Owing to the increase in mobile penetration and availability of cheaper internet, mobile usership in rural India is growing rapidly. According to the National Family Health Survey 2019-21 (NFHS-5), 91.5% of rural households in India now have a mobile phone – an increase of 4.2% when compared to the findings of the NFHS-4 (2015-16). On the other hand, 41% of rural households are now said to access the internet, which is an increase of 35.3 % when compared to the findings of the NFHS-4.
The rise in phone penetration and internet usage, coupled with state initiatives under the ‘Digital India’ program, is often presented as a marker of bridging the digital divide. However, increased phone usage does not automatically translate to meaningful access to the digital. For people belonging to lower socio-economic sections of society, access is often temporary and fraught. In particular, adolescent girls in rural India find themselves on the wrong side of the gender divide and the rural-urban gap which significantly affects their mobile usage. This article gathers voices from five villages in Hunsur and HD Kote blocks of Mysuru district in Karnataka, and deliberates on the factors that determine their conditional access to mobile phones.
Adolescent girls in rural Mysuru started using mobile phones more actively during the pandemic. Since the lockdowns resulted in school closures and restricted their mobility, they began using phones to keep in touch with friends, attend classes, exchange notes, and cope with boredom. Among the girls, attending online classes was the most commonly cited reason for buying a new phone. Several parents, despite being financially stretched, bought one to support their studies. Annual Status of Education Report - 2020 also states that “About 1 in every 10 households in India, with children studying in both government and private schools, bought a new phone to support their children’s education after schools closed in March 2020.” In the villages, the girls who did not have any access to phones relied on those who did. Zoom, too, was installed on their phones. In a sense, they collectively put in extra resources to not fall behind on their lessons, but what let them down was poor digital and educational infrastructure – either the network coverage was substandard, the internet packs were unaffordable, or the government schools they went to did not conduct classes.
Nevertheless, girls who do have some access to mobiles phones are using them for various purposes. Radhika* (19) said that she uses it to seek information on topics covered in her lessons and talk to her friends. “But that is not all that I do. I also play carrom and use Instagram and ShareChat (an Indian social networking app). Apart from these, I also have the Udyog Mahiti app which helps me find government jobs online,” she added. Sushma* (18) likes to use messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Snapchat. Ramya* (18) likes to stream songs on YouTube when bored. She also loves to wish her friends and families on their birthdays and anniversaries by creating a video montage of their photos on Inshot and Kinemaster (video-making apps) and uploading them as her WhatsApp status. Whether it is to connect with people, express themselves, look up meanings of English words or make calls in case of an emergency, girls in villages have started to rely on mobile phones on an everyday basis.
Before we infer the increased phone usage among girls as a marker of shrinking digital divide, we must remind ourselves that this sample is merely reflective and not representative. For instance, in one of the villages in Hunsur block, only 3 out of 18 girls own a phone. The rest of them borrow from male members of their family, friends, neighbors, and relatives. Even among those girls who do have access, we need to pay attention to the circumstances under which they use their devices, for their access is neither without challenges, nor without conditions.
While writing about the concept of ‘technology maintenance’, Amy Gonzales argues that “as the divide and use closes, the digital divide will manifest as the inability for marginalized groups to 'maintain' access (emphasis mine)”. Gonzalez primarily focuses on the “financial and relational” resources that one must negotiate in order to keep devices in use. This includes adjustments that people make, for instance, “balancing phone and gas bills when money is tight”, or relying on friends for a back-up device. In rural Mysuru, such adjustments are the norm as most people live on limited and often inadequate incomes. Janani* (15) said that both her parents are daily wage laborers and frequently find it difficult to allocate money for topping-up their phones. “We prioritize spending money for our basic needs and repaying the loans my mother has taken from self-help groups to help meet our family expenses. In such circumstances, recharging the phone becomes secondary,” she said. Janani also mentioned that some of her friends in the neighborhood do not have a mobile phone and often reach out to her to make phone calls or access the internet. “If I do have currency (another term for top-up) on the phone, I share it with them,” she added. Meanwhile, sharing her experience, Sumati* (14), said, “Whenever we are short on money, we usually recharge only my fathers’ phone and we share it among ourselves…He takes it along with him to work, though. The rest of us wait for him to return to use it.”
The experiences of the girls clearly demonstrate how the digital divide is sustained if people’s economic conditions are not improved. While the pandemic may have been one of the contributing factors to increase in mobile phone coverage, continued access was not always possible. Field observations suggest that several people, at the beginning of the pandemic adopted phones but many of them could not maintain access. In fact, the increased financial distress during the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns caused irregularity, and in some cases, even discontinuity of access.
Coping with Fractured Infrastructure
Ranjit Singh, in an essay, writes that facilitating access to digital is not a “seamless” process. Even when digital technologies are becoming more accessible, issues such as network, electricity supply, and access to repair shops etc., remain a challenge. Ramya’s village, for instance, has poor network connectivity and none of the service providers work in that area. “There is absolutely no signal (network) in the majority of the houses here. So, if we have to exchange calls and/or messages, we have to go out to a nearby field. During the pandemic, I attended the few online classes that were conducted from one of the fields nearby. I made sure the phone was fully charged beforehand…when it rained, however, I had no choice. I asked my friends for their notes,” Ramya expressed.
