Earlier this decade, the United Nations declared access to the internet a basic human right. However, a recent report by UNICEF showed that 71% of internet users in India are male, with only 29% female. Furthermore, it is estimated that about 114 million more men than women in India own a mobile phone.
One of the major factors in this gender gap when it comes to Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) is the patriarchal social structure in India. Despite the Indian government running campaigns such as “Digital India”, patriarchal attitudes and beliefs of rural and semi-urban India often restrict women from accessing ICTs. In one such incident, a Khap panchayat in Rajasthan passed a diktat that banned any unmarried girl from using a mobile phone or accessing social media. But even without specific rules banning access, similar moves occur within families or communities across the country.
While it is likely that a major reason behind this practice is to protect the patriarchal structure, given that a woman’s independence poses a threat to such structures, another contributing factor is online safety.
Issues of online safety discourage young girls and women from using ICTs and encourage families to restrict access in the belief that it will protect them. Issues of online harassment have proliferated in India in tandem with increased internet and mobile phone use.
Online safety for women and girls has been a recurring theme on the Kadam Badhate Chalo (KBC) program, a sports-led initiative that seeks to address gender inequality with the ultimate goal of ending violence against women and girls (VAW/G). The program, which is being conducted by Pro Sport Development in collaboration with the Martha Farrell Foundation and the Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), is a participatory initiative that seeks to create young leaders who will implement programs within their communities to tackle VAW/G.
Many young women in our KBC camps all over the country confess that either they are not allowed to use ICTs or they themselves do not opt to use ICTs due to online harassment. Palak Das*, a 17-year-old female participant from Siliguri, West Bengal, talking about her online experience, said, “I was subjected to harassment in many ways; some random guy will write obscene comments on my Facebook wall, a few send me inappropriate images, a few morph my pictures and send them back to me.”
Another participant, a 15-year-old from Bhachau, Gujarat said, “We are not allowed to use mobiles and internet. Our parents are very strict about it; they think we might fall in love with boys or get harassed on the internet. One of my friends was stalked online by a boy, and when she rejected him, he tried to harass her by sending inappropriate content and harassing her through various accounts. In the end, she had to stop using Facebook. Parents don’t want their daughters portrayed in a bad light or get harassed on the internet.” Another participant at the same workshop added, “In our village, girls stop studying after 8th standard and are made to sit at home and learn household work. Using a mobile phone or the internet is a far-off thought for us.”
KBC workshops do not restrict discussions of gender equality and harassment to the real world, but also talk about the virtual world. Trainers often quote examples that highlight the positive aspects of social media, and always identify the internet as an effective medium through which to challenge the status quo. Throughout KBC, whenever online sexual harassment is identified, efforts are made to equip girls and young women to identify, understand and tackle online sexual harassment.
While the world identifies internet access as a human right, it is a disturbing fact that in many parts of India that basic right is denied to women; or worse, those enjoying that right are subjected to harassment and abuse. The internet as a medium is powerful. Putting it to proper use can uplift women, and help them live healthy, happy and independent lives. KBC will continue to fight to ensure this right for all women.
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the participants.