Gender norms greatest barriers to use of tech in rural areas: Facebook official

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New Delhi: Gender norms pose the greatest barriers to use of technology, particularly in rural areas, according to Ankhi Das, Director for Public Policy for Facebook in India.

Participating in an event that focused on India’s digital gender gap, Ankhi Das, yet, cited instances in Bangladesh where phones were linked to women’s livelihoods and those barriers started to weaken: “When a phone becomes a tool of economic production, then you see more equity in both ownership and time spent on the phone.”

Das also described measures Facebook has to keep women’s profile pictures from being misused. The “private photo guard” feature keeps images from being downloaded or even captured by screenshot. “When privacy is guaranteed, the usage is much higher,” Das said.

The purpose of the event, organised by Observer Research Foundation, Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD) at Harvard Kennedy School and the Institute for Financial Management and Research, was to discuss the causes and effects of India’s technology gender gap, as well as possible solutions that will allow women and girls to access the information and networks mobile phones can provide.

The intersections between moral conventions, gender roles, and mobile phone usage emerged as major themes at the event that focused on India’s digital gender gap. “We aren’t only talking about the lack of access to mobiles, but also politics, and the lack of autonomy,” said journalist and TV presenter Barkha Dutt, when she introduced the panel of researchers and public figures at the gathering.

Rohini Pande, Professor of Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and co-director of EPoD, said that beliefs must be understood if they are to be altered. “There are distinctions between actual norms, perceived norms, and individual beliefs,” she explained. “When norms clash with beliefs, they can be changed.”

Apps that make mobile phones more valuable to women in practical terms may help break down resistance. Pande cited programs like Kilkari – a government-run mobile voice message service that delivers messages about pregnancy, nutrition, childbirth and maternal and child care – that can make the value of phone use clear to men and women alike.

Samir Saran, Vice President of Observer Research Foundation, gave a warning for future if patterns of technology use are not challenged: “If democracy is going to be digital in the future, if governance is online – and if we don’t have gender parity – then you’ll get a masculine outcome most of the time”

South Asia has among the world’s widest gender gaps in access to mobile phones: today in India, 67% percent of men use mobile phones, but only 33% percent of women do.

Charity Troyer Moore, EPoD’s country director for India, framed the discussion by giving facts about mobile phone usage. Access to mobile phones correlates with income, education, ownership of assets and measures of empowerment. Yet Moore pointed out that these correlations raise questions rather than give answers: “Can help closing the gap in mobile usage help close other gaps – in health and survival, and in income?” she asked. “Can mobile technology continue to be as transformative for women in the future as it has been so far?”

The event served as a forum for discussing the current state of research, as gathered by researchers at EPoD India at IFMR, a joint initiative of Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD) at Harvard Kennedy School and the Institute for Financial Management and Research. Their report is the first stage or a research agenda that will test ways of increasing women’s access to mobile technology in India.

Source: Outlook India

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