How appropriate is the Internet? It’s probably not a question you’ve had to deal with as an adult. But the fact is that many women in India are denied access to the Internet because of society’s conservative attitudes. The Wall Street Journal reported that many women are being denied smartphones, not because phones are expensive, but because their fathers and husbands think that it is indecent for women to use technology. The men in the family think that women will ‘bring shame upon themselves’ if they use technology, according to the report. And yet, the United Nations, no less, has recognised Internet usage as a basic human right as of last June.
Google India’s Sapna Chadha said that in rural India, about one out of 10 Internet users is a woman. “Why should that number be so low?” she asked recently, at The Bridge Talks, where SheThePeople.TV was a digital media partner.
Last year, the Internet and Mobile Association of India released a report, which revealed that men make up 71 percent per cent of India’s Internet users. The gap is slightly lower in urban India, where 62 percent of the internet’s users are male, and 38 percent are women. In rural India, only 12 percent of the internet’s users are women. Furthermore, according to GSMA, there are 114 million more men smartphone users than there are women users.
A new study conducted by We Are Social found that Indian women make up only 24 percent of the total number of Facebook users in India. The figures are in stark contrast with global numbers, which show women outstripping men in social media usage, and are even lower than numbers in neighbouring Nepal and Bhutan.
Why is the Internet Considered ‘Indecent’?
Many village councils ban women from using the Internet and smartphones. Last year, a Muslim village council in Uttar Pradesh banned women from ‘wearing jeans and using mobile phones.’ The ban has been implemented in more than 10 villages, reported the Times of India. “We don’t think it is good for unmarried girls to use mobile phones. God forbid, if they talk to someone (men), it results in increase of crimes and mischief, so we have banned it. In fact, I think only the married men, the responsible men should carry mobile phones,” said Mohammad Akbar, a villager.
Many villages in Gujarat have also banned young girls from using phones. “Girls don’t study properly if they have mobile phones, and they can get into all sorts of bad situations,” Thakor, President of Mehsana district council told the Thomson Reuters Foundation
Orders against using technology are often issued informally, at home. A Delhi based non profit, Feminist Approach to Technology, found that even though women want to use the internet, they are too afraid to ask their husbands or fathers for access to it. Oftentimes the younger brother is given access to the internet, and the older sister is not.
Women can also be narrow-minded about using technology. Field worker, Rumi Sharma tells SheThePeople.TV that she often finds resistance amongst women and finds that men can be quite supportive. “Women said what will we do with this. The men said that you should learn, and it will help you.”
And it’s not just rural areas — attitudes towards Internet usage are discriminatory even in urban settings. “Girls aren’t allowed mobile phones. Communication scares everyone for women. Being online is a cyber threat,” , said author Kiran Manral at a feminist conference organised by SheThePeople.TV and UN Women.
There is a fight to change that mind-set. “There should be universal access,” as Google India’s Sapna Chadha emphasised. In fact, Google recently launched a program, called Internet Saathis, in partnership with Tata Trusts, in order to educate young girls on the benefits of using the internet and to persuade them to use it.
There are many benefits to ensuring equal access to the internet. Not only does it enable more women to become educated, search for jobs, and voice their opinions, it can also help the economy greatly. If governments and businesses can “double the pace at which women become digitally fluent, we could reach gender equality in the workplace by 2040 in developed nations and by 2060 in developing nations”, an Accenture report finds.