8 Economic Barriers Responsible for India’s Gender Digital Divide

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The mobile phone is one of the most widely used information and communication technologies in the developing world. For instance, in India, as of December 2013, there were more than 900 million mobile phone subscribers (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, 2014). However, in the male-dominated Indian society with 940 females per 1,000 males, only 30% of mobile phone owners were female, which indicates the presence of a gender digital divide in the country.
In Inequalities creating economic barriers to owning mobile phones in India Factors responsible for the gender digital divide, Devendra Potnis, assistant professor at the University of Tennessee, investigated the factors responsible for the inability of 245 female slum-dwellers in India, who earn around $2 a day, to own a mobile phone. More than 90% of the respondents experienced more than two economic barriers discussed below, which prevented them from owning some of the least expensive mobile phones worth $15 or so on installments of $1 a month.

  1. Fluctuating low personal income: A majority of respondents do not have a steady source of income. Often times their daily earnings are seasonal or are affected by factors like the availability of jobs in the vicinity, weather conditions, festival season, the demand for specific skills on a particular day, the awareness of respondents about a specific job, and their ability to reach a specific site at the right time to grab an employment opportunity.
  2. Low personal savings: It is not safe for women of any age to live by themselves in the male-dominated Indian society. Hence, the support of a husband or in-laws becomes necessary for women of all ages irrespective of their marital status. As a result, they end up sharing their savings with others.
  3. Lack of financial support from husbands: A 40-year old respondent, who has been married for more than 20 years, complained: “Women may die working for their families, but it is still not enough for men…Men are very lazy…if one man does not work other men think why should we work then? Let the women take the entire financial burden of the family…”
  4. Cost of owning and maintaining a mobile phone: Some respondents cannot afford to own, recharge a mobile phone on a regular basis, or use a prepaid phone. Husbands refuse to buy a mobile phone for housewives since they do not earn anything.
  5. Low household income: In-laws do not allow educated women to become financially independent but force them to stay at home or be part of family-run businesses with insufficient financial returns for their family.
  6. Majority of financial dependents in family: A majority of respondents had more than three dependents in their families. A 40-year old illiterate respondent said: “There are more mouths to feed than hands to work. But children are god’s gift. How can we insult the Almighty? I hardly earn anything by running a small business on the streets. I cannot afford a mobile phone.”
  7. Unexpected and unforeseen family expenses: Unforeseen medical expenses, lack of insurance provided by employers, natural calamities, recurring pandemics, etc. create unexpected and unforeseen expenses for several families. Due to lack of cold storage or lack of access to a similar facility to store vegetables, several micro-entrepreneurs have to throw away rotten or spoiled vegetables, thereby taking huge financial losses in the business and making it difficult for her to buy a mobile phone.
  8. Inherited debt: Families of some respondents are poor for generations. Addictions of male family members, sudden but recurring financial losses in multiple entrepreneurial ventures and the inability of respondents to pay the loans taken for weddings, farming, businesses, or health-related reasons from local loan-sharks charging usurious interest rates (e.g. 100-400%), throw respondents in a vicious cycle of debt.

Devendra notes that a majority of the economic barriers to owning a mobile phone results from the socio-cultural norms and values of the male-dominated society in which the respondents live. For instance, the society makes it impossible for women to live alone; sometimes young girls end up getting married against their wish; widows live with their in-laws or brothers’ families and are obligated to share their meager income with the in-laws or other family members.
Despite being financially independent, women are not free to make financial decisions. If it was safe for women to live alone several respondents could have purchased a mobile phone using their personal savings from their low income.
Hence, Devendra argues that it is almost impossible to bridge India’s gender digital divide without managing pre-existing socio-cultural norms, values, and practices creating unfair disadvantages for women compared to men. It is necessary to first equip women to over-come the inequalities that create unfair economic dis-advantages for them.
By Devendra Potnis, who is an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee