Back at my grandmother’s house in Jodhpur, a 7 year-old girl used to come visit us everyday with her mother. Her mother was the part-time cleaner who would arrive at 9am on the dot to sweep our house clean. The young girl would try to help her mother whenever she could but she was there for an entirely different reason: like moths to a flame, she would gravitate towards our TV screen, her hazel eyes fixated on the drama and dance that is typical of Indian daytime shows. She’d melt away into her little spot and we wouldn’t hear a peep from her until her mother called for her.
She didn’t have a TV at home. This was just circa 2009. She wasn’t in school because her family needed her extra pair of hands to earn an income; she too would work as a housekeeper, like her mother. I would try every now and then to lure her into the fantasy worlds of storybooks, but her sideward glances were all directed at le petit écran. She was hooked. She was fascinated.
According to the book Superfreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, she isn’t an anomaly. Between 2001 and 2006, 150 million people in India watched cable TV for the first time. The book claims that a fall in prices for equipment and distribution meant villages across the country were suddenly lit up with the twisted plot lines of families across the country and the world. “TV gave many Indian villagers their first good look at the outside world,” say Levitt and Dubner. They may not have hygienic toilets yet, but TVs had arrived.
India’s track record with women’s status and rights is dire. According to the Indian government’s National Family Health Survey, almost 47 percent of women are married by the age of 18 while more than half are married before that legal minimum age. Only 37 percent of those married women contribute to household decisions (which includes something as simple as making purchases for daily household needs) and just 15 percent have a bank or savings account they can use themselves. More than half of the women in India surveyed also believe that wife-beating is justified in certain cases. Literacy rates for women is embarrassing hovering at just over half, compared to 78 percent for men.
All of these statistics are reflections of a deeply patriarchal culture where boys and men are seen as superior; they are given greater care and nourishment, better opportunities and more freedom. Amartya Sen, Nobel prize-winning economist, said "a distressing aspect of gender bias in India that shows little sign of going away is the preference for boys over girls.” Furthermore, it is the women themselves who perptuate this male-preference: one in five women and men say they would like more sons. And so it goes on and on. Gender inequality is a frustratingly stubborn problem that plagues the country and holds it back from its full potential.
But there are hopeful and positive signs on the horizon completely unrelated to gender laws and activism.
Superfreakonomics cites a study published in 2007 by Robert Jensen and Emily Oster that studied the Indian villages that had recently been touched by TV. Astonishingly they found that TV unintentionally and substantially transformed women’s status in the surveyed areas, particularly in the rural areas, simply because it presented alternative versions of life. For example, they found lower birth rates and a higher likelihood of women keeping their daughters in schools – signs of increasing autonomy.
If TV was bringing about such shifts in attitude, imagine what the internet could do now. Currently, India is home to more than 200 million internet users – the third largest userbase in the world. It also accounts for the highest number of Facebook and Twitter users in the world outside of the US, according to Alexa Internet.
And yet, just a third of those users are women. The wide gap between men and women manifests itself in every facet of society hampering progress and change on every level.
Google has noticed this vast untapped potential and is trying to close that gap. Google India launched the Helping Women Get Online initiative in 2013 that aims to get 50 million women onto the internet by the end of this year. It runs workshops across the country, has a hotline for any queries and a dedicated website with video tutorials.
But, despite the efforts of private institutions like Google, the internet infrastructure is a great bottleneck to making any substantial progress. According to a 2012 McKinsey report, the current internet user base is still just 10 percent of the entire population. Most of those users are concentrated in the sprawling urban areas where internet penetration rates are 12 times that of the rural belts. Furthermore, bandwidth is lower in India than many other developing countries and access to the internet is still relatively expensive.
This is where the government needs to step in by upgrading and expanding internet access. It has promised to do so – the National Optic Fibre Network project aims to expand fibre optic networks to 250,000 villages enabling greater connectivity over the next two years. But will it live up to its word? That remains to be seen. The current election cycle has placed several issues at the forefront of discussions across the country from women's status and the economy to toilet access and jobs. Internet access should be on that agenda too.
The future of India should not be tainted by its neglect of women, especially if catalysing change requires simple upgrades in technology. Just imagine what women could do for themselves and the people around them with the power of the internet. The possibilities are endless.
This post was originally published on Thinking in Practice.