Bridge for Billions, MicroMentor and Soochnapreneur.
It is from this perspective that you joined the JFD Africa adventure…
It is a great honor for me to be part of this adventure. As a woman in the tech world, I find it inconceivable to live in a two-tier world where women and girls don’t have as many opportunities as men to access the digital world. This is all the more true since digital inequalities exacerbate other inequalities such as access to the labor market, education, health and finance.
In conclusion, women in Africa undertake business not by vocation but by necessity, and the vast majority of them are in the informal sector. What opportunities does digital technology offer to women entrepreneurs in Africa?
This is exactly what needs to change. It’s not just about giving girls and women access to digital technologies. It’s about ensuring that they don’t just become users, but digital actors and creators of content and income.
Connecting women entrepreneurs to digital technology means opening up markets and opportunities for them.