Indian Women in the Digital Revolution Poverty and Patriarchal Restraints

Women’s ability to contribute toward shaping the development of knowledge, economy, and society is usually constrained by many inequalities that intersect with patriarchal dominance. Poor women in India are less likely to have the education and technological skills to use ICT effectively. Considering that women make up 70 percent of the world’s poor,5 one third of whom reside in India6 (India’s ranking according to the Gender Inequality Index is 129/146),7 a majority of Indian women still have a long way to go in terms of having access to and using ICT to their advantage.8

The rapid pace of development of Indian cities ensures that development is focused in urban centers. In rural areas, one finds poor intermittent electrical power and practically no access to communication technology. The radio, which provides programs in local languages, is people’s only access to the wired world. The village post office may have a telephone that is used only in case of emergency.

In rural and urban poor areas, basic development issues (e.g. security of livelihood and physical infrastructures) are a priority before ICT access for women can be addressed. In villages, the daily concern of fetching water and fuel from the surrounding environment for household duties dominates women’s existence. They have no time and very little money for much else beyond their basic needs.

In India, 225 million women own mobile phones. Though most of these women belong to the higher income bracket, at least 25 million of them can be classified under the lower income bracket (US $289 or less per month).9 As the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report notes, “In the ownership and control of assets and the ability to earn incomes, two fundamental pathways to economic wellbeing, women still lag far behind men—and Asia-Pacific as a whole lags behind much of the rest of the world.”10

Together with poverty and illiteracy, patriarchal cultural constraints restrict women’s access to ICT facilities even in urban areas. Information centers or cyber cafes are often located in places where women find it culturally inappropriate to visit. Women’s lack of access to transport and inability to leave their house also hamper their access to the digital world. Even in homes where telephones, computers and TVs are found, women may not have free uncontrolled access to these gadgets.

In Basod—a village in North Western India—with a population of 10,000, of which 80 percent are Muslims, single girls cannot carry mobile phones according to the ruling of a panchayat (local selfgoverning body). Apparently, this is a preventive measure to check the possibility of elopement.

Jennifer Brayton notes that the gendered view of technology identifying it as a male domain is also an obstacle to women’s access to and use of ICT. The internet may be seen “as simply another medium that is contained and constrained by a contemporary society informed by capitalism and patriarchy. As a result, women seem to locate the Internet as a problematic site for themselves.”11 Women, who know little about the Net’s democratizing potential, may view it solely as a space that exploits women.

On the other hand, though more women have careers in the communications sector, few have attained positions at the decisionmaking level or serve on governing boards and bodies that influence media policy.12 Therefore, national ICT strategies fail to incorporate women’s views. Furthermore, there continues to be a tendency for policy makers to treat ICT policies and strategies as gender neutral. An “engendered” participation at a high level of decision-making could ensure that women are no longer passive consumers of services offered to them but rather play an active role in deciding the kind of services they want and the structures and strategies that could best address their needs in the community and bigger society.

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