for every child | digital parity
Digital connection and literacy offer advantages in a knowledge-based society, improving children’s lives and their future earning potential.
At the same time, connectivity doesn’t always equalize opportunity. Digital divides can mirror broader societal divides – between rich and poor, cities and rural areas, between those with or without an education – and between women and men.
India is one place in which the digital divide highlights society’s deep chasms. Globally, 12 per cent more men than women used the internet in 2016. In India, only 29 per cent of internet users are female: that’s fewer than 1 in 3.
For universal, safe access to be realized, this digital disparity needs to be addressed at the highest levels. However, young people are changing the landscape every day. By trying new platforms and experimenting with new technology, children are offering a glimpse into how internet access can expand their opportunities.
Two years ago, when Vikas Gupta’s friend asked him: “Are you on Facebook?” Vikas lied, “Yes.”
Like many children living in Goregaon East, a low-income suburb of Mumbai, India’s largest city, Vikas grew up with limited connectivity in his family’s one-room concrete home. When his friend tried to add him on Facebook, Vikas had never even used the internet.
But he was curious. He began to seek out an internet connection whenever and wherever he could. Within two months, he was hooked. He created a Facebook account and started adding friends rapidly.
“It was like something happened in a different world,” says Vikas, now 17 years old. “I was very happy in that time because I wanted to use [the internet] more more more and leave everything ... boring things … and do that,” he says.
These days, Vikas has two YouTube channels, three Facebook accounts and thousands of friends. To connect to the internet, he uses his brother’s old phone, visits cybercafes and jumps on free wifi whenever he can find it.
“I have a YouTube channel; it's named ‘Mad About Tech’. I started [it] with my friend, and we teach people how to fix their phones,” he says.
The second channel is dedicated to pranks. “Like, we go up to couples and ask for the girl’s phone number,” he says, smiling.
Vikas is motivated by the instantaneous feedback – he gets hundreds, often thousands, of views with each video. “Views and comments excite me,” he says. “If people ask me to make a video, I'll come back soon with [it].”
But Vikas’ online activity does not detract from his learning – it is giving him an advantage in school, where he excels. Recently, he took a career aptitude test that determined he’d be well suited as a pharmacist. “I searched online … it gave me information about [how to become] a pharmacist,” he says. “You have to take science, open a lab … there are many courses about pharmacists.”
“[The] internet does all the things that school doesn't teach,” he adds. “School is all about teaching what is in the book and giving the same thing in the mind … but the internet gives me information all around the world.”
Lagging behind online
While the internet has helped Vikas thrive, his younger sister Kritika, 15, is struggling to keep up.
“I don’t know how to use [it] so I [have to] get help from someone,” she says.
Although their parents are not opposed to Kritika using the internet, they are limiting her phone use until she passes her Level 10 exams.
“They’re worried that if I use the internet I’m going to be distracted,” she says. “My mom is worried I’m going to fail the tenth grade.”
But, she admits, her curiosity is waning. “I don’t even know how to use a laptop. Earlier I was more interested in it. I’m not really anymore … Cell phones ruin your eyesight,” she says.
This disparity in internet use between boys and girls in the same family is representative of a larger trend in the country: In India, only 29 per cent of internet users are female. Though the divide is caused by a number of factors – social norms, education levels, lack of technical literacy and lack of confidence among them – it is often rooted in parents’ concern for the safety of their daughters.
Many fear that allowing girls to use the internet will lead to liaisons with men, bringing shame on the family. For most girls, if they are allowed to use the internet, their every move is monitored by their parents or brothers.
In a society that is still largely patriarchal, for girls, traits like deference and obedience are often valued over intelligence and curiosity. In some households, technology is not seen as necessary or beneficial for girls and women.
Recently, a village governing body in rural Rajasthan forbade mobile phones and social media use among girls. Another village in Uttar Pradesh banned unmarried girls from using mobile phones along with a ban on wearing certain kinds of clothing, such as jeans and T-shirts.
“The thinking of the society is that [if] boys went in a wrong way, they are boys so boys can do anything.”
“The thinking of the society is that [if] boys went in a wrong way, they are boys so boys can do anything,” says Vikas. “So that is why girls are given more security and not letting them [get] exposure in their life.”
And without exposure to the internet, girls themselves may not develop curiosity about it.
“Girls in my class, they are not interested in [the] internet because they never get to use the internet ... they do not know the benefits,” says Vikas. “They have interest in [other] things … talking with the girls, doing [housework], or they play what the girls want to play.”
Recently, India has made a public push towards a more digitalized economy, including reducing dependency on physical cash. If girls and women remain digitally illiterate, they risk becoming further marginalized in society and at home.
Opportunities for girls
On the other side of Mumbai, about 15 km south of Vikas and Kritika’s neighbourhood, a maze of cramped houses and winding alleyways makes up Dharavi – India’s largest slum. The population is estimated at almost 1 million people, all living within approximately 2 square km.
Basic services like water, healthcare and education are scarce in the slum, and girls are often the most deprived. In many households, any small amount of resources a family has will first go to the men.
After visiting the slum several years ago, documentary filmmaker Nawneed Ranjan left his job and started the non-profit Dharavi Diaries – a learning centre for girls focusing on computer skills, internet and basic coding. The centre has since evolved to include classes on STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths), as well as workshops on topics like menstruation and hygiene.
Seventeen-year-old Roshani has been coming to the centre since it opened in 2014.
“The internet is very popular [in our community]. And every boy knows how to work on computers. And they also are chatting on WhatsApp and Facebook,” she says.
But girls, she says, don’t use the internet as much. “Sometimes the parents don't allow the girls to go out. Only girls.”
“Sometimes the parents don't allow the girls to go out. Only girls.”
When some of her friends started coming to Dharavi Diaries, Roshani immediately wanted to join them. “Our centre … gave more importance to girls. We can enjoy here and study here,” she says. “Before, I [went] to school and came home and I played all day. I didn't study.”
But now, she says she wants to succeed. “My mother is proud of me because in my family, only I passed 11 Standard and now I am 12 Standard,” she says.
Roshani has been coming to the centre regularly for three years, and she is now well versed in computer skills, as well as other subjects like science and English. Recently, she and her peers began learning how to code at the centre.
“I made an education app. In our community, there are many girls and women who [aren’t educated]. Some girls go to school and they don't get proper education,” she says. “My mother also is illiterate, that's why I thought it is very helpful for girls.”
Roshani’s app is targeted at women and girls, and has four features: basic Hindi, basic English, basic math and call a doctor, which connects them to healthcare workers in their community. She says her ultimate goal is to help girls gain a basic education, so they can get jobs and independence and help lift their families out of poverty.
For both Roshani and Vikas, the internet means possibilities outside of their immediate environments. The skills they have learned have given them confidence and motivation to work hard in school and pursue more ambitious dreams.
“Technology has changed my life,” says Vikas. “I just think, [if] I don't have technology … if I don't have any exposure to different ... people, how will I get introduced to many things? ...What will I do?”
UNICEF in India
India falls in the lowest group of countries on gender development, with rankings for maternal mortality, female participation in the labour force and girls with secondary education all below average for middle-income countries.
Whether it’s joining hands with the Government to promote the ‘Right to Learn’ programme or working with girls’ collectives to build self-confidence, UNICEF India is empowering girls across the country. Our work centres on promoting girls’ education, ending child marriage and gender-based violence, and supporting adolescent girls’ health.