Internet is an effective equalizer, if we allow it to be. It’s unfortunate that the developing world, India included, is not doing enough to encourage women to log on to the power of internet – to bridge the widening digital divide between men and women.
A recent report on internet usage, funded by chip giant Intel, in collaboration with US State Department and United Nations, shows that women are lagging behind men in accessing internet. The study found that women, in the developing world, are 25% less likely to access internet than men. (READ: Women in India, and other developing countries, lag in Internet use – Reuters)
Internet boldly cuts across a myriad of lines – country, culture, race, religion, education, economic status, gender, etc. – that divide the world. It enriches lives and brings the world closer by bridging the information gap, offering new opportunities, and providing new ways of connecting and communicating.
Education, formal or informal, is the biggest blessing of internet. It has thrown open virtual classrooms, training institutes, universities, and labs that operate 24×7 and accept enrollment from anyone living in any part of the world – men or women – rural or urban.
Women and underprivileged need internet more than anyone else. They must be encouraged, through various government programs, to take advantage of the technology to better their lives – to acquire new skills, to find better paying jobs, to ensure that they are counted among haves and not have-nots.
This digital divide highlighted in Intel’s report should not surprise many though. Women are denied internet access for the same old reasons that come in their way to education. Patriarchal excuse – It is expensive so will only be provided to the boys in the house. Cultural excuse – Internet is dangerous for girls, it exposes them to “inappropriate” content. In many cases, it’s just pure lack of awareness – women and girls in rural places have no idea about a thing called “internet”.
Intel’s report calls upon policymakers, tech companies, and other non-government groups to take steps towards connecting more women to the internet. It suggests to spread awareness and to make internet access more affordable.
“With the powerful capabilities the Internet enables – to connect, to learn, to engage, to increase productivity, and to find opportunities – women’s lack of access is giving rise to a second digital divide, one where women and girls risk being left further and further behind,” said Melanne Verveer, ambassador for global women’s issues at the State Department.
The report goes on to claim that connecting women to internet will not only open up opportunities for them but it will also help grow the global economy, and therefore everyone has a stake in it. Once connected, they will turn to internet for things like education, shopping, and banking. Bringing 600 million more women to internet can add up to $70 billion in new market opportunities.
Indian government has been working with private players to bring low-cost Tablet PC, named Akaash Tablet, to students however the ambitious program has seen little success so far. The reality is that it cannot succeed until the issue of internet availability and affordability is addressed. A glassy piece of hardware can react to human touch but it cannot touch human back in any way until it’s connected to the internet.
Internet is a magic band that can help countries build an informed, educated, and skilled workforce. It can help build vibrant societies of tomorrow where no one is left behind. It can eliminate the divides that plague the developing world today. But without connecting women and girls with internet only half of the potential will be realized.