The new mobile phones are not only redefining selfies and texting but also offering meaning to many people around the globe, especially women in developing nations. However, these benefits are still unavailable to about 1.7 billion women in developing countries who don’t own a mobile phone. It is the worst in South Asia. A study has revealed that India’s mobile phone gender gap stands at 33 per cent, marking it among the highest in the world.

There are many factors leading to this mobile gender gap in India. One major reason is how several communities, across areas, are controlling women’s usage of mobile phones. Studies have revealed that women still have to share their passwords with family members and cannot hide their phones from their families. This supervision extends at various levels among young girls and women owing to several reasons. Let’s take a deeper look into this theory.

Gender norms as barriers to women’s usage of mobile phones

 The Harvard Kennedy School study estimated that, today in India, 71 per cent of men use mobile phones, as against 38 per cent of women. On an average, by 33 per cent, men are more likely to own a phone than women. Coming to the 38 per cent who are operating phones, there’s a majority of them who are generally controlled over their method of phone usage. 

Several young girls have spoken about how they’ve had to share their passwords with other male members in their circle as “safety measures”. But really, is this how safety is ensured? Here are some key factors explaining why this control over women, concurring mobile phone usage, prevails even today:

  • Girls, especially in rural backgrounds, are told mobile phones only serve the purpose of talking to family, alerting during a commute or to discuss work or studies to some extent.
  • There’s a mounting 60 per cent gender gap when it comes to social media use on mobiles. While social media is empowering several women on one hand, a certain majority is told that social media engagement reflects badly on them.
  • 47 per cent of the women who access a phone are phone borrowers rather than owners, as compared to 16 per cent of men. Since borrowing a phone rather than owning one imposes practical limitations on independence for women, it is imperative that patriarchal norms gender bias come into play here.

Why do these normative barriers form?

Many women, in the context of them not being digitally sound, are often told to share their passwords and mobile phone activities as they’re constantly told they do not have the technical ability to perform complex tasks. Also, reputation, most significantly, is one factor why many believe women should have lesser screen time. Calling mobile phone activities a distraction, most women are also advised that phones serve as a distraction from “more important” home-based responsibilities.

Perhaps the strongest normative barrier that emerged in several interactions is that mobile phones threaten the reputation of women and girls. This threat can be again be segregated into various factors like patriarchal notions, immorality, digital harassment etc.

  • Most girls, studies have noted, are told not to use platforms like Facebook and Instagram, which are open access services. They are told to limit their use only till WhatsApp and not other platforms that, according to some, may malign their image.
  • This notion is highly common among girls in the pre-marriage age group, but the implications of this norm varies from context to context. For instance, the study noted that in a conservative field site in rural Madhya Pradesh, most individuals stated that “women should not own phones before marriage: a young married respondent cited the reason that ‘they will get bad because they will make boyfriends’.”

In many places, women are allowed to own phones before marriage, but face restrictions on uploading their pictures on Facebook, and spending too much time on their phones, or even on using their phones publicly.

This indicates that a woman’s reputation is considered fragile and needing protection, while a man’s reputation is considered strong and is not affected by concerns about his marriageability. For example, the research noted how an unmarried male respondent supported this supervision citing a women’s reputation as a reason. He stated how in their community “it is said girls are like earthen pots and boys are like metal pots. Boys remain strong, but girls are easy to break”.

  • Concerns catering to pre-marriage mobile ownership is another problematic notion. Many, in rural communities, believe that when a girl is talking on the phone, the conversation is most probably with a boy. The talk about schoolwork, friendly banter, or even a normal discussion with a friend, is ruled out in this situation.
  • In some instances, young women themselves acknowledged this supervision and called excess mobile phone use as inappropriate for women. The report cited an example where an unmarried woman in Maharashtra expressed discomfort with using phones for social media since “it may hurt her marriage prospects if she is seen uploading photos”.

So how can this gender-based bias be addressed?

The cause for worry here is that this mobile gender gap is problematic in more ways than one. This particular gap can aggravate other forms of inequality and mean lesser networking opportunities for women. It’s time women are supported so they can expand their digital horizons and be empowered. It’s important to shackle gender-based norms first so women are provided with equal opportunities. Yes, digital safety is important, but so is the opportunity given to women to be able make use of this digital space. This space is for everyone, regardless of gender and the society needs to comprehend this.

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