As Covid-19 roamed countries, governments responded with blockages that led people to digital markets. Globally, digital adoption increased by five years in just two months in 2020. India has set itself the goal of achieving a digital economy of US $ 1 trillion by 2025, a five-fold increase from US $ 200 million in 2017-2018.
Yet while Covid-19 has propelled a 500% increase in telehealth consultations, a structural shift towards online shopping with online retail hitting 95% of Indian districts and digital payments hitting the bar. 100 million transactions per day, it has amplified another trend: The gendered digital divide.
Indian women are 15% less likely to own a mobile phone and 33% less likely to use mobile internet services than men. In 2020, 25% of the total adult female population owned a smartphone compared to 41% of adult males. In comparison, the gender gap in Bangladesh for mobile device ownership was 24% and 41% for mobile device use. Gender gaps in Pakistan were even higher, at 34% for mobile device ownership and 43% for mobile device use. Despite the reduction in the mobile ownership gap from 26% to 19% and the mobile Internet usage gap from 67% to 36%, between 2017 and 2020, South Asia continues to have the largest gender gaps in mobile telephony in the world.
Within the Asia-Pacific, India had the largest gender gap in internet use in recent years, a gender gap of 40.4% with only 15% of women accessing the internet. against 25% of men. In comparison, in other Asian countries, the gender gap was 39.4% in Pakistan, 11.1% in Indonesia and 2.3% in the People’s Republic of China.
This gendered digital divide has often arisen from a triple disadvantage for women in India. First, there is a rural-urban digital divide, such that rural broadband penetration is only 29% against a national average of 51%. Across all states, women in rural areas are less likely to own cell phones, with this rural-urban divide being narrowest in Goa, Kerala and the northeastern states, and widest in West Bengal, in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Second, there is a digital divide between households based on income. Given that the average data price is $ 0.68 / GB in India, our estimates show that each GB of data costs low-income households (earning less than $ 2 / day) 3% of their monthly income compared to 0 , 2% for middle-income households (earning US $ 10-20 per day). Finally, discrimination within the household prevents women from equitably accessing digital devices in the domestic sphere, which in turn widens the digital gender divide.
Even when permitted to own or use mobile devices at the household level, women’s online activity is often governed by male relatives. While cell phones are seen as a reputational risk for women before marriage; after marriage, the use of the telephone is considered an interruption of care responsibilities. Women generally refrain from talking on the phone in public places, preferring to conduct their conversation at home, due to prevailing social norms and fear of judgment. In this social structure, women have found themselves excluded from the rapidly growing digital economy after Covid-19, especially when they aspire to online education, vocational training, entrepreneurship and career opportunities. job.
Between March 2020 and February 2021, Indian schools were fully closed for 62% of teaching days and partially for 38%. These school closures put 320 million students, including 158 million girls, at risk of dropping out and having significant learning gaps. During this period, nearly three-quarters of students in rural areas, in public and private schools, received educational materials via WhatsApp, and nearly one in 10 parents purchased a smartphone for online learning. However, during consultations with our team at Nikore Associates, several stakeholders noted that families have shown a preference for male family members during the time of Covid-19. They ensured that their sons had the privilege of accessing digital devices and data packs even when faced with income constraints, but did not give their daughters the same treatment.
Digital illiteracy and ignorance of digital platforms deterred women entrepreneurs from moving to online markets after Covid-19. Stakeholder consultations conducted by Nikore Associates revealed that despite the virtual cancellation of their income due to the cancellation of fairs and physical exhibitions during Covid-19, the makers of Jhuri (bamboo artisans) in West Bengal were reluctant to move to online platforms due to limited knowledge of digital marketing media and channels, combined with high data costs. Members of the Women Self-Help Group (SHG) in states such as Maharashtra, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat said that although women in their community used phones for personal use, they were not unable to conduct financial transactions online and did not use phones. for their businesses.
The digital gender divide also prevents women and girls from accessing government social security benefits and even reserving Covid-19 vaccination slots. Maharashtra Community Organizations (CBOs) said that despite the state government’s announcement of cash assistance to domestic workers in April 2021 to tackle the economic impact of the second wave, many women do not were unable to access this assistance because they were not registered with the government. portals and were unaware of the online registration process. In addition, the gender gap widened as vaccinations opened up to larger population groups, with the female-to-male vaccination ratio worsening from 0.96 at the end of March 2021 to 0.9 end of June 2021. Online registration is mandatory to benefit from Covid-19 until June 2021. has been one of the main reasons for this discrepancy.
On a more encouraging note, several examples show that concerted efforts to improve digital literacy and financial support to access devices at the community level can improve women’s livelihoods. The Mann Deshi Foundation, a community-based financial services company in Maharashtra, has started a low-cost EMI program that allows women to buy smartphones.
Almost 80% of women in their community have purchased smartphones using this program. Several “Digital Didis” have been trained and hired to help women navigate online platforms and digital markets. Through these hybrid training programs and targeted support, women entrepreneurs have joined WhatsApp-based and online marketplaces to sell face masks, processed foods, textiles and other products during COVID-19. The Gujarat Center for Human Development and Research has launched a “mobile library” for young women from low-income households to borrow phones to attend online training sessions. The Maharashtra State Rural Livelihood Mission organized an online training for GE women on mask production and trade on digital marketing websites, and facilitated a partnership with Amazon to help women entrepreneurs survive the pandemic.
Stakeholder consultations with community organizations also showed that the benefits of improved access to phones go beyond supporting livelihoods, especially in rural areas. Owning a cell phone has enabled rural women to contact community organizations for advice and medical resources during the pandemic. Rural women with smartphones were more likely to search the internet for additional information on symptoms and treatment of Covid-19 and to rely on multiple sources of data.
Going forward, governments and private sector organizations should support community organizations in scaling up community-based digital literacy and digital financial inclusion programs to bridge the digital gender divide. Programs and initiatives through three pillars of action should be given priority:
1. Facilitate access to mobile devices, by providing free cell phones, tablets to school girls, female health workers (including accredited social health activists, Anganwadi agents and auxiliary nurse midwives) , teachers and women community leaders and poor rural / urban women; or by offering affordable smartphone loans to women through corporate social responsibility and government programs.
2. Digital literacy programs for women and girls including increasing public investment in the PM Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan program from its current allocation of Rs 300 crore in fiscal year 2022, of which 40 % for women and girls; launch tailor-made digital training for women entrepreneurs on digital marketing and digital payments; and integrate digital literacy into school curricula.
3. Investing in rural digital connectivity through rapid implementation of BharatNet program to provide rural broadband connectivity and establish high speed internet connectivity centers at village level.
While there is no doubt that India is digitizing rapidly, the country’s women should not be left out of the virtual conversation. Providing equitable access to smartphones and the internet will provide women with the knowledge and resources they need to participate effectively in the national economy. It is therefore imperative not only to increase female ownership of smartphones as it helps internet adoption, but also to accelerate digital literacy programs and work to end digital discrimination based on gender norms.
The author is an experienced infrastructure and industrial development economist and founder of Nikore Associates.
(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the position of this publication.)
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