Accessibility and Need of Social Media for Indian Women – An Analysis

Introduction

In India, there are around 50 Crore Internet users. It is growing at a rate of 10% per year in the urban areas and 13% per year in the rural areas. Similarly, one-third of internet users in India are women. Today, a person spends an average of 145 minutes every day on social media. These platforms have a significant degree of influence on people’s political, social, and economic lives. Here too, a major part of users are women. Thus, is it important to find out, how seriously these platforms are dealing with gender issues including representation, safety, and security?

This article analyses the most fundamental obstacles in front of women in India, to engage meaningfully with social media and suggests a corrective framework for ensuring equitable access.

State of Indian Women over Social Media:
  • In India, there are around 500 million internet users. There was an addition of 26 million new female users during November 2018-19. The number of female users grew by 27 percent, higher than the 22-percent rise for males.
  • However, in absolute numbers, India’s female online population is only half that of males. The gap is even worse in social media usage as only 33 percent of women in India used social media, against 67 percent of men in 2019. 
  • Further, 52 percent of women users in India do not trust the internet with their personal information. 
  • Women are 26 percent less likely to access mobile internet due to misogyny, harassment, and revenge porn.
Why access to Social media is important for women:

Initially, social media used to be a medium of entertainment or chatting and interaction within a closed group of friends. However, now social media provides immense opportunities and benefits in social, political, and economical domains. It has also become a golden opportunity for women in traditional families who are not able to step outside their homes.

  • Building Interpersonal Relationships: Social Media allows users to build social capital and nurture interpersonal relationships. More than two-thirds of the youth in India use social media to stay in touch with their families and friends. Thus, it provides women not going outside their home an opportunity to interact with people all our the world. It improves their self-confidence and self-esteem.
  • Awareness and Information sharing:  Unlike in traditional media, the content on social media also, is created by users. The platforms are not just for broadcasting, but more for being avenues for dialogue.
    • A recent Twitter survey showed 25% of Indian women have a keen interest in discussing books and entertainment over social media. 
  • Economic Benefits: Social media provides scope for women-owned businesses to increase their growth and access formal financial services. 
    • It allows women to conduct their business online, thus eliminating the need for investment in physical spaces. 
    • It also paves the way for better engagement with other businesses, closer customer interaction, and more efficient responses to customer feedback.
    • According to the Women’s World Banking Report 2019, many women micro-entrepreneurs in India use WhatsApp to communicate with customers and vendors.
  • Addressing Grievances: These platforms also act as a forum for many women to garner support in solidarity, against their sufferings. 
    • For instance, The ‘Me Too’ movement against sexual harassment gained worldwide popularity through Twitter beginning in 2017. Under this, the survivors shared their sexual harassment experiences on social media.
    • Similarly, Indian women launched a campaign on Twitter, with the help of the hashtag “LahuKaLagaan”. It was against the 12 percent tax on sanitary napkins. The government rolled back the tax after the social media outrage.

Numerous steps have already been taken for improving women’s safety over online platforms to allow them to reap the potential benefits.

Obstacles for women in accessing social media:

However, it is nothing like that all women have access to social media in India. Here also, just like other work or public spaces, women face various obstacles.

