Kiran, a 17-year-old girl, who lives in a slum in Delhi, has heard of Google but knows little else. “Yes, Yes… I think I have heard of Google once. But I have never used it. I don’t know more about it. I don’t know how to use it,” she said. Through the pandemic, schools and colleges have been holding online classes. This has formalised the digital divide, which also exacerbates the knowledge divide in India. The dearth of electronic devices among low-income families in India is an important and a binding constraint, a fact that has been pointed out in several reports. Providing electronic devices can help, in part, breach the classed barriers to online education. But what it cannot do, and what has received almost no attention, is overcome the gendered barriers to electronic education.
Young women’s use of electronic devices in India is prevented not just by financial constraints but also by barriers of social norms and technological illiteracy. A recent Harvard study on women’s barriers to mobile phone usage in India found that India’s gender gaps in technology access is exceptional and much larger than countries with similar levels of development. Mobile phones are important as most people in India, especially those in low-income groups, access the internet through these devices.
During fieldwork for a PhD at Cambridge, I interviewed young women who live in slums and low-income neighbourhoods in Delhi. I found that their access to electronic devices such as mobile phones was curtailed even when their brothers and the households owned such devices. According to a Harvard study, 71% of men in India own mobile phones. Only 38% of women, however, have access to the device.
First, young women are not allowed to use mobiles because of the fear that they may interact with boys. Like Kirti who isn’t allowed to use the phone at home. “I’m not allowed [to use the phone]. You know, there are some girls who speak on the phone with boys, so that’s not okay with my parents,” she said.
A study on Bengaluru slums assessed the acceptability of mobile text messages for promoting mental health amongst women in India. They found that male family members of nearly half the participants “called back to check who was sending messages, even though the consent of the parents had been sought earlier.” Other ethnographic studies in India have shown how people associate women’s use of mobile phones with a rise in divorce rate; elopement; and making women “sluts”.
Second, the interviews revealed that not having computer classes at school and not having experience with computers or mobile phones at home, young women faced a severe technological literacy barrier to accessing the internet. Fatima did not own a phone but had used her friend’s phone to watch YouTube videos during a training they took together. Yet, she seemed unfamiliar with other aspects of internet use. I asked her if she had created a Facebook account, using her friend’s phone as she did to watch YouTube videos. She said she couldn’t as she did not have a phone of her own. She believed that only one Facebook account could be created on one phone. Shamta had even undergone training in computers. But in spite of the training, she did not know how to use the internet. “No, I wasn’t allowed to create any email or Facebook account. I don’t know how to use the internet. I’ve learnt computer hardware and software. I know how to work on Excel, Word etc but not the internet,” she explained.
The Harvard study also showed that women are more likely to cite technical illiteracy and lack of confidence than men in using electronic devices. They found that “women lag behind men with relative gaps growing with task sophistication: while the relative gap is between 15–20% for making and receiving calls, the gender gap jumps to 51% for a feature as simple as SMS and remains above 60% for other more complex activities such as social media”.
Education is a crucial pathway for empowerment of young women. Poor, young women have been left behind by the digital revolution, but with education moving online, they are now being further disempowered. If the gendered nature of access to online learning is not paid attention soon, poor girls will be doubly disadvantaged, both because of their class and their gender. India closed the gap in gender equality in education recently. If India is to not undermine over months what it so painstakingly achieved through targeted efforts over decades, it has to act now.
(The author is at the University of Cambridge where her doctoral dissertation was on young women, from low-income families, in non-traditionally female jobs in India.)