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Indian women face 'digital purdah'

News, 18 October 2016

NEW DELHI: Many women in India are at risk of being left behind in the shift to digital as entrenched cultural attitudes limit their access to new technologies such as smartphones and the internet.

India has one of the world's wider gender gaps as regards phone ownership as 43% of men have one compared to just 28% of women; the proportions are broadly equal in other major regional markets such as China (49% v 48%) and Indonesia (43% v 38%).

In terms of numbers that means that, in India, 114m more men than women have phones – more than half the total world-wide gap of around 200m between men and women, according to the Wall street Journal, citing GSMA data.

There is a reluctance among parts of a socially conservative male population to see wives and daughters carrying phones, which they regard with suspicion when in female hands.

"Mobile phones are really dangerous for women," according to an elder in one Uttar Pradesh village which has confiscated mobile phones from every woman under the age of 18. "Girls are more susceptible to bringing shame upon themselves," he added.

Such views are restricting women in many ways in a country where it is becoming increasingly common to use the internet to interact with government, bank and find jobs.

"Mobile phones, especially smartphones, are going to be the biggest challenge to achieving gender equity," said Osama Manzar, founder of the nonprofit Digital Empowerment Foundation, which helps marginalized groups get access to technology.

"Denying them to women means lost opportunity for women and the economy."

Local low-cost handset manufacturers such as Micromax have been looking to target women with particular styling and local-language operating systems but have yet to crack this particular cultural nut.

"There is clearly a gender divide, and that gets worse in the smaller towns," said Shubhajit Sen, chief marketing officer at Micromax. "We are still trying to find that one killer insight that will really unlock the adoption" by women, he added.

One angle being pursued is safety, with a panic button on phones that women can use to notify friends, family and police when they are in trouble. Vodafone created something similar for the Turkish market with a secret alarm app to help protect women facing the threat of domestic violence.

Telenor, meanwhile, is appealing to users' wallets, with its saleswomen going door-to-door with sim cards and offering deep discounts on calls if purchased by a woman.

Data sourced from Wall Street Journal; additional content by Warc staff