  • Poor digital access: The use of social media remains largely urban-centric, after all, more than 43,000 villages in India still do not have access to mobile phone service. This hinders rural women from accessing social media.
  • Language Barriers: Most mainstream online communication is done in the English Language. The lack of content in local languages limits women’s participation at the grassroots who are less aware of the foreign language.
    • This can be testified by Facebook Audience Insights. As per this, English (US and UK) make 91 percent of the total languages used by female users in India; followed by Hindi at 6 percent and Bengali at 1 percent.
  • Cyber Crimes: There has been a persistent rise in abusive comments and misogynistic behavior on social media platforms. This silences and pushes women out of online spaces. Women feel more comfortable interacting on women-only social platforms like SHEROES. 
    • Online abuse includes bullying, stalking, impersonation, non-consensual pornography, revenge porn or image-based sexual abuse/exploitation, and most commonly, hate speech.
  • Cultural Barriers: Sometimes the prevalent norms and rituals forbid women from using social media. 
    • For instance, a village council in Uttar Pradesh’s Madora village banned women from using mobile phones in 2017. The male family members thought it was “indecent” for women to use them
  • Digital Competency: Lack of literacy and skills also acts as a hindrance to women’s access to mobile internet use. About 36 percent of women blamed low literacy and skills as the single most important barrier to using mobile internet.
  • Police Mindset: Indian Police system is often more likely to take action on physical threats and traditional criminal laws rather than cybercrimes. Thus, this creates a distrust among women and girls that their complaints may not be taken seriously if they are harassed or become victims of cybercrime. It discourages the use of social media by women.
  • Covid 19 Pandemic: The pandemic enhanced online access of people and the digital world became the new normal. Furthermore, people lost their jobs or faced huge salary cuts that created additional stress on them. This enhanced access and frustration eventually increased online crimes against women.
    • For instance, the police data showed that the maximum number of cyber-crimes were reported between May and August last year, around 4,000 cases each month.

These impediments should be duly addressed so that women are able to fully utilise the multiple benefits of Social Media.

Steps taken towards women safety over online platforms:
  • The Information Technology Act (IT ACT), 2000 together with the Indian Penal Code (IPC) provide provisions to deal with Cyber Crimes.
    • Section 67,67A,67B of the IT Act punishes individuals who transmit obscene material in electronic form.
    • Section 354D of IPC punishes cyberstalking. It involves monitoring a woman’s use of her email, social media account, or any other form of electronic communication without her consent.
  • The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) has a comprehensive cyber-crime reporting portal. It caters to complaints pertaining to cyber-crimes, with a focus on those committed against women and children.
  • Social media websites like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram, etc. have the option of reporting or flagging objectionable content. They take appropriate action based on the contents reported to them as per their content policy.
    • Objectionable contents include content that incites fear, racists or sexists comments, violent threats, demanding sexual favors, etc.
  • Cyber Police Stations and Cyber Crime Cells have been set up in each State.
  • Cyber Forensics Training laboratories have been set up in northeastern States and cities such as Mumbai, Pune, Kolkata, and Bangalore.
  • There has been an order for Matrimonial websites to adopt safeguards to ensure that their users are not deceived through fake profiles or incorrect information.

Nonetheless, we require some more measures for enhancing women’s participation over social media platforms.

Suggestions to improve women’s representation on social media:
  • First, the Government, corporations, and other public institutions must cooperate in tackling online misogyny. They must build the requisite legislative and social structures needed to recognize and deal with online misogyny.
  • Second, the trust of women over social media platforms should be enhanced. This requires the creation of strong redressal mechanisms with female-friendly cyber laws against online harassment.
  • Third, the focus must be placed on collecting Gender-disaggregated data indicating the extent of meaningful access to social media and freedom from online abuse. This would aid authorities in creating targeted digital policies.
    • Currently, neither the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) nor Google has such gender-aggregated data for India.
  • Fourth, social media companies must work with local authorities to assimilate local, cultural, and sociological factors over their platforms. This would make them more inclusive, representative, and safe. 
    • For instance, the participation of women on Facebook has increased post the availability of regional languages (Tamil, Punjabi, Gujarati, etc.) on the platform.
  • Fifth, the potential of civil society must be leveraged for improving digital literacy across the country. They can educate women on new avenues for their businesses and give them opportunities for networking.
    • For instance, Digital Empowerment Foundation is a not-for-profit organization. It works to empower marginalized communities to access, consume and produce information online using digital interventions and ICT tools.
Conclusion:

Women deserve greater access to social media platforms in order to unleash their true potential and properly exercise their right to freedom of speech. This warrants the creation of an enabling infrastructure that fulfills the ideals of inclusiveness and safety. Such an environment will instill greater trust among women and would help in ensuring gender justice.

Source: ORF 

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