Women and girls have suffered during the pandemic because of tech solutions to vaccinations as well social problems such as employment, violence, and education.

Silhouette of a womanPICXY.COM/RAJASTILLS
news Technology Wednesday, May 19, 2021 - 15:49

Technology is meant to be a “great equaliser, not a source of division,” said Ravi Shankar Prasad in a UN high-level debate on Digital Cooperation and Connectivity. With most recent government schemes and policies considered during the pandemic premised on technological solutions, one wonders which equalisation he was referring to. In fact, it is in India’s multi-pronged COVID responses strategies that we see the best examples of technology creating digital divisions.

During the first wave of the COVID crisis, the government came up with two technological solutions to two concerns. Firstly, with the shutting of physical spaces like schools, the education space pivoted immediately to online classes. Secondly, responding to the heightened cases of domestic violence faced by women at home, the government responded by setting up various telephonic helplines. Both these responses had two layers of issues, especially when it comes to women and girls.

Digital gender divide: issues of access and use

Women and girls in India have limited access to technology, especially mobile phones and internet. The data says it all: according to the mobile gender gap report 2020, 20% less women own mobile phones than men in India. But more worryingly, the gap between men and women when it comes to mobile internet users is one of the highest amongst low and middle-income countries — 50%. Most women (especially in rural settings) have shared phones or one phone in the family. Even when women do have their own phones, they are mostly hand me down phones which are broken or malfunctioning. 31% women in India possess brick or basic phones which do not have internet access.

Even when women and girls do have access to technology, their use is fraught with regressive and patriarchal notions. 14% of women in India do have smartphones, but beliefs that the internet is a bad thing which will lead to our girls indulging in ‘galat kaam’ is rampant, especially in rural India. Unsurprisingly, ‘Family does not approve has been one of the top barriers to mobile ownership mentioned by Asian women.

Since the first wave of the pandemic, technological solutions like online classes and telephonic helplines have therefore only helped far and few. Staggering impact of these lopsided solutions will be seen in the long run – with higher dropout rates amongst girls who did not receive unrestricted access to phones to attend classes. Similarly, massive under reporting of domestic violence cases would be taking place as these helplines has been out of ambit for most women. But instead of learning from our mistakes, are we repeating them?

Social media: the new helplines but for who?

As the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc in the country during its second wave, this gender digital divide is getting further exacerbated. With the overstretched medical systems and a virtual collapse of the governance structures, Twitter and other social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp became the new ‘helpline’. Help of all kinds – oxygen, beds, medicines and even those related to cooked food was sought on the platform. In 2019, only 28% of social media users in rural areas were women while this figure was 38% in urban areas. In the case of an emergency, limited access to technology might only leave real life connections or ‘jugaad’ option, something which is possible for men who possess social networks thanks to their work. But many women in rural settings are expected to be tied to their house, with no scope of developing active social ties and friendships. How will single women or women-headed households who do not have phones or internet access get information around medical facilities?

Quick-fix approach for vaccinations

The government has now applied similar quick-fix mechanisms to the vaccination enrolment system as well. For vaccinating the age group of 18-44, online registrations on either the Co-WIN portal or the Aarogya Setu app have been made mandatory. What is the rationale for such a move, you may ask?

In a recent affidavit to the SC, the Centre legitimises this premised on concerns of crowding. For a problem which can be solved by better management of healthcare centres, lakhs of people who are unable to access mobile phones are being denied the vaccines. It’s obvious who will benefit out of such a move. People from urban cities are at the receiving end of an undue advantage in terms of both technology and mobility as many are now taking up slots in vaccination centres in far off villages and districts. Unfortunately, both these advantages are not easily available in the hands of women and girls.

Women falling off the vaccination plan

For a household that does not have smartphone or internet access, vaccination registration will have to be done through middlemen like cybercafé owners who might charge for their services. Women and girls will be the first ones to fall off the radar when it comes to vaccines in case the house has limited resources. Even when a household has phones, one person can register only four beneficiaries through their account. What will happen in the case of larger families? Considering the entrenched devaluation of women’s lives in India, preferential treatment might be given to boys over girls. Such a move will marginalise women and girls who have consistently suffered during the pandemic because of such tech solutions to social problems like employment, violence, and education.

In a bid to defend its online registration policy for vaccine enrolment, the Centre in an affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court (SC) mentioned that the "...citizens who do not have access to digital resources can take help from family, friends, NGOs, and above referred Common Service Centres (CSC), etc for online registration in Co-WIN." However, in the second wave of the pandemic, the idea of micro-containment zones has taken stronghold. These localised curfews make the uses of CSC difficult as mobility of women are curtailed. Running of such services is also taking places in fits and starts – out of 3 lakh CSCs, only 54,460 were active as on May 11, 2021. 

The overreliance on technology presupposes ideas of basic literacy, digital literacy (understanding of apps and portals) and English proficiency (as the Co-WIN portal is not available in any regional language), all aspects which shows detachment from the lived realities of women and girls. Lastly, there is no data available on phone usage amongst transgender persons, people with disability and the elderly. Technological solutions without on ground mobilisation are bound to result in inequitable access to vaccines amongst those who need it most

Learning from past lessons

Allowing walk-ins for the age group of 18-44 is the most viable solution to cut across technological barriers which discriminates against certain genders and communities. Even developed countries like the United States have devised methods to overcome the digital divide by creating ‘vaccination assistance hotline’ which provides information on vaccination centres in various languages. Such helplines have already been established by the varied state and central governments and vaccination information and registration can easily be integrated here. This would still require women to have access to phones but removes the barriers around the internet. Campaigns (on both TV and radio) can help in dissemination of such helpline numbers in both rural and urban settings. Lessons need to be learnt from existing vaccination strategies like that of Polio which were rooted in bottom-up planning using community-led social mobilisation strategies. The campaign to eradicate Polio in India taught us strategies that work - door-to-door vaccination with the help of frontline health workers and use of mobile vans for remote areas. Such solutions allow women to access vaccinations at a time and place which works for them - cutting across barriers of mobility, unpaid care responsibilities and technology.

Anushree Jairath is a feminist researcher and activist. She is currently working as the Program Coordinator - Gender Justice at Oxfam India

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