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By: Isabelle Grégoire

Denying women access to the Internet is a very effective way to dominate them. This is happening in many developing countries, including India, where organizations are working to combat deeply entrenched attitudes to connect women to the digital world and transform their lives.

At the age of 18, Radha believed her destiny was completely mapped out: she would work in the fields, at the most thankless tasks, like her parents and ancestors before her. As a member of the Dalit community—formerly called the untouchables—the young woman could not dream of a better life. But in 2009, the arrival of the Internet in her village of Karnataka, in southwestern India, broadened her horizons.

Trained by the Indian NGO IT for Change, Radha not only had the opportunity to become familiar with the Web, she even became an “infomediary.” She helps farmers—and especially women farmers—to connect to the Internet to find employment, training, and social assistance.  “Before, they had to go to government offices 40 km away and lose a day’s work,” she says, with a confident smile. “Today, we offer them all this right next door.”

In this country of 1.3 billion people, where discrimination against the lower castes has persisted despite its prohibition since 1947 (the date of India’s independence and the end of British colonization), Radha has struggled to convince villagers to enter the rural infocentre she manages. It is a modest dwelling connected to the Internet, deliberately located in a lane reserved for Dalits. “Those in the upper castes treated the computer and printer with contempt because I had touched them,” she says, jingling her glass bracelets. “I cried a lot, but I held on and now they can’t do without me.” Radha hopes that her two little girls will never suffer the same rejection. “They join me at the infocentre every day after school and already know how to fend for themselves on the computer and the Web.”

Based in Bangalore, India’s high­tech capital, IT for Change employs seven infomediaries, each of whom operates in about ten villages. The NGO partners with women’s groups and local male leaders to change attitudes. “The Internet allows women to access crucial information and make their voices heard on village councils, even to be elected to them,” says lawyer Sarada Mahesh, 24, the organization’s project manager, “and it equips them to defend their rights.”

This is quite a challenge in a country where women, still considered inferior to men, are often subjected to ancestral rites, such as arranged and early marriage or the obligation to wear traditional clothing and tie back their long hair. While these medieval conditions mainly affect women living in rural areas, they have not completely disappeared from the large cities.

At the forefront of technology, but still dominated by patriarchy, the “largest democracy in the world” still in fact excludes most women from the Internet: women account for less than one­third (29%) of Internet users in the country. Only 28% of Indian women own a cellphone, compared to 45% of men; poverty is a barrier, even though the cost of telephones and data is very low in India. The device is often used less for women’s independence than for close supervision by their husbands, fathers or employers. Panchayats (village councils, most often made up of men) in various states have even decided to ban mobile telephones for teenage girls, under the pretext of protecting them. The picture is similar to that found elsewhere in developing countries, where the majority of women still do not have Internet access.

Even online, women remain at a disadvantage; they are the target of humiliation and harassment. In 2018, 35­year­old Indian investigative journalist Rana Ayyub was the victim of calls on Twitter for her to be gang­raped and murdered, her face was embedded in a porn video, and her mother’s picture was “altered in every way possible,” she told Reporters Without Borders. In Pakistan, in 2016, social media star Qandeel Baloch, 26, who was both praised and criticized for the freedom of her tone, was murdered by her brother, who claimed an honour killing. A wave of online insults and threats towards Pakistani women followed.

In 2019, the Feminist Internet Research Network (FIRN) was launched in an effort to better understand the types of digital discrimination faced by women. Funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in Ottawa, it brings together researchers, a majority of whom are women, from different countries—including India—to examine the digital ecosystem for three and a half years (see box).

“The Internet is still a long way from respecting diversity and human rights online,” says Ruhiya Seward, IDRC’s senior program officer. “Half of the world’s population still does not have access to it and significant digital divides remain, particularly between men and women.” The FIRN aims to collect data and then stimulate changes in Internet policies and laws to ensure that the needs of women, as well as people of sexual and gender diversity, are taken into account.

Indian women do not sit idly by and wait for things to change. In the megacities of Delhi, Bangalore, and Bombay, many feminist collectives are working to eliminate the digital divide. These groups work across the country, in both urban and rural areas. They are led by university­trained Indian women who are keen on new technologies and social media, and have a larger and larger audience. This includes Venu Arora, founding director of the NGO Ideosync Media Combine (IMC), which offers Internet and multimedia training in two slums in southern Delhi.

“Indian women face the same inequalities on the Internet as in real life,” says this former filmmaker, radiant in her lemon-yellow tunic. “Their mobility is equally limited.” Venu Arora, who holds a master’s degree in communications, worked for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) before devoting herself to the cause in the field.

We are in Tajpur Pahadi, a slum with 60,000 inhabitants, mostly migrants who have fled the floods that regularly ravage northern India. In a small blue house converted into a classroom by IMC, 10 teenagers—as many girls as boys—have come to discuss these inequalities with a Canadian journalist. They are in a room without a fan, while it is 48°C in the shade in early June.

