The Internet as a game changer for marginalised women – going back to the 'Real Basics'

In 2015, WWW Foundation in partnership with Sida conducted a 10-country research study across Asia, Africa and Latin America to explore the potential of the Internet for the empowerment of urban poor women. IT for Change was the country partner for the India component of the project. The research findings clearly indicate the need to refine our understanding of digital empowerment as much more than minimising the access gap between women and men. Digital empowerment can be said to have taken place only if the Internet enables an expansion of life choices for women. See full report here.

'Women's Rights Online' (WRO), a study that surveyed patterns of Internet use of 770 women and 265 men in the urban poor neighborhoods of New Delhi in early 2015, found that 49% of men and 59% of women interviewed had access to a smart phone, either private or shared. About 43% of men and 46% of women respondents reported that they used the Internet. Secondary-level statistical analysis has revealed that these findings cannot be dismissed as a sampling quirk. What this means is that there is unmistakable evidence of market mechanisms enabling new generation users, particularly women, to become 'connected' through smart phones and the mobile Internet.

The fact that this research suggests that the gender gap is ostensibly closing or closed cannot be seen as 'empowering' for women. The idea of the 'gender digital divide' needs to be understood in relation to the entirety of the access experience. Empowerment can be said to have taken place only if the Internet enables an expansion of life choices for women.

The data from the study does not suggest that current patterns of connectivity go as far as bringing urban poor women a threshold change in their life choices. The study shows that 96% of male and 98% of female Internet users surveyed were on Facebook. However, for many women users, the Internet experience seems to largely be Facebook's walled garden. Consider this: 51% of women Facebook users have never followed a link outside Facebook, as against 29% of men users. It was not clear if the users surveyed in this study were subscribed to zero services or data plans that come preloaded with certain applications like Facebook. However, recent research in the Asian region undertaken by LIRNE Asia, uncovers an interesting phenomenon – that many Facebook users have no idea that they are using the Internet!

Secondly, for the majority of women and men, Facebook and other social networking sites seem to primarily be a space for connecting with their friends and family – with 88% men and 92% women Internet users reporting this. But, going by the data, this may not imply an expansion of networks of support. Only 3% of male and 1% of female social media users reported that social media has helped them forge networks of support. Considering that the connectivity paradigm often reproduces existing social hierarchies, this finding may not be surprising. Even if the Internet is potentially disruptive, economic and social capital, as Bourdieu's theory of social stratification tells us, depend on cultural capital. Life choices for the urban poor are heavily circumscribed by their already weak informational and communicative networks. These marginalities are particularly pronounced if you are a woman! Among male social media users, only 12% report that such networking helps them find avenues for employment and income. The number for women is a negligible 4%. Being online does not seem to alter the gendered opportunity structure. This is in line for example, with educational data. In India, despite higher educational attainment in secondary education compared to boys, girls do not pursue higher education, and many who do, never enter the job market.

Most strikingly, for the majority of women and men, the Internet experience is largely passive. Only 17% of female and 28% male Internet users report that they actively seek information online (on rights, on health, public services or development projects). This proportion is very small, especially when we consider that 49% of female and 71% of male users report having followed links outside Facebook, revealing some exposure to the wider Internet.

The study reveals a foundational flaw with the access experience – that for the poorest women, the wider informational and media ecosystem that the Internet currently allows in India, is not one that is an extension of their everyday citizenship practices and struggles. What exists out there in the form of e-government or m-government is either too inadequate or too removed from the way poor women seek and claim their entitlements. Unless the Internet is embedded in the meanings that bring real choice to poor women, the 17 % who seek information cannot grow into a critical mass of women citizens appropriating mobile connectivity as an empowerment tool.

While there is no denying that getting connected is also about exploration, play and self discovery, the disruptive potential of the Internet depends very much on making the Internet an instrument for transformation. There is a limit to what the market can do in this regard. Urban poor women may become consumers in the mobile market, but their smart phone experience is no guarantee for civic intelligence nor active citizenship. On the contrary, user experience may just add to women's vulnerabilities. The study found that many more women (55) than men (20) reported frequent threats and bullying online, although reporting itself on online and phone-based violence was quite low. The WRO study was not designed to undertake an in-depth investigation of this issue. But the fact that there is a cost associated with being online that is clearly gendered is attested to by other research that talk about the cultures of silence and impunity around online violence.

Connectivity can bring enhancements for women in their social and economic capital, if it is part of a positive spiral promoting empowering cultures of use. This calls for policies that are not techno-deterministic, but respectful of continuities with older claims and struggles of poor women.

The stakes in this debate have multiplied manifold with the launch of the Digital India initiative. For this grand program to contribute to women's empowerment, the design has to focus on:

a) Public access facilities that serve as spaces for meaningful digital literacy from a citizenship perspective for women and other marginalised groups. India's attempts in this direction, exemplified by the Common Service Centre initiative, have not been encouraging.

b) Building women's capabilities to be active users of the Internet - to find information, build networks of support, and amplify their voice.

c) Making connectivity a local public resource for participatory development, for citizen monitoring, social audits and a new culture of public institutional accountability.

Our work at IT for Change has shown that these priorities can be the building blocks of an empowering web that brings women the cultural capital they need for navigating change on their own terms. Our field centre in Mysore has worked with marginalised women's collectives for over a decade now. These community-owned public access points have built women's associational power, and brought forth young women leaders into the public domain. Our advocacy efforts have foregrounded the need for Internet governance frameworks that go beyond freedom as an individualistic ideal to argue for autonomy with structural change.

We may not want to miss the woods for the trees! Free Basics it may seem is the quick fix answer to connecting the rest of India, going by the thinking of the present political establishment. But it is certainly not the way patriarchy and gender power can be challenged. For that to happen, connectivity has to make way for women as empowered citizen users. Interestingly, the expert committee report on net neutrality in India has also expressed misgivings about zero services.

Women's rights advocates have an important task – politicising the access and connectivity debate. Unless we can keep asking where power resides in the webs of connectivity, 'women's empowerment' may end up as nothing more than a feel-good meme.

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