Women in rural areas face socio-economic barriers in accessing mobile technology

Rural Indian women are now finally starting to enjoy the fruits of the telecom revolution across the country as a number of initiatives are targeting women living in villages, enabling them to leverage connectivity to spread their wings.

For years, women have been left out of the telecom revolution, and according to data from the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), the rural male-to-female internet use is skewered by 88 per cent to 12 per cent, compared to 62 per cent to 38 per cent for urban users. Research also shows Indian women are 36 per cent less likely to own a mobile phone than men.

The reasons for this disparity are many, ranging from the cost of connectivity, the cost of owning a mobile device and the monthly tariff. In rural areas, men are generally the sole income earners, and women’s need to own a mobile device isn’t a priority.

“My elder brother doesn’t allow me to use a phone,” says Madhavi Das, 20. “He says that I can use it after my marriage if my husband allows it. I just know how to make a call since I use his phone sometimes to make important calls.” She lives in a small village in the Bankura district of West Bengal.

Sometimes the lack of address and proof of identification means that women are also unable to get a mobile connection. Rural women are victims of social dogma too, which simply doesn’t permit them to own a mobile phone.

Indeed, many villages — especially in the state of Haryana — have barred women from using mobile devices as patriarchal village elders believe technological influence will encourage independence of thought and action.

“Mobile phone penetration rates are accelerating rapidly in the developing world and more affordable handsets are increasingly available,” said P. Balaji, Vodafone India’s director for regulatory, external affairs & CSR.

“A substantial body of knowledge about access and usage of mobile phones has also improved the understanding of how women interact with this life-enhancing mobile technology. Around the world, an estimated 300 million fewer women than men own a mobile phone. This gender gap is largest in the emerging economies and prevents many women benefiting from mobile services.”

However, even when they do have access to a mobile device, a lack of familiarity and illiteracy stops many from accessing the internet. A 2012 report by Women and the Web found that one in five women in India believes internet usage to be inappropriate and non-beneficial.

Nearly 40 per of women surveyed then said that they were not comfortable using the internet. Similarly, nearly 50 per cent of the women surveyed in a recent Google study said they saw no reason to use the internet. Another study conducted in a semi-rural area in Madhya Pradesh found that women who owned a mobile device were not aware of how to operate it — because of illiteracy.

“Women in rural areas face socio-economic barriers in accessing mobile technology,” Balaji said. “Instead of individual ownership, they prefer to share a cell phone with family members as they are hesitant to share mobile numbers, citing security concerns. They rely almost entirely on incoming calls and depend on male family members for recharges.”

This seems to be changing now as the expansion of the mobile network in the country’s hinterland is not only altering the perception about mobile devices — and generating means of livelihood for rural women.

As tele-com service providers expand in the rural market, it is important for them to train the villagers about the immense potential of the internet. And increasingly, they are working with women to impart that training. Internet giants like Facebook and Google are also immensely interested in the rural market of India because the next wave of subscribers is going to come from that segment.

Google’s internet Saathi programme trains and educates women across Indian villages on the benefits of the internet in their day-to-day lives. Women ambassadors, also known as Saathi (friend in Hindi) provide basic knowledge on how smartphones work and how to use the internet.

The initiative has helped more than 2 million women in 10 states. The women are given a kit containing smartphones, tablets and a power bank so they can teach other women in their village.

Saathis are also given a bicycle to help them to travel between villages. The Saathis teach women basic research on how to search for new recipes, get answers to agriculture-related queries, or to scan latest happenings.

Danish IT company BlueTown is working with state-run Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) to deploy 12,500 solar-powered WiFi hotspots in villages over the next three years.

“As a policy, we hire only married women [unmarried women tend to move after marriage] to manage the WiFi hotspots in rural India,” says Satya N. Gupta, the India head of BlueTown.

“They are responsible for providing training, increasing awareness about advantages of using the internet as well as managing the WiFi hotspots. They are more committed and do the work diligently. Initially, we provide them training on how to handle everything, and our experience is that they are fast learners. It has been a great experience so far.”

The company is providing solutions as part of the BharatNet project of the Indian government. When it is complete, BharatNet will connect nearly 250,000 gram panchayats [village councils] spread over 6,600 blocks and 641 districts by fibre. This will create a fiber network in the country and will allow interested service providers to provide connectivity to the villages.

“Initially we had to convince the families to allow women to be a part of our initiative but now it is the other way around,” Gupta says. “The number of women who want to join us is increasing.”

The Vodafone Foundation has also launched initiatives for the benefit of rural women. In collaboration with Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) and the Cherie Blair Foundation, it has developed a mobile application called RUDI Sandesha Vyavhar (RSV) — or RUDI Rural Distribution Network.

Women entrepreneurs use this app to sell farm produce and place orders in real-time, and use it to maintain sales reports and customer ledgers. More than 2,500 RUDI women across 14 districts in more than 1,000 villages of Gujarat touch 2.5 million people through this mobile solution.

The company also launched its Smart Snehidi programme in November 2016 in Tamil Nadu. The initiative, which has empowered more than 1,000 Snehidis, is aimed at helping rural women overcome barriers to internet usage to enhance their livelihoods.

Telenor is another service provider that launched its Project Sampark to bridge the gender gap in the rural India and to provide livelihood opportunities to local women, who were hired as promoters as part of the initiative.

Rural women make up a huge market segment that service providers cannot afford to ignore. Even so, there is little doubt that these efforts are enabling rural women to use the immense power of mobile and internet connectivity to transform their lives — opening up a new world of opportunities for them.

Gagandeep Kaur is a writer based in New Delhi, India.