Sunday, July 19, 2015

Address gender divide

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, July 19, 2015

Technology is not gender-neutral. Photo: N. Bhaskaran
The Hindu
Technology is not gender-neutral. Photo: N. Bhaskaran

When I first came to Mumbai in my teens, the object of envy of all my aunt’s neighbours was a black instrument: a telephone. Only those with “influence” got one. And the fact of the telephone suggested that my aunt was a person with “influence”.

In the middle-class neighbourhood where she lived, ownership of the telephone made her immensely popular. Because that black instrument was not just hers; it was communal property. When it rang, there was a buzz of excitement. From her balcony, people would be summoned to receive calls. Others would knock on the door when they wanted to make a call. Through the day, there was a steady stream of people making their way to and from that instrument.

Today, everyone has a phone, or almost everyone. Ownership and use of mobile phones in India has gone exponentially. An estimated two-thirds of the population now has access to this technology. But do we pause to think about the remaining one-third, some 300 million people? Who are they? It should not come as a surprise to us, living as we do in a gender-unequal society, that the majority of those who do not own a mobile phone, and don’t even have access to one, are women.

A recent study by the GSMA (Groupe Speciale Mobile Association), formed in 1995 by mobile operators worldwide, found that 1.7 billion women in poor and middle-income countries do not own a mobile phone. On an average, women were 14 per cent less likely to own a mobile phone than men, and in India that figure stood at 31 per cent. The report points out, “Social norms and disparities between men and women in terms of education and income influence men’s access to and use of mobile technology, and often contribute to women experiencing barriers to mobile phone ownership and use more acutely than men.”

Simply put, what this means is that even if you put a mobile phone in the hands of every single woman in this country, there is no guarantee that she will be free to use it as she wants, or even if she will know how to use it. Her inherent disadvantage of being born a woman in this society works against that. She may not know how to read numbers, or letters. Hence how will she manage a phone?

And if indeed she is unlettered, as are a little under half the women in India, is there any chance that the men in her family will allow her to handle a phone, or help her to learn how to use it? Understanding this is essential as we continue our love affair with technology in this country with visions of a Digital India and “smart” everything. Technology is not gender-neutral. It cannot erase the disadvantages that are embedded in our societies. In some ways, it can even exacerbate them. To make such new technologies work for everyone, we have to recognise the gender divide and find ways to address it.

To further illustrate this divide, here are some findings from a 2012 study by the Grameen Foundation titled “Women, Mobile Phones and Savings”. The study was assessing whether and if mobile phones were effective in encouraging women to participate in savings groups. The researchers found that even when women owned phones, they often did not know how to use them. They had to rely on their husbands or other members of the family to even make a call.

Another interesting fact that emerged was that 74 per cent of the married women in the group surveyed said that their husbands would not allow them to own a mobile phone. In fact, a good number of the women said that they preferred to deal with their savings without having to use the mobile phone.

These studies emphasise that the current obsession with advancing new technologies in India must be tempered with the reality of gender, as well as other social factors. Otherwise, those with access will build on their advantage, and those without will be left even further behind.

Yet, the picture is not entirely gloomy. More women do own mobile phones now. Surveys reveal that owning a phone makes them feel safer and gives them some level of autonomy and independence. Organisations working with poor women have found that women’s access to this technology has helped them to organise women, bring them together, and even overcome the handicap of lack of education by teaching them this relatively simple technology. There are many stories of transformation in the lives of women and the communities where they work with the aid of mobile phones.

If the old black instrument, where you had to shout to be heard, opened up access in ways unknown before its advent, the mobile phone has revolutionised and democratised the way we connect and communicate with each other. New technologies, like mobile telephony, should erase barriers. But it will take some effort to bring down the gender barrier.

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