This report is part of a larger research project on the gender gap to access ICT. If certain barriers hinder women to benefiting from its empowering and participating use as much as men do, it is crucial to identify the reasons for this gap and, even more, a way to mitigate them. Besides India, our researchers will travel to Brazil, Ethiopia, Indonesia, and South Africa within the Lab Around The World. The findings from all five countries will be published in a final report.
How do you try to get a realistic overview about a topic as vast as women and digital technology in India? How do you talk about 650 Million women in a country with over one billion mobile phones?
As part of the 4th Lab Around The World, I have come to India to explore the topic of gender barriers to digital equality. In this post, I would like to share some first impressions.
When I set off 10 days ago to learn about women and digitization in India, I felt that I had quite a good grasp of the topic. Having widely read both academic and policy reports, as well as I had done a preliminary research into promising NGOs and companies targeting women in India, I was aware of some of the major barriers prohibiting women from participating in the digital sphere in an equal way in this country. I also felt confident that my interviewees had developed interesting ways to overcome these challenges. Now, after a number of interviews and more reading, I am left with more questions than answers. Of course, this is the usual effect of diving into a subject: the more one learns, the more one knows how little one has actually understood. Nevertheless, here are some of the things I am grappling with:
Huge diversity amongst Indian women fundamentally affects the barriers to digital access and use
Needless to say that in every population it’s impossible to generalize and speak about women as a homogeneous group of people. Especially when it comes to a population as large as the Indian, it’s obviously falling short to summarize „Indian women“ in general. This was vividly demonstrated by a film screening as part of the Kochi Muzeris Biennale, which I visited in Fort Kochi, Kerala, right at the beginning of my stay in India. Here, a young highly articulate and cosmopolitan Indian female filmmaker Leena Yadav was showing her film Parched (2015) about the lives of four women in Gujarat in the Northwest of the subcontinent.
The lives of these women were largely dominated by a strict adherence to (a mostly abusive) patriarchy, the restrictions of caste and rigid cultural norms. Interestingly, mobile telephony played a central role in the transformation the four women went through in the film. The mobile phone, one widowed woman had access to, did enable her to play a more active role in society: she negotiated the arranged marriage contract for her teenage son herself. She also received calls from an anonymous admirer, thereby opening up her very limited social sphere, creating a space for imagination and aspiration of a different and better life. No surprise that the traditional power holders of the village, the council of male elders, viewed technology with great suspicion.
This attitude is very pervasive in real life, where many Indian villages have actually banned young women from using cell phones. This extreme cultural conservatism also affected the filmmaker: not only did she have huge difficulties finding a village willing to host her crew and star as the location of the film (she received nearly 30 rejections), but upon completion has also received death threats from the very village the film was shot at, thus preventing her from screening it there.
NGOs are using technology to advise women in rural areas on health, hygiene, and pregnancies
My discussions and interviews so far have occupied various points on this continuum, with the cosmopolitan filmmaker and her female audience at the Biennale who wildly applauded the film on the one end and NGOs/activists working with similar populations to the film protagonists on the other.
Thus, I have been talking to NGOs who introduce cellphones, smartphones and tablets to rural and often illiterate women. This is a huge population, as 70% of Indians live in 600.000 villages. Only 2% of the women here have access to the internet. I am learning from organizations such as iKure, SawRural or Armann how they are employing women as rural health workers and teach them how to use technology in order to better diagnose, advise, and monitor their patients. NGOs are also using technology to reach women in rural areas with text and voice messages, giving them advise on health, hygiene and pregnancies.
In interviews with founders and CEOs of these organizations I am learning how they approach and train women, as well as what are the intended and also unintended consequences of this tech training. I am also interested in what kind of support – governmental, philanthropic or from the private sector – would enable these organizations to improve and scale their work in order to have much larger impact.
On the other end of the spectrum are companies and organizations I have talked to in Bangalore, who also aim to strengthen the bond between women, technology, and the start-up community, but this time from the middle and upper classes. I visited Jaaga, a co-working and start-up accelerator space, which hosted female and male founders equally. I had a very interesting conversation with one of the first community organizers for Mozilla, who actively sought to include more women in their network and also learned a lot from the founder of Maya, India’s largest female health App, as well as from the female founder of Babychakra, a popular portal for young mothers.
A very different perspective on women and digital tech opened up during a meeting with the Women’s Rights research team at Amnesty International India. Here the discussion revolved around some of the barriers women face when using technology, especially the widespread online (sexual) abuse and the danger of mass surveillance posted by the proactive digitalization policies of the Indian government.
Right now, I am on my way to Delhi, were I will be meeting with the head of Digital India, the government’s huge digital initiative at e-government, a feminist technology think tank and the head of the local chapter of Women who Code.
Wherever I go, I encounter amazingly open and knowledgeable interview partners, which makes this research trip a real joy.
“Female phones” can often only receive calls – from relatives and husband
To me India presents itself as a fascinating country for a research on digital gender equality. On the one hand, it is extremely dynamic – people spoke about “the smartphone revolution for Indian women” and tech-optimism is widespread. Opening any English-speaking newspaper one finds dozens of articles praising technology with title such as “Going digital no hassle for people in Kerala”, an attitude diametrically opposed to what you would find in most German dailies.
On the other hand, technology seems to be very slow in penetrating the vast bulk of the rural population, where a very pronounced cultural conservatism reigns, with strict rules about caste, class, and gender. I heard of many instances, where populations had adjusted the use of technology to fit their social and cultural agenda, for example by making a strong distinction between appropriate ways for women and men to use mobile phones. Thus in many Indian families there are “male” and “female phones”. Male phones offer two-way communication and are being used for work, networking, entertainment etc.. They have contact lists, songs, video clips and screensavers and are secured with passwords, offering males privacy. The “female phones” on the other hand are not considered “private” possessions but feature as “household phones”. They are mostly hand-me-downs which can often only receive calls and are supposed to be used only to communicate with natal kin and husbands. Husbands, mothers in law, and village elders closely watch the use of this phone.
Here, we are reminded that while certainly digital technology is changing people, the equation works just as well the other way around: people are changing digital technologies to fit into their own social and cultural norms.