Meet the women closing the digital divide in rural China


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Meet the women closing the digital divide in rural China

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes
© Women Up

Digital technology has immense transformative potential. Just think of the possibilities unlocked by the click of a mouse or a tap on a screen: banking, education, social media and much more.

But around the world, rural women have disproportionately limited access to this technology. This pervasive digital divide is part of the reason education and economic independence remain out of reach for many women.

Investing in women's digital empowerment and closing this divide can foster prosperity not just for them, but for entire communities. These three remarkable rural women revitalizing their villages in central China’s picturesque Hunan Province are living proof of this.

Building a thriving rural business

Thirty-five-year-old Ma Qinyan once pursued a career as an architectural designer in the southeastern city of Shenzhen. But she always harboured a desire to contribute to the prosperity of her native village in Hunan.

Spotting a business opportunity in her region’s renowned spicy cuisine, Qinyan made the bold decision to return to her rural roots and start a chili sauce business. At first, her customer base was smaller than she had hoped.

That's when she learned about Women Up, a training initiative supported by IFAD and the Youcheng Foundation focused on rural women's economic empowerment. Qinyan decided to take a chance and signed up for classes in digital literacy and entrepreneurship.

Armed with new skills, she started using e-commerce and livestreaming to promote her products. Now her business is thriving – and by passing on what she has learned to her fellow villagers, she’s cultivating a new generation of digitally empowered rural women.

"I refuse to let my villagers down. I want to be a beacon of hope for them," says Qinyan.

Ma Qinyan (right) speaks at a training session in Fenghuang as part of the Women Up initiative. © Women Up


Empowering future generations

The Women Up initiative was part of the broader Hunan Rural Revitalization Demonstration Project, which is increasing economic resilience across the province. In particular, the project aims to expand opportunities for rural youth and women.

Zhang Jinyou knows all too well what it feels like to lack these. Born into a difficult financial situation exacerbated by her mother's disability, Jinyou eventually dropped out of high school to support her family.

Now a 41-year-old mother of two, she’s determined to break the cycle of hardship that once defined her life.

Like Qinyan, Jinyou participated in Women Up’s training and gained a variety of digital skills, including broadcasting and online finance. Her sense of hope and purpose renewed, she decided to begin a career in e-commerce.

Today, Jinyou doesn’t just sell chili peppers and grapes for a local company via livestreaming – she is also in the process of establishing her own e-commerce business. Her children are in school and have a bright future ahead of them in an economically revitalized village.

“E-commerce was a daunting challenge. But this training reignited my optimism and provided me with the resilience to persevere,” says Jinyou.

Jinyou (right) and a fellow villager livestream in rural Fenghuang County, China. © Women Up


Age is just a number

Many people associate digital technology and social media with younger generations. Long Yuan'ai is proving them wrong.

Yuan’ai, 61, had already retired from her job at a local insurance company when she came across Women Up. But she didn’t let her age stop her from taking part – instead, she jumped at the opportunity to learn a new set of skills.

Today, Yuan’ai is using her newfound digital literacy to support a career in e-commerce. She’s even beating young users of Douyin – the equivalent of TikTok in China – at their own game.

Drawing on her expertise in kiwi farming, she launched an agriculture-themed Douyin page that gained thousands of followers in just two months. Now the kiwi farms of Hunan are reaching screens across China, boosting sales and uplifting the community she loves.

"For me, age is never an excuse to halt progress," says Yuan'ai.

Yuan'ai presents a product she helped to market at a Women Up training in Fenghuang. © Women Up


Gender inequality is a major obstacle to sustainable, inclusive rural development. That's why IFAD works across the world to eliminate it in all its forms – and in our interconnected modern world, it is essential that this include the digital divide.

In rural China, Qinyan, Jinyou and Yuan’ai are demonstrating what this looks like: digitally empowered women of all ages, forging their own paths and spearheading their communities’ development.