The Digital Divide in India: A Gender Perspective

The digital divide is a major threat to use ICT appropriately for development issues. Especially, the gender divide is still a huge issue when it comes to ICT use and excludes women widely from the participation in the digital sphere.

A recent rule of a rural muslim panchayat might seem unbelievable from a the perspective of the Global North. Women should not own mobile phones to prevent violence against women in these rural areas. According to these rural male leaders, mobile phones, next to t-shirts and jeans, are the “root of all evil”. This shows that access to ICT is not given across in India and goes beyond economic issues, especially for women. Women often face (human-) rights based issues and violations, as they are oppressed in the patriarchal society of India. India is a society where women belong, across all castes and social classes, to the most marginalized women in the world. It is a men dominated society and while searching for appropriate technology or ICT for development, one needs to keep this in mind.

The patriarchal culture, in the Indian context, is a polariser of ICT access and there is not a “one size fits all approach” in this multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation, where the divide between men and women is arguably the biggest on earth.

What can ICT4D do in this context?

If women have access to ICTs, technology can be used as a tool for women to tell their story, like the example of participatory photography or video shows. The participative forms of communication can help to counter narratives, which are mostly dictated by men in the society of India and in South Asia in general.

3 Comments to "The Digital Divide in India: A Gender Perspective"

  1. Laura Saxer's Gravatar Laura Saxer
    October 22, 2015 - 6:05 pm | Permalink

    What you are addressing here in your last paragraph is the common ICT4D discourse about the implementation of technology to achieve development. It is about the idea of staging people’s voices which should contribute to and enhance the participation in development. You are also raising the common concern over access to technology which is one very critical aspect in this context. This could even be expanded from access to technology to other requirements for actual utilisation, such as literacy, knowledge, and, as you mention, the given social, political and cultural societal structures that allow for all those preconditions. Additionally, even if there is a given technological capability of publication there is also the matter of audience . What if the voices being staged are still not listened to as a result of existing, in that case partriarchic, societies? We can acknowledge that ICTs and participatory media have the potential to be a powerful tool for empowerment, for example when we look at their ability for creating solidarity within communities . At the same time, we still have to consider their limitations, especially when applied for development, and should be cautious about focusing too much on ICTs as the cure of the problem while neglecting other tools to achieve social change.

    Ferguson, J., Soekijad, M., Huysman, M. & Vaast, E. (2013): Blogging for ICT4D: reflecting and engaging with peers to build development discourse, Information Systems Journal, 23, 307-328.
    Burrell, Jenna (2008): Problematic Empowerment: West African Internet Scams as grasssrot Media Production. Information Technologies & International Development, 4(4), 15-30.
    Cammaerts, B. and Carpentier, N. (eds) (2007): Reclaiming the media: communication rights and democratic media roles. Intellect: Bristol, UK.

    • October 24, 2015 - 12:12 pm | Permalink

      Your example of the panchayat restricting women’s use of mobile phones reminds me of a micro (and harmful) example of what Rao discusses in “The Information Society: visions and realities in developing countries”, about the four choices of policy stances towards new technological innovation “promotional, permissive, precautionary and preventive” [1].

      This specific case speaks to fear and power, and it seems to me that the men in this community – or the male elders/leaders – are using prevention of violence against women as an excuse to further exert control over the women in their community. Possibly, the leaders feel the women might communicate with outsiders, or with each other, on a platform that they cannot monitor or censor. And therefore, they may ‘lose control’ of the women in their lives.

      In a case this extreme, I question whether technology would be the right channel or medium to engage with the community leaders and women themselves, in the first place. In “ICT4WHAT?”, Kleine (quoting Alsop and Heinsohn) points to ‘degrees of empowerment’ – “existence of choice, use of choice and achievement of choice” [2]. To me, the women you speak about in the panchayat community don’t sound like they have any existence of choice in the first place – so how could they then use or achieve choice through the use of ICT, participatory media, or in any other form? There is a lot of work to be done.

      One approach that could work is to start smaller and less ambitious. To remove technology and go back to the ground, literally. The REFLECT approach, started by ActionAid International, brings together Paulo Freire’s theories of social change with participatory methodologies and rural appraisal. From the examples I have seen, the process can be a very powerful experience for citizens who engage with it and then become engaged citizens [3].

      Reflect-Action “was developed in the 1990s through pilot projects in Bangladesh, Uganda and El Salvador and is now used by over 500 organisations in over 70 countries worldwide. ActionAid is directly associated with over 700 circles run by its partners. These circles have become formidable source of ideas for change” [4].

      In particular, check out this video of a Reflect Circle in action in Samistipur, Bihar, India. To begin, the #ruralwomen undertake a mapping exercise of their community to better understand their physical access to services such as the school and health clinic. The process encourages the women to talk about challenging personal and social issues with each other, which they say has improved their self-esteem and ability to speak out at home on issues such as girl-child education [4]. An inspiring video that uses local solutions to tackle local problems…

      [1] Hemer, Oscar & Tufte, Thomas (2005) Media and Glocal Change. Rethinking Communication for Development. Buenos Aires: CLACSO. Chapter 16.

      [2] Kleine, D. 2010: ICT4WHAT?—Using the choice framework to operationalise the capability approach to development, Journal of International Development 22: 674–692.


      [4] Reflect Circle. 1 March 2011. ActionAid International.

  2. Eleni Maria Rozali's Gravatar Eleni Maria Rozali
    October 25, 2015 - 7:10 pm | Permalink

    This reminds me a bit of evil rock n roll back in the 60’s -70’s for many conservative Christians.
    Now the new evil is technology. The issue of course, of how women dress and whether or not they “provoke” is an issue I am afraid that will linger into eternity.

    In conservative societies communication has a top down approach. Dominating financial or spiritual elites dominate society or social groups, destructing any essence of equality and or human rights.
    We must not forget that human rights and culture are intertwined and interdependent.
    In communities like Muzaffarpur and Saharanpur it appears they do not want women to have a voice. Females already have marginal roles in rural Indian communities. They already endure much violence that could be avoided perhaps with the use of technology. If long distance education was allowed, girls wouldn’t have to have to walk long distances to go to school, and being at risk of attacks. Ambitious, for the aforementioned communities, I know, and therefore I agree with Jenn that they need to start off with less grand goals.
    Perhaps there is a need for a hybrid between the traditional and the human rights.
    There is a good example of how Islamic law and human rights discourses have met in recent years and how hybridization really works, in Afghanistan. There women defend their right to education and health care by drawing on Western discourses about human rights. At the same time, however, many remain faithful to Muslim traditions at home (Ignatieff, 1998). Elsewhere, many young Islamic women insist on wearing veils because it makes them less susceptible to criticisms of Westernization and allows to pursue their studies or even work (Postel-Coster, 1994).
    This does not mean that are on the way to full-fledged liberation, instead they have found ways to work round their social and religious structures.

    [1&2] Approaches to Development Coorperation – Unesco 2002

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