Inequality is a subject to which the teenagers have been sensitized through the Free­Dem program, the 14­week (28­hour) multimedia training they have just completed. Suleman, a mischievous 17­year­old with a moustache who plans to become an electrician, says he just gave his mother a cellphone and is teaching her how to use it on the sly when his father is not at home. “But I blocked access to Facebook--it’s too risky.  Her photos could be hijacked and she could be bullied.”

This is a familiar story to the teenage girls present. They too have little or no access to family cellphones and often use a false identity to browse on Facebook. “I use my older brother’s account,” whispered Priya, a shy 16­year­old grade 10 student. “Many parents believe that only ‘bad girls’ post on social media,” notes Venu Arora, who translates the conversation, which is mostly in Hindi.

Komal, aged 16, an expert in fun selfies, has a little more latitude. She sometimes publishes her photos on WhatsApp and Instagram. But if her mother supports her in her dream of becoming a model, her father does not want to hear of it.

Only Mansi, tiny in her jeans and western­style T­shirt, claims to be free to go where she pleases on the Internet and has her own telephone, bought with her pocket money. “I’m lucky, because my parents don’t have that patriarchal mentality,” says the 19­yearold future teacher, whose English is impeccable. The daughter of an elevator mechanic and a teacher, she explains that they encourage her to open up to the world. “They trust me and don’t want me to stay home and cook,” she adds self-confidently. “They understand that in my generation, boys and girls have equal rights and that a girl can do the job of her choice, just like the guys.”­

If the teenagers are already convinced of the utility of the Web, their elders are more difficult to attract. “Learning the basics of the Internet when you are illiterate, or don’t understand English, can be frightening,” explains Venu Arora. India ranks 129th in the world with a literacy rate of 71.2%, with men’s rate at 81.3% and women’s at 60.6%. “And since these women are often not even allowed to leave their streets, we give classes right in front of their houses—on the ground, on a carpet.”

In the middle of the afternoon, when husbands and sons are at work, about ten of them get together to learn how to use a cellphone and do a Google Voice Search—ideal for those who can’t read or write.

It is in one of these narrow streets that I find five of these apprentices, looking crisp in their colourful saris despite the heat. “I thought technology wasn’t for me, yet I now know how to use all the functions of a smartphone,” says Sonmati, aged 48, who has the parting in her hair marked with sindoor, a trace of vermilion powder indicating that she is married. A former yarn cutter in the textile industry, this mother of six children was paid less than a rupee (two cents) for 15 hours of daily labour until she stopped working during her first pregnancy in 2001. Her greatest pride: last year she made a video in which she tells viewers how she experienced the floods that hit her native Uttar Pradesh in 1998. “The whole world can watch it online!” she says, amused. Based on archival images gleaned from the Web, the video is broadcast on the Free-Dem program website.

All of them are delighted to list their recently acquired skills: searching for a recipe on YouTube, following the news from their home village, shopping online, and texting their relatives.

The problem is that none of the five has her own phone. “My husband leaves in the morning and only brings it back late at night, after his work,” says Premwati, 40, a former worker at an air conditioning manufacturer, waving away flies attracted by the smell of the latrines. “My son never lends it to me for fear that I will break it,” adds their neighbour Kunti, rolling her eyes. “Mine takes the SIM card out when he goes out,” says Renu, a resigned-looking woman in her fifties who runs a small variety store in the slum. They all burst out laughing at the absurdity of their situation. “We’ll eventually each be able to buy one,” concludes Sonmati philosophically.

The Web and telecommunications giants intend to win this huge potential customer base. Competition is fierce: since 2016, cellphones and data have been offered at discount prices, and the number of Indian mobile subscribers has doubled to 500 million.

Falling prices are not enough. In 2015, Google India partnered with Tata Trusts, the philanthropic division of the Tata Indian industrial empire, to provide basic two-day Internet training in some 210,000 villages in the country. To date, 22 million rural Indian women have benefited from its Saathi (Hindi for friend) Internet program. Based on a network of 58,000 volunteers recruited from these communities, this initiative has increased the proportion of women using the Internet in rural India from 1 in 10 in 2015 to 3 in 10 in 2017.

“This program enables women to increase their economic independence,” observes Shahid Siddiqui, deputy executive director of the Digital Empowerment Foundation, an Indian NGO that is implementing Internet Saathi in the field. Training was the last element that many of them needed to set up a microenterprise and sell what they produce through WhatsApp, Facebook, or Amazon, such as handbags, homemade snacks, and artisanal jewellery. To ensure that women have access to a cellphone during their apprenticeship and afterwards, the NGO gives them two: one for her, and one that is likely to be taken over by the men in the family!

However, Internet service providers are not always as aware of, or concerned about, women’s concrete needs. Preeti Mudliar, 35, an assistant professor at the International Institute of Information Technology (IIIT) in Bangalore, saw this during her 2018 research in a rural region of Rajasthan in the northwest of the country. “Even if free Wi­Fi access is expanding in rural areas, the women who live there are not benefiting from it,” says the researcher from her office in the Electronic City district, one of the country’s largest technology parks. “And this is for a very simple reason: since they are not allowed to show themselves in public spaces, on pain of being dishonoured, no one gives them the Wi­Fi password!”

