The digital divide and does it hold back women in India?

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Despite rapid progress in internet access in India, particularly through mobile internet usage, which nearly doubled between 2018 and 2020, the digital divide between Indian men and women remains marked. Data from the National Family Health Survey-5 [from 2019-2021] assessed men’s and women’s first-time internet use and found that only one in three women in India (33%) had ever used the internet, compared to more than half (57%) of men.

Rural India faces an even more pronounced digital divide, with men about twice as likely as women to have used the internet (49% vs. 25%). While we see the variation of the digital divide by State/Union Territory (UT), there is not a single State/UT across India in which more women than men have used the internet . Given the important role of internet access for access to information and social participation, this digital divide will further undermine equal opportunities for women and girls in India if not fully addressed. and immediately.

Source: NFHS-5 fact sheets

Growing internet use is expanding opportunities for hybrid and remote work, financial transactions, education and video calling, all of which have become increasingly important in the face of Covid-19, but the pervasive gaps between gender hinders women’s ability to realize these opportunities. We continue to view the digital divide as a barrier to financial inclusion, education, access to information, and social connections for women and girls. Equality in digital and financial inclusion is a critical component of empowering women to realize their full potential, as recognized by the Government of India through initiatives such as Digital’s National Broadband Mission India and the direct transfer of benefits. This policy direction requires sustained data inputs to understand where access and inclusion are improving and where gaps remain. The expanded range of digital connectivity questions included in the 2019-21 National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-5 provides an important opportunity to track these changes at finer levels, but it also highlights areas where women lag behind in participation.

Women’s mobile phone access, which continues to exceed their internet access, provides a gateway to digital access as smartphones increase in availability and use. Globally and especially in low-resource groups, internet access is largely increasing thanks to smartphones. NFHS-5 data reveals that about half of women in India (54%) have access to a mobile phone, an increase of 8 percentage points since 2015-2016. Unfortunately, sub-national disparities remain significant. While more than 85% of women in Goa, Sikkim and Kerala had access to mobile phones, less than 50% of women in Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh said they have access to the phone. Women’s cell phone ownership has increased during the Covid-19 pandemic, and as with global data, this growth is concentrated in smartphone ownership and therefore internet access.

This growth in mobile phone access is matched by investments in women’s financial access, including through digital banking. money accounts. The NFHS-5 is the first to collect mobile money transaction data, and it will offer important insights when the data is released. Continuously tracking women’s digital connection and mobile money transactions can help us understand if and how technology can galvanize women’s economic empowerment. This approach must undoubtedly be extended to the analysis of adolescents in order to also monitor educational opportunities, given the increase in distance learning.

While closing the digital divide must be a priority in the nation’s efforts to increase internet access, those efforts must also consider the unique or disproportionate vulnerabilities that women and girls may face from ‘Internet. Growing evidence shows that digital engagement can lead to harms for women and girls, including cyber abuse and social media-related mental health issues. A recent analysis of data from Twitter in India demonstrates that online misogyny on social media platforms exists and is increasing under Covid, and such findings are likely not unique to this particular social media platform. Data from India indicates an increase in cyberbullying and other forms of cybersexual harassment, with teenage girls and young adults bearing the brunt of this abuse. Online education due to the demands of remote learning during the pandemic may exacerbate these abuses. While laws are forming to support social protection, these are lagging behind the capabilities and uses of the internet.

National-level improvements in internet use, mobile phone access and financial access are significant, but highlight persistent inequalities in women’s access to digital technology, how the divide can compromise women’s economic opportunities and how improving digital access and policies should consider gender and safety. The Indian government has a clear commitment to expanding digital access and infrastructure across India through its Digital India program, with the acceleration of this access being bolstered by industry giants such as Google. , Facebook and Amazon. Data such as that provided by the NFHS offers important insights in terms of progress on these issues, but is also important for verifying that the approaches taken do not reinforce patriarchal norms and structures that undermine or reinforce inequalities but eliminate them.

(Lotus McDougal, Anita Raj and Abhishek Singh, on behalf of the GENDER Project)

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