One of the challenges that comes with a patchy or fragmented nature of digital ingress is that people like Ramya and others in her village, have to contend with its inadequacies. While this incompleteness in itself is a characteristic of the digital divide, technology maintenance refers to the extra mile that people must go in order to close the seams, even if temporarily. It refers to the efforts that people make to establish connection, or rather, prevent disconnection. Another key lesson that can be learned from such a scenario is that it is not very useful to measure access to digital in terms of mere phone penetration. Ownership of phones does not necessarily translate into uninterrupted usage and/or guarantee continued access. Moreover, given that the integration of the digital is slow, it is crucial to center and recenter infrastructural shortcomings while estimating the degree of digital inclusion in rural India. And at the same time, it is equally important to pay attention to the steps that people take, despite their limitations, in order to maintain a connection. Without accounting for the latter, any indication of the closing digital divide will prove to be distorted.
Gonzales' idea of technology maintenance acknowledges the labor that people from lower economic sections pour in to keep a technological device functional. But another line of analysis that one can incorporate is to look at how gender acts a barrier to continued access to the digital. Women and girls’ labor in maintaining access to mobile phones looks like putting in extra resources, but it also looks like expressing restraint in its usage. Girls often limit their phone usage in order to not lose access.
A 2018 study found that, “The male-female gap in mobile use emerges as girls enter puberty and widens as they become more likely to marry.” Girls in villages, too, are less likely to own mobile phones when compared to their male counterparts. They spend less time with their phones and the usage is also less diverse. All the girls I spoke to, reported that their activities on phone are surveilled and regulated. “My parents scold me when I use my phone a lot. They even snatched it away once,” said Radhika. The girls said that their parents expect them to use the phone for practical and educational purposes only. “They are not very approving of me being on social media and want me to focus on my studies,” Radhika added. The girls, too, find phones to be distracting and often find nothing wrong with their parents discouraging constant use. When probed to investigate if there is a gender difference in their parents’ expectations, Sushma said that her parents ask her brother to also limit his phone usage. “They tell him to study too…But the difference is that they are less worried about him…What parents fear the most is that girls will fall in love and elope with a boy which will bring shame to the family,” she added. Echoing a similar sentiment, Janani said that “parents are afraid that we (girls), will be contacted by strangers”.
Excessive phone usage in the villages is often associated with possibilities of pre-marital relationships and inter-caste relationships that negatively impact girls’ image and their family’s “honor”. Despite the involvement of both boys and girls in the relationships, the burden of retaining respect, acting according to the prescribed norms, and bearing the social cost in case of a transgression falls disproportionately on the girls. Families worry that the girl’s image, if “compromised”, will affect her prospects of marriage adversely. The patriarchal notions that restrict girls’ mobility in the analog world also play out digitally and heavily determine the patterns of mobile usage among them.
Accommodating Concerns for Safety
In addition to normative barriers, concerns regarding digital harassment, including hate speech, sexual harassment, and stalking also limit girls’ right to use the internet freely, fully, and diversely. It is no surprise that all the girls said that they employ some degree of self-regulation and in some cases even self-censorship, while using mobile phones. “I don’t have many apps installed. I was using Instagram but I have deleted it now. I didn’t want to get scolded by my parents and I, too, think it is a distraction,” said Sushma. Ramya seeks her mother’s approval before uploading any picture on her Instagram profile. “If she says it (the photo) is okay, then I upload, or else I don’t,” Ramya added. All the girls mentioned that their profiles are private and do not accept requests from strangers.
Expressing restraint and taking precautions, for girls, is not only to prevent harassment, but also to protect their reputation such that continued access to mobile phones is possible. Building and maintaining trust among their families is one of the ways in which they acquire opportunities to use mobile phones in the first place. They know that in case of any suspicion, their mobile phones will be immediately confiscated. Another knot in this matter is that such incidents may affect their education as well. It is likely that the girls will be restricted from going to school, college, or any public place without a chaperone. Maintaining access, for girls, is dependent on the calculated use of mobile phones. How often, how much, and how carefully they use the devices becomes important. After all, the consequences of a setback can be further detrimental to their freedom.
Technology maintenance, thus, looks different in different contexts. It can look like making tough financial choices, coping with existing but inadequate infrastructure, and holding back from using it “too much”. The question we are left with, then, is how can we assume that increased phone penetration/ownership is indicative of a ‘closing digital divide’, especially, if the usership is constantly under threat? Experiences of the digital characterized by gender, class, caste, and region are seminal in determining whether the access remains consistent. As Gonzales articulates, “Access to digital technology is not a permanent or categorical state but rather an ongoing experience of labor, negotiation, and coping.” For adolescent girls in rural areas, who are constantly navigating patriarchy and disadvantages by virtue of their class, caste, and location, this negotiation is especially fragile and the discourse around digital inclusion cannot afford to overlook this.
*Names have been changed to protect people’s privacy.
IT for Change's Mysuru-based field center, Prakriye, builds techno-socio models to further socio-political empowerment of marginalized women and adolescent girls in rural areas of Mysuru district, Karnataka. Nayana Kirasur’s work at IT for Change involves field research and documentation of Prakriye’s programs and campaigns. She also works on external communications and social media outreach for the field center.