The 1990s saw an explosion in the popularity of the Internet. The increased utilisation of the digital space brought about significant economic, social and developmental advantages to the individuals with access to it. This also led to the start of a conversation around accessibility and the reach of the digital space, and the privilege it entitled an individual with. A possible gender digital divide was observed by various studies conducted in the US.
With constant conversations around accessibility and inclusion of spaces, often the intersectionality of these aspects with gender is overlooked. Research has stated that gendered policing of public spaces has a great impact on an individual's spatial understanding. Women have been living with regulations that affect their unfettered access to public spaces and keep them domesticated, which inhibits their spatial development. The incidence of physical and public spaces also leads to the negotiations one has to undergo when on a digital or online space.
Research has stated various possible explanations for the existence of such a divide. Some have suggested that it is a reflection of the wider gender difference in society, while others have argued based on the socioeconomic difference between the genders. Some surveys have consistently shown that internet usage is often associated with income, education, and job status and thus more men are likely to be users than women. Gender roles also direct social expectations and communications which shape the Internet use of males and females. Computer technology is seen as a seemingly male-dominated industry, it is often considered as ‘made by men, for men’. Early online culture reflects masculine norms of acceptable behavior and language that are often not a comfortable space for women to inhabit. Such an oppressive gender digital divide has percolated to countries like India as well.
Indian women are 15 percent less likely to own a mobile phone, and 33 percent less likely to use mobile internet services than men. In 2020, 25 percent of the total adult female population owned a smartphone versus 41 percent of adult men. In comparison, Bangladesh’s gender gap in mobile ownership stood at 24 percent and 41 percent in mobile usage. Pakistan’s gender gaps were even higher at 34 percent for mobile ownership and 43 percent for mobile usage. Despite the mobile ownership gap reducing from 26 percent to 19 percent, and the mobile internet use gap from 67 percent to 36 percent, between 2017 to 2020, South Asia continues to have the widest mobile gender gaps globally.
The gendered digital divide for women in India is three-layered.
- The rural-urban digital divide
Stats- rural broadband penetration is only 29 percent against a national average of 51 percent. Across states, women in rural areas are less likely to own mobile phones, with this rural-urban divide being the narrowest in Goa, Kerala, and Northeastern states, and the widest in West Bengal, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana.
- The income-based digital divide between households.
Stats- Given the average price for data is US $0.68/GB in India, our estimates show that each GB of data costs low-income households (earning less than US$2/day) 3 percent of their monthly income versus 0.2 percent for middle-income households (earning the US $10–$20 per day).
- Intra household discrimination
Prevents equal access to devices in the domestic sphere of the household. Women’s use of phones or other devices is often governed by male relatives, as accessing the digital space which is predominantly a male sphere is often considered to be a risk to their reputation and the sanctity of womanhood.
Policy, particularly in the form of coordinated and complementary efforts, has the potential to reverse these trends and lead to a more inclusive path focused on closing the digital and gender divides. Raising awareness and combating gender stereotypes are required to close the digital gender gap, as well as providing enhanced, safer, and more affordable access to digital tools and fostering strong collaboration among stakeholders to remove barriers to girls' and women's full participation in the digital world.
SEWA Anubandh has worked to bridge this gap between the digital space and gender since its inception. In the year 2021, women members were trained to use smartphones, click pictures of products, and upload them on the website. This gave them space and agency to create, collaborate and take their ideas out in the world.