According to Preeti Mudliar’s research, only women who can afford a cellular telephone subscription can access the Internet. As a result, they tend to ration their consumption, and use their data only for research related to their studies or employment, “…while boys and men don’t hesitate to use it to download movies and songs or to watch porn.”

What is a feminist Internet?

Are women workers more or less exploited when they are recruited online? Can they assess clients and be defended if their rights are not respected? And above all: how do employers recruit this workforce, which generally does not have access to the Internet? These are the kinds of questions that Indian researcher Ambika Tandon, a policy officer at the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), a Bangalore­based non­profit organization that conducts interdisciplinary research on the Internet and digital technologies, is trying to answer.

To do so, she chose to examine digital platforms providing home cleaning and home care services—occupations that are mostly held by women. “The idea is to compare the employment opportunities and working conditions offered on these platforms with those of traditional employment agencies,” says this London School of Economics graduate and member of FIRN.

Funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in Ottawa, FIRN brings together researchers, a majority of whom are women, from a dozen countries in Latin America, Asia, and Eastern Europe. It is led by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), an international organization which has contributed to the development of the 17 “Feminist Principles of the Internet – Version 2.0”. Each of the eight FIRN research projects will be linked to one of these principles.

“Our objective is to increase the visibility of these issues in the public space, so that they can be part of the discourse,” says Indian Namita Aavriti, co-manager of project implementation within the APC, “with a particular focus on violence against women online, which has yet to be recognized in many countries.”

Four hundred km from Rajasthan, women in the agricultural regions of Haryana, near Delhi, face similar obstacles—obstacles that Jasmine Rose, head of the Kamalini (lotus flower) Vocational Training Centre, fights day after day, along with her team of teachers, all committed feminists.

Located on a main road surrounded by fields reduced to desert by the dry season, the centre is housed in a modern ochre brick building. Opened in 2017, the centre welcomes students from about fifteen villages in the surrounding area. The students, aged from 17 to 35, are enrolled in information technology, esthetics or sewing. Their transportation by minibus or tuk­tuk (motorized tricycle) is provided by the centre. This service is essential for them to attend the training; fearing for their safety, their parents would not let them get there by their own means. “Convincing families to let them leave their villages to learn a trade was not easy,” says the energetic 30­year­old, dressed in jeans and sporting short hair. “And we had to work just as hard for them to be allowed to surf the Internet, which is essential to deepen their learning, find an internship, or start a business.”

The feminist discourse of Jasmine Rose and her team is bearing fruit. After six months of training, the Kamalini graduates have made giant strides. Most of them have an impressive confidence in themselves and their ability to work toward becoming independent. Some have been able to afford a cellphone through small contracts related to their studies. And all of them assure us that they can access the Web with ease. “It’s me who’s showing my little brothers and parents how to use the computer that my father just bought,” says Nancy, a 19-year-old information technology graduate who plans to work in a bank. The revolution is under way, one connection at a time.

Isabelle Grégoire travelled to India at the invitation of IDRC, which supports the Feminist Internet Research Network.

Three questions for . . . Kanika Mishra,

Feminist, cartoonist and social media star

Kanika Mishra is an independent cartoonist who is making a splash on social media in India, as well as on various Indian and international websites and magazines. Most of the links can be found on her website featuring her young heroine Karnika, who speaks out on women’s right to pleasure, the restriction on cellphone use for teenage girls, and the politics of Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister elected for a second term last May. In 2014, she received the Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award from the Cartoonists Rights Network International, a non­partisan organization based in the United States.

Is online bullying of women in India different from that elsewhere in the world?

It is worse in India because of the patriarchal and misogynistic mentality that a woman is meant to stay in her kitchen and must not have an opinion—and because the Modi government supports this way of thinking. The government does not like strong and independent women, and that is why ministers tell us how to dress, that we must not go out alone, that Hindu women must have at least four children, etc. Those who do not follow these recommendations are bullied, insulted, and threatened.

You are subject to virtual harassment yourself because of your cartoons. How do you react to it?

It no longer affects me. I consider online violence to be part of my job. I tell my attackers that India is a democracy, that freedom of expression is a fundamental right, and that fear will not hold me back. These days, most Indian media are busy praising the government and hiding the facts, so independent voices like mine must be more vigilant and active than ever.

Most Indian women still do not have access to the Internet and smartphones. How do you see things evolving?

Fortunately, all of that is changing. I have met women, including those in rural areas, who use these tools incredibly well even when they are not allowed to leave their homes. It is true that misogynistic communities still want to prevent women from accessing the Internet for fear that they will become self­sufficient and escape them. But with the constant technological revolution and inevitable globalization, these outdated opinions will eventually lose their power and their voices will be silenced.

This article was originally published in French in the September 2019 issue of L’Actualité magazine, with IDRC support.  

Top image: IT for Change