The Covid-19 pandemic is here to stay for a while, making physical distancing an overarching social practice – and so is our dependence on digital technology for everyday routine. Breakthrough’s experience of working with young and older adolescent girls (11-18 yrs) in the states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, shows that the transition to digital medium has been rough and arduous.
According to GSMA’s ‘The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2019’, Indian women are 56 per cent less likely to use mobile internet than men, with only 35 percent of active users in the country being women. Technology is highly gender cognizant and a growing digital divide is something that India has been grappling with for a long time. For adolescent girls – restrictions imposed in the private and public space (for eg: concerns about safety, limited mobility, forced marriages, school drop outs) gets extended in the digital space as well. While there is a nationwide push for digital mode of education- the learning curve for girls is going to be circumvented by deep-rooted norm barriers.
Girls’ access to digital technology
According to UNESCO estimates, out of the total population of students enrolled in education globally, 89% are currently out of school because of COVID-19 closures – a disheartening figure 1.54 billion children and youth enrolled in school or university, including 743 million girls1. Before COVID-19, India had 30 million out-of-school children, out of which 40% were adolescent girls. The digital divide created will accentuate the already existing gap in education, especially for young and adolescent girls.
The COVID 19 led school closure in India has impacted 158 million girl students– for the majority of them online/digital form of education is not even an option to consider2. Major factors that act as a deterrent for girls to access to digital technology are as follows :-
- Social norms control women’s autonomy and aspirations thus impacting their access to technology and digital tools. This begins from a very early age in life , when adolescent girls are controlled in terms of their mobility, access to leisure, use of technology etc. In Uttar Pradesh – young boys (70%) access the internet regularly as compared to girls (33%) in the age group of 15-19 years (Population Council of India 2019).
- Language barrier – most of the digital interface is in English, which discourages users. Many of the girls do not study in English medium schools as they are more expensive3.
- ‘Patriarchy of pockets’ – decides that it is the men of the household who will own digital devices and will not be a family asset or commodity. More than 60% of adolescent girls reported that male members of the family have better and easier access to digital devices (Bridging the Digital Divide 2021).
- Violence and abuse faced online acts as a deterrent for girls accessing the digital platforms and applications. Rather than encouraging the use of such mediums, parents often use this as a pretext to control adolescent girls citing the internet as an unhealthy distraction4.
Gender norms at play: What evidence shows
Gender norms – the rules, traditions, beliefs, codes of conduct and behaviour which are embedded in everyday practices and reinforced by individuals, family, community – lead to the devaluing of girls in the society. Such gender norms manifest in girls having low digital literacy rates, lack of familiarity with the digital platform, access to digital or electronic gadgets and eventually falling off the developmental grid. Breakthrough works towards addressing violence against women and girls, by bringing in a cultural and normative shift and engaging with adolescent groups, communities, local level government agencies etc.
The family, as a primary social institution, operates within the larger patriarchal framework, where restrictions on girl’s mobility and communication gets reflected in her limited access to social media avenues and the internet. According to Breakthrough’s baseline data from Gaya, 76% girls reportedly do household chores as compared to 42% boys. Parents and community members see education as a productive stopgap activity for girls to engage in till the time they are ‘safely married’. Attitudes of both boys and girls, towards boys finishing higher education or studying as much as they want is much more positive as compared to girls finishing higher education or studying as much as they want. 15% of boys (15-18 yrs) feel that girls should pursue higher education, and 29% of girls in the same age group opine the same. This actually shows the low level of aspirations not only within girls themselves but also within the larger community.
In the same vein, baseline conducted in Uttar Pradesh (2015) , 82% girls and 73% boys felt that “a girl must learn household chores as she needs to learn that before going to in-laws house”. Also 63% girls and 57% boys felt that “A boy does not need to help in domestic chores like cleaning, washing utensils, cooking etc. because it is a girl’s job/duty”.
Digital inclusion for adolescent girls: What will it take
While the economic and health impacts of the pandemic are going to be far-stretched, the social impacts need to be assessed and require immediate action. Loss of livelihood and financial distress at the family level, indefinite school closures, social isolation and distancing practices, lack of social support etc. are going to disproportionately affect the young and older adolescent girls. One needs to recognize that imparting a gender lens to socio-economic revival measures and policies may not be adequate to address the needs of adolescents. Focussed actions and consistent engagement with various constituencies (parents, teachers, adolescent groups, government, media etc.) are required to flip the social and cultural norms which have always put young girls in a disadvantageous and vulnerable position – the pandemic only contributing to its aggravation.
Here are some suggestions on how we can address the above-mentioned gaps and challenges that would help us reduce or overcome the gender divide in access to technology:
- Citizen or Youth led campaigns to address and recognise the patriarchal social norms , and contribute to creating an enabling environment for girls.
- Community owned and operated resource centres across the country, having computers, printers etc. that would enable continuity of education especially for girls from poor and underprivileged families.
- Restrictions and rigidity imposed on adolescent girls by parents and family contributes to their low usage and access patterns. Engagement and conversation spaces with parents, discussion on education for girls as avenues of self-reliance etc. will be helpful in bringing attitudinal shifts.
- Knowledge and information sharing in local language on the usefulness of technology, use of e-gadgets for educational purposes, etc. by community groups, citizens groups will break the myths and taboos.
- There are organizations and e-learning platforms which create awareness and knowledge content on internet usage, digital tools etc. Such programmes and platforms should be popularised and made available to the younger population.
Role of CSOs and NGOs/Policy Interventions
- Working and sensitising local-level panchayats and frontline workers who have a strong foothold with communities and specifically parents of young girls.
- Strengthening local infrastructure in providing free/subsidized/cheap Wi-Fi access during specific times of the day to facilitate online education for students.
- Local level solutions that evolve out of community-based needs should be explored instead of “one size fits all” kind of interventions.
- Last-mile connectivity – in terms of digital reach, affordable access to digital devices, addressing the needs of deprived communities , are crucial to address the learning gap in adolescent girls.
- Digital media literacy should be introduced at the school curriculum level across the country. The impact of a well-targeted approach from school level will also contribute in breaking myths around use of digital media.
- School eco-system is an important focus for encouraging learning and motivation for students, influencing parents and community , and in turn addressing existing gender biases. School infrastructure should be ramped up, and cater to the provisions of e-learning with proper resources, curriculum in local languages that would encourage learning and aspirations.
- Teachers and educators should be offered and encouraged to undertake e-learning courses for better suitability and ease of instructing over digital and distance learning.
- Virtue of technology and the internet should be popularised through local media content and creatives, that will enable people to operate out of informed choices.