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Towards a gender inclusive digital society

In the last few years India has witnessed astounding growth in mobile broadband and digital technologies. We have seen how broadband based technologies have spurred socio-economic growth and significantly contributed in enhancing competencies of communities, businesses and individuals in myriad ways.

Despite the tremendous progress made in expanding the digital infrastructure and reach of mobile internet in the country, there is still a vast proportion of women who are devoid from the benefits of the digital revolution. While the advent of 4G and affordable data connectivity has certainly translated into improved access of internet for women, we are far from achieving equitable access.

GSMA’s latest Gender Gap 2020 report brings to light this gaping digital divide between men and women both in ownership of mobile as well as in internet usage. As per GSMA findings, women in India are 20 percent less likely to own mobile in comparison to men. This gap is more profound when it comes to internet usage, with women being 50 percent less likely to use internet than men.

In times of COVID-19 pandemic when mobile broadband has become a lifeline for the country, the implication of this digital gender divide is even more severe as it prevents women from accessing critical information as well as life enhancing services like education, health-care and banking.

In a country like India where the contribution of women in the overall GDP is one of the lowest proportions in the world, we cannot afford to turn a blind eye to this gender based digital disparity. As per McKinsey estimates, women’s equality in India can add USD 770 billion to our GDP by 2025.The fastest way to achieve this is by empowering women with powerful digital tools which can bring them into mainstream of economic life and unleash a world of opportunities for them. United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 5 (SDG) also endorses women’s use of enabling technology as a means of achieving economic empowerment and development.

This brings us to the pressing need to understand and address the barriers faced by women in accessing internet enabled services. These barriers are both economic as well as social. While affordability is one of the main barriers for ownership of mobile phones, lack of digital literacy and awareness are other prominent factors which deter women from adopting digital technologies. The gender based societal norms and fear of online harassment further inhibit women to access internet.

Need for concerted measures to address the barriers for internet adoption for women
More than ever before, there is a need to take concrete and immediate steps to reduce the gender-based inequalities which have perpetuated in the digital world.

  • First and foremost, it is important to integrate the agenda of gender inclusivity in all digital policies, strategies and interventions.
    This includes establishing well defined goals and targets not only for increasing women’s access to broadband but also for adoption of services like digital payments, e-learning, tele-medicine and e-governance.
    While NDCP presents an excellent framework for accelerating India’s digital growth, including the gender dimension and a concrete action plan to advance gender equality in access to broadband will ensure that growth is inclusive in the true sense.
    Leveraging USOF fund to subsidize cost of smartphones for women from economically weaker sections of the society can also pave a way for bringing more women in the digital realm.
  • Furthermore, there is a need for increased focus on digital literacy and awareness programs.
    A collaborative multi-stakeholder approach involving participation from government, industry and academia is required to create and deliver large scale digital literacy and awareness programs targeting women especially from rural and marginalized communities.
    Recognizing the need for driving inclusivity, the recently launched NEP 2020 has proposed setting up of a Gender Inclusion Fund. This is surely a step in the right direction and if implemented properly it can significantly contribute in enhancing literacy levels amongst girls including digital skills.
  • Finally, it is imperative to foster creation of locally relevant content and digital offerings.
    Creating content, applications and digital services which are tailored to the needs of women can go in a long way in promoting acceptability and adoption amongst women. We need to explore innovative ways in which frontier technologies such as AI, IoT, NLP and AR/VR can be leveraged to create relevant digital solutions around women safety, maternal health, and financial inclusion. In addition, ensuring availability of content in regional Indic languages can further help in democratizing internet and in bringing more women online.

Jio is committed to bridge this digital gender divide
Inclusion is at the heart of Jio’s business and services strategy. We recognize the need for a gender inclusive digital eco-system and are truly committed to increase the proportion of women on our network. It is our constant endeavour to empower women with high speed connectivity and innovative digital tools at the most affordable price. In particular, the JioPhone has been a true catalyst and has brought millions of women in the digital realm.

Our partnership with GSMA for their Connected Women Program under the leadership of Isha Ambani (Director, RJIL) and the very recent collaboration with USAID and W-GDP (Women’s Global Development and Prosperity)  furthers our commitment to the cause of digital gender equality. As part of these initiatives Jio is working to identify and scale digital solutions and programs which can enhance the lives of women across the country.

The path ahead needs to be inclusive
India is gearing up for an exciting new phase of digital revolution that is going to be fueled by 5G and emerging technologies like AI/ML, IoT and blockchain. We are working toward creating a digitally connected world, where not only people but billions of devices will be connected over intelligent and low latency networks. In this new hyper-connected world, we cannot afford to leave women un-connected, as equitable participation of women in the digital economy is imperative for India to achieve its vision of 1 Trillion-dollar digital economy.

Thus, while charting the path to this next phase of digital transformation let’s strive towards an inclusive India where digital dividends are distributed equally amongst everyone irrespective of the gender.