The empowerment of women is key to shaping a gender-equal digital democracy
On March 8, along with the rest of the world, India too celebrates International Women’s Day. This day comes unquestioningly every year to retell the tales of women who have carved a path for themselves after centuries of battling social restraints, restricted beliefs and unfitting dogmas that held them from living the way they have always wanted to live.
The empowerment of women is key to shaping a gender-equal digital democracy, with the goal being that of helping women — who have traditionally been made to believe that their world begins and ends where they actually reside — freely communicate and reimagine the margins of their world by taking advantage of the country’s ever-evolving digital landscape. The Digital India mission envisions a truly inclusive society as the base to India’s technological revolution.
With 12 phones being produced per second, India is the 2nd most voluminous producer of phones in the world now. The average cost of a phone has reduced from Rs 8,000 to less than Rs 3,500, and the cost of data has simultaneously fallen from Rs 269 to Rs 18 per GB. BharatNet has penetrated over 1.2 lakh gram panchayats with Digi Gaon simultaneously pushing for last-mile connectivity through public Wi-Fi and meaningful content services. The combination of these factors has translated into more Indian women than ever making their way online, becoming equal beneficiaries of the digital revolution, and using ‘M-Power’ to get empowered. Digital connectivity has radically and positively altered women’s lives by providing unprecedented and seamless access to the five Es — Education, Engagement, Entitlement, Employment, and Entrepreneurship.
The increasing presence of women on the internet has translated into greater access to educational opportunities for women. From learning how to better manage their health and hygiene to using their mobile phones to voice their opinions, technology has turned digital platforms and ed-tech such as SWAYAM and e-Archive programmes into empowerment tools facilitating self-directed learning. The government’s digital literacy programme — PMG DISHA — has ensured that 99.2 lakh individuals are better equipped to capitalise on the dividends of the internet, and by emphasising women’s digital literacy, the scheme is crafting a more viable environment for participation.
The comprehensive Digital India landscape is encouraging women from all streams to engage beyond their households and to exercise their agency. The National Policy for Women was discussed in a participative governance manner, where women voiced their opinions in a digitally fostered, democratic and inclusive fashion. The Pradhan Manthri Kaushal Vikas Yojana aims to skill India on a large scale with high speed and standards and has successfully trained 33.5 lakh people in skills of their choice, of whom 50 percent are women. Technology is allowing women to develop new skills, forge new networks and leverage them for greater opportunities.
Prior to 2014, more than 43 percent of women were excluded from the ambit of a formal banking system. A fundamental transformation in rural women taking charge of their destiny has been through financial inclusion fostered by digital connectivity.
The government’s DBT programme has benefitted over 40 crore individuals last year alone, of which a majority of beneficiaries have been women — who no longer need to walk for miles on end or stand in long queues to gain access to their entitlements. Direct transfers of ration subsidies, cooking gas subsidies, MGNREGA wages and scholarships have encouraged and allowed women to be financially independent and exercise their financial prudence. The government’s digital identity and zero-balance accounts programme saw an immense uptake from women, with over 53 percent of Jan Dhan accounts being opened by women. The scheme further encouraged women to collaborate and form Self Help Groups (SHGs) in their areas leading to the possibility of accessing financial services and lending.
Technology has also endowed women with greater economic opportunity; the 3.18 lakh Common Service Centres launched by the government have empowered women to become Village Level entrepreneurs. Women entrepreneurs such as Nuzhat Mohiduddin of Jammu & Kashmir’s Baramulla run their own CSCs, and handle services that include loan documentation, bank account opening and mobile recharges.
The Internet Saathi programme has employed over 36,000 women to spread the knowledge they have acquired on internet access to other women. Women are playing a key role in the transformation from becoming job seekers to job creators, 74 percent of the Mudra borrowers in 2017 were women entrepreneurs and more than 53 percent of the startups incubated under Start-Up India have been founded by women. Initiatives such as the Mahila e-haat ensure that there is a tailored marketplace for women to retail their products by removing entry barriers and facilitating transactions.
Technology has ensured that all Indians, regardless of their gender, are linked into one common financial, economic, and digital space and that no one is left outside the mainstream. Recognizing that knowledge is only power when there is an opportunity for leveraging that knowledge. The Digital India programme has created avenues to ensure economic and social upliftment through technology. While it is still some way away from ensuring that all women have a digital presence and can access digital services, the jump of over 138 percent since the advent of the mission makes for a hopeful story. This bridging of the gender digital divide also has multiplier effects and societal benefits — empowering a woman empowers her family in turn, shifting the narrative from ‘Me’ to ‘We’.
Vasudha Thirani is a Senior Policy Associate with Digital India Foundation. The views expressed are personal.
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