Among adolescents, the ‘gendered digital divide’ has come out starkly with the adverse impacts of COVID-19 experienced by adolescent girls disproportionately.
By Divya Santhanam,
Michelle Bachelet, who is United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, stated recently that the gender digital divide was a reflection of the overall discrimination faced by women and girls. This is especially true in case of India which accounts for half of the world’s gendered digital divide, with a mere one-third of its internet users are women. Further, the pandemic has proved to be devastating for vulnerable and underserved girls, especially in rural areas. Among adolescents, the ‘gendered digital divide’ has come out starkly with the adverse impacts of COVID-19 experienced by adolescent girls disproportionately.
The ‘Locked out: Emergency Report on School Education’ released by the coordination team of experts and volunteers across the country says that only 8% of school students in rural India have been able to access online education, while at least 37% did not study at all. The survey was conducted across 1,300 households in 15 states and also highlighted the role gender disparity plays in creating a digital divide.
The theme for International Day of the Girl 2021 is “Digital generation. Our generation,” However, with regards to digital equality, India has a long way to go. As per the survey ‘Bridging the Digital Divide for Girls in India’ conducted between August – October 2020, 97 per cent of the surveyed adolescent girls said it is important to own a mobile phone to access information. However, 71 percent of these girls do not own a phone as they can’t afford it. The pandemic has exacerbated the situation and has affected the education of over 158 million girls across the country. Speaking specifically of Rajasthan where gender divides runs deep, especially in rural areas, a 2020 report on Key Indicators of Household Consumption on Education in India (2017-18) found that the state has the second worst overall literacy rates in the country at 69.7 percent and the lowest literacy rates for females at 57.6 percent. A third of girls drop out of school by age 16 and a third are married by age 18. With COVID-19 shutting down schools and because of a gaping digital divide, young girls, already burdened by household duties, are more likely to stop learning even before completing their secondary education.
Why are girls on the wrong side of the digital divide?
Poverty, gender discrimination and digital illiteracy are leaving girls behind and creating the so- called digital divide. When we say digital divide, one means differences between groups with access to technology and internet and not. Girls often have less access to technology and in comparison to boys. The struggle of girls to afford technology and internet access is closely associated with the stereotype around technology being a boys thing. Further, the fear of being discriminated, stops girls from using digital tools. In households with limited means, male members are also more likely to have mobile phones than women. In fact, a study undertaken by Malala Fund’s Education Champion Network, found that in Assam, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Telangana, and Delhi, in 71% of cases, phones were owned by a male family member.
To add on to the abovementioned vulnerabilities of girls, it goes without saying that without equal access to technology and the internet, girls will not be able to access information and participate in digital societies. Keeping girls away from the digital areas may affect several aspects of their lives, including their ability to connect to voice their opinions.
Future strategies to bridge the gap
In states like Rajasthan, subsidised secondary education and digital accessibility are the need of the hour. Before formulating any policy or strategy, gender disaggregated data need to be accessed on the status of digital divide to inform the policy and strategy. Also, it is imperative to invest in digital inclusion to empower adolescent girls. We need to have a targeted approach that prioritizes the needs of girls belonging to diverse backgrounds – in-school, out-of-school, in rural, tribal and underserved communities.
In the far off villages, panchayats and blocks, it is critical to ensure affordable access to devices and internet connectivity. Further, positive messaging through consistent grassroots campaigns and ease of transportation will also empower families to educate their daughters when schools open fully. Also needed is a multi-pronged strategy to address gender disparities that deny girls the right to education, agency and social parity. We need to ensure that digital and physical infrastructure is created for girls hailing from marginalized communities as education will not only empower them but their communities, social environments and overall economic markers.
When communities, nonprofit organisations and governments come together to create community specific solutions in policy, budgeting and implementation, then remote and in-person learning will become easier for girls. Universal enrolment on paper cannot be our only goal. We need to ensure that all children get equal access to quality education via initiatives like Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan which aims to bridge gender and social divides. It is essential especially for Rajasthan to invest more in the future of its disadvantaged daughters so that they can play an important part in improving the state’s social well-being and economic health.
(The author is Senior State Program Manager, Population Foundation of India. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)