India’s internet has a massive gender problem—and it’s holding girls back

The perks of being an internet user.
The perks of being an internet user.
Image: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The internet in India has a serious gender problem.

Just 29% of all internet users in the country are female, according to a report (pdf) by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The 42 percentage point “digital gender gap” among internet users in India is far more extreme than the global divide. Across the world, 56% of all internet users were men in 2017, compared to 44% women.

For the most part, this gap is a result of deep-seated cultural barriers, particularly in rural India. “One village governing body in rural Rajasthan stated that girls were not to use mobile phones or social media,” the UNICEF report said. “Another village in Uttar Pradesh banned unmarried girls from using mobile phones (and from wearing jeans).”

The disparity is evident in mobile ownership, too: 114 million more Indian men have their own handsets compared to women, according to international mobile industry monitor GSMA.

Another reason for fewer women accessing the internet in India is cost. “Bringing equitable online access to some of the least-connected communities will be challenging,” UNICEF said. For those living under the poverty line (less than $2 a day), it said, the average cost of a smartphone can be up to 16% of their annual income. “Even if mobile phones with internet capabilities were to become more affordable, the extreme poor would still have to contend with high airtime and data costs,” the report said.

Still, with data prices becoming more affordable, it may get easier for women to get on the internet, which has been declared a basic human right by the United Nations, and is today the one-stop shop for all sorts of information, from news to jobs to education.

Take health care, for instance. Access to online information could go a long way in helping women in a country where 100,000 of them die every year from pregnancy-related causes like improper prenatal care or lack of access to adequate health care facilities.

While the internet also keeps people connected, gender inequality is unfortunately a feature on social media, too. For instance, a mere 24% of Indian Facebook users are female, a 2016 report from UK consultancy We Are Social found. Besides, a lack of exposure to technology at an early age results in women becoming less confident about performing complicated tasks on mobile phones in the future, We Are Social said.

Perhaps the most unfortunate part about girls comprising less than a third of internet users in India is their disconnect from a plethora of educational resources. Children lacking access to the internet suffer from the “homework gap” over the years as school curricula increasingly incorporate internet-based learning and online testing. Eventually, they’re either unable to complete school work or end up with lower grades.

However, classrooms can be revamped to bring girls up to speed with these technologies.

“Some blended learning projects—curricula combining digital and traditional components overseen by a teacher—show promise” in improving academic performance, the UNICEF study said. It referred to two examples: one, a randomised controlled trial in 2007 involving 111 schools in India where a computer-aided, mathematics-focused, learning programme increased students’ scores;  the other, the use of customised educational content to match each student’s level and rate of progress which improved mathematics and Hindi test scores within a few months.