India is going through a digital revolution that is led by mobile phones. Important services like finance, healthcare, education, and social security are being delivered through mobile phones. This holds promise for empowering large sections of the Indian population that were hard-to-serve so far. However, existing real-life social, economic, and cultural barriers that are seeping into the digital realm are impeding progress. Gender-based barriers are among the most prominent barriers to empowerment in this regard. In this article, Srikara Prasad looks at how existing gender norms and social outlook is preventing women’s digital empowerment.

[Before I dive into this article, I want to put on record that I am conscious of the concerns with a man writing about patriarchy and barriers that women face. I will, therefore, focus on synthesizing public knowledge on the gender divide in digital empowerment arising due to gender norms and patriarchal structures. I am going to keep my own views to a bare minimum to avoid tainting this article with any gender bias I might have.]

A Mobile Phone-led Digital Revolution

The global push towards digitisation is increasingly relocating the world’s functionings to the digital realm. India’s digitisation drive is already delivering important services like finance, healthcare, education, social security, agricultural solutions and public services. At the same time, mobile phone adoption in India is increasing at a rapid pace. India is the world’s second largest smartphone market today, despite less than half its population owning a smartphone. A large section of the remaining population owns feature phones. As a result, India has adopted a mobile phone-led digital revolution i.e. delivering digital services through mobile phones.

This can play a crucial role in empowering people, and especially those at the last mile who were hard-to-reach through analogue channels.

Gender and The Digital Divide in India

The mobile phone, more than any other device, can be a gateway for people to enter and participate in the digital economy.

Unfortunately, this gateway is not open for everyone. To fully appreciate the breadth of this issue, it may be essential to take a bird’s eye view of the barriers to access to the digital space. The barriers that people face because of their socio-economic identity (gender, class, caste etc.) are well documented. These barriers create a divide by limiting how different people access services and participate in society, and in many cases, also have the effect of excluding people altogether. These real-world barriers seem to be seeping into the digital realm and creating a “digital divide”. The digital divide refers to the differences caused by socio-economic factors in peoples’ access to digital technology and services and in peoples’ skills and capabilities in using them.

Gender is one of the prominent factors driving the digital divide in India. The difference between men and women’s access to digital technology and services is vast. For example, only 35% of internet users in India are women. This divide is more deeply felt once intersectional factors are considered. For example, the number of women internet users in rural India is only 31% compared to 39% in urban India. Similarly, the divide may vary depending on other factors like marital status, age, income, ethnicity, literacy etc. For instance, married women are a lot more constrained from using their mobile phones freely. Women aged above 45 years are also more likely to not have mobile phones than women below that age.

This gender-based digital divide can be traced to the age-old gender norms and values developed in a patriarchal society. The same norms and values that became barriers to women from accessing quality education, employment and leisure appear to be impeding women’s access to the digital realm. These factors in particular, in the larger context of India’s gender-based digital divide, is perhaps best examined by going back to the mobile phone led digital revolution.

A Closer Look at the Barriers to Digital Empowerment for Women

While India’s digital revolution is charging ahead through the mobile phone, women are lagging behind in access and skills to use mobile phones. For instance, the gap in mobile phone ownership between men and women was close to 26% in 2018. A study commissioned by Dvara Research with Inblick Advisory (see here) explored some of the contours of this gender-based digital divide in India based on existing literature and interviews with academicians, experts and practitioners working with low-income women groups.

The key findings of the study suggest that women are more likely to use shared mobile phones or hand-downs, rather than owning a mobile phone. Even when women own a mobile phone, they are likely to own a feature phone which offers fewer functionalities than a smartphone. Additionally, women’s use of the mobile phone is monitored, surveilled and controlled by members of the household to protect family reputation. The purposes that women are allowed to use mobile phones are also limited only to “necessities”, such as calling their husbands or close family members.

Per the study, women reportedly face the following social, cultural and physical barriers that impede their access and use of mobile phones:

  • Lack of independent income and agency on spending that income constrains women from purchasing and maintaining their own mobile phones. As a result, women rely on phones that are shared in the household or on hand-downs.
  • Low levels of literacy and digital literacy among women constrain women’s ability and skill to use mobile phones and services. Women’s comfort and ability to perform tasks on mobile phones also seem to decrease as the task becomes more sophisticated. For instance, while she may be able to use the phone for calls, she may be unable to send messages or use internet services. Women also seem to face difficulties in gaining digital literacy required to use mobile phones comfortably. Some of the main reasons for this include low rates of literacy, in general, and inadequate guidance and support from members in the household who use mobile phones more comfortably.
  • Pre-existing notions about women’s abilities to use mobile phone seem to become barriers for women to access mobile phones. Notions like women not needing phones outside the house, women not having to use mobile phones for leisure and women not being able to use mobile phones properly become stereotypes that in turn question why women need mobile phones at all.
  • Safety and security concerns stemming from women’s use of the internet and social media also constrain women’s usage of mobile phones. On one hand, women’s use may be limited by family members who fear reputational harm. On the other hand, women may self-censor their activities online due to the risk of harm.

Conclusion

Centuries of patriarchy has constrained women’s agency and ability to participate in society. The current digital revolution gives us an opportunity to empower women socially, economically and politically. However, the inconspicuous movement of patriarchal barriers existing in offline spaces to the digital realm risks reinforcing the same structural barriers that have constrained women so far.

Going ahead, policymakers as well as industry entities must be gender-sensitive while making public policy and designing digital technology. This is no ordinary task, especially with limited information available on this issue. There is a clear need for more research on this issue to fully understand the constraints that women face and in devising the right interventions.

The last global revolution that sparked the industrial age remained blind to women, creating massive structural barriers to gender parity. The current digital revolution should not make the same mistake.

Edited by: Sreyoshi Guha