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India's "push" for digitized economy may widen gender gap, warns UNICEF: Just 29% internet users are females

Vikas and his sister Kritika
By Our Representative
Pointing towards a whopping digital gender divide, UNICEF in a new report, has said that if globally, 12 per cent more men than women used the internet in 2017, "in India, less than one third of internet users are female." Elsewhere, UNICEF warns, "Recently, India has made a public push towards a more digitalized economy, including reducing dependency on physical cash. If girls and women remain digitally illiterate, they risk becoming further marginalized in society and at home."
Pointing out that "country-level examples give a sense of the kinds of barriers girls and women confront", the report, "The State of the World’s Children 2017: Children in a Digital World" says, "In India, where only 29 per cent of all internet users are female, girls in rural areas often face restrictions on their use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) "solely because of their gender."
Thus, it says, "One village governing body in rural Rajasthan stated that girls were not to use mobile phones or social media. Another village in Uttar Pradesh banned unmarried girls from using mobile phones (and from wearing jeans and T-shirts)", with the village council insisting that "mobile phone use would increase crimes against girls and women."
Giving the example of one Vikas, a 17 years old boy living in Goregaon East, a low-income suburb of Mumbai, UNICEF points towards how he acquired internet skills from his friends, going so far as to starting "two YouTube channels, three Facebook accounts and thousands of friends... To connect to the internet, he uses his brother’s old phone, visits cybercafes and jumps on free wifi whenever he can find it."
Regrets UNICEF, "While the internet has helped Vikas thrive, his younger sister Kritika, 15, is struggling to keep up." It quotes Kritika as saying, "I don’t know how to use [it] so I [have to] get help from someone,” adding, "Although their parents are not opposed to Kritika using the internet, they are limiting her phone use until she passes her Level 10 exams." The parents are worried, if she uses the internet she would be "distracted".
In fact Kritika admits, her curiosity is waning. “I don’t even know how to use a laptop. Earlier I was more interested in it. I’m not really anymore … Cell phones ruin your eyesight,” she says.
UNICEF comments, "This disparity in internet use between boys and girls in the same family is representative of a larger trend in the country: Though the divide is caused by a number of factors – social norms, education levels, lack of technical literacy and lack of confidence among them – it is often rooted in parents’ concern for the safety of their daughters."
"Many fear that allowing girls to use the internet will lead to liaisons with men, bringing shame on the family. For most girls, if they are allowed to use the internet, their every move is monitored by their parents or brothers", UNICEF says, adding, "In a society that is still largely patriarchal, for girls, traits like deference and obedience are often valued over intelligence and curiosity."
"In some households, technology is not seen as necessary or beneficial for girls and women", UNICEF says, even as quoting Vikas as saying, “The thinking of the society is that [if] boys went in a wrong way, they are boys so boys can do anything...So that is why girls are given more security and not letting them [get] exposure in their life".
Vikas is also quoted as saying, “Girls in my class, they are not interested in [the] internet because they never get to use the internet ... they do not know the benefits... They have interest in [other] things … talking with the girls, doing [housework], or they play what the girls want to play.”
UNICEF says, in Mumbai, "Basic services like water, healthcare and education are scarce in the slum, and girls are often the most deprived. In many households, any small amount of resources a family has will first go to the men". Against this framework, it adds, documentary filmmaker Nawneed Ranjan "left his job and started the non-profit Dharavi Diaries – a learning centre for girls focusing on computer skills, internet and basic coding."
"The centre has since evolved to include classes on STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths), as well as workshops on topics like menstruation and hygiene", UNICEF says, quoting a 17 year old girl, Roshani of the centre as saying “The internet is very popular [in our community]. And every boy knows how to work on computers. And they also are chatting on WhatsApp and Facebook". But girls, don’t use the internet as much. “Sometimes the parents don't allow the girls to go out. Only girls.”

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