Friday, March 1, 2024

ASER 2023 unveils gender disparities in digital literacy: Why it matters

The ASER report 2023 highlights significant gender disparity in digital literacy and access among the youth aged 14-18 in rural India. Offering insights into the digital landscape, the report highlighted various factors such as male dominance over smartphone ownership, the gender gap in digital access, lack of technical proficiency amongst females, and a gap in awareness regarding online safety settings.

The impact of these factors necessitates immediate measures to address the gender gap amongst the rural Indian youth regarding digital access and literacy. 

Since 2005, children aged 6-14 in rural areas of India have had their attendance, school enrollments, and reading and arithmetic skills assessed by the Annual Status of Education Report led by Pratham Foundation, an education-based non-profit organization. However, the latest survey released on Wednesday for the year 2023, centred on an older demographic of rural Indian children aged 14-18 years wherein they analyzed their ability to implement their math and reading skills in day-to-day situations. Apart from this, the survey focused on the access and proficiency of the children towards the digital landscape.

The report titled “Beyond basics”, which covered 28 districts across 26 states with a survey of 34,745 children enrolled in private and government institutes, showed a notable gender gap in digital knowledge and access among the specified group. 

According to the report, device ownership was a high of 89% amongst the youth with a whopping 92% knowing how to use it.  However, it also revealed that males of the age group in rural India were twice as likely to own smartphones (43.7%) compared to females (19.8%). Similarly, the study showed that the proportion of females possessing digital literacy remained lower at 89.8% as compared to 94.7% of male users. This emphasized a correlation between a lack of digital knowledge and a lack of device ownership among females of the age group in rural India. 

Besides ownership, the survey examined the capabilities of the children to perform digital tasks which extended to searching YouTube videos, sharing content, setting an alarm, and using Google Maps. These findings highlighted that the percentage of the surveyed group capable of finding YouTube videos was 80% while their ability to share it with a friend was 90%. Further, two-thirds were able to set an alarm, 70% were found capable of browsing the internet, and a little more than one-third of the group was able to utilize Google Maps to estimate the distance between two sites.

These findings also revealed that across all the digital tasks, males outperformed females. Only 30% of the female respondents had an Email ID compared to 50% of the male respondents. Further, the proportion of females using Google Maps was 25.3% against the 48.9% of males.

“Although the overall penetration of smartphone technology in rural India has grown enormously in recent years, these results show clearly that girls and young women have far less access to it than their male counterparts,” the report stated. 

Similarly, gender gap was also noticed in performing tasks like filling out forms, making use of online services, and online payments. Additionally, while social media usage dominated the surveyed group with its proportion of 90.5%, it was revealed that only half of this group were proficient in terms of online safety with 48% knowing how to make a profile private, 52% possessing the knowledge of changing passwords, and 52% capable of reporting or blocking a profile.

Even within this narrow sphere, boys were reported to be more informed about cybersecurity awareness compared to the girls. Apart from other factors, this specific gap warns of significant risks given that this is the era of digital activities like entertainment and online transactions through smartphones. 

Co-founder of Pratham, Madhav Chavan said: “Looking at all the data presented by ASER 2023, the reduced capacity of females to perform several tasks like accessing services, or making payments, or being safe on the internet is strongly related to the constraint in using the devices due to absence of ownership. As in the case of every freedom, there is a risk and an opportunity.” 

The extent of the gender disparity in the rural Indian digital landscape is not a discovery. However, its rapid expansion and penetration into every aspect of the daily lives of common people will make regular activities difficult for an uninformed individual. According to findings provided by the Observer Research Foundation, the gender gap in this sphere is usually guided by the social structures of households. 

According to their report, during Covid 19, three-quarter of rural Indian students received their teaching materials over WhatsApp between March 2020 to February 2021. As a result, the ratio of parents purchasing smartphones for their child’s online learning was 1 in 10. “However, during consultations with our team at Nikore Associates, several stakeholders noted that families exhibited a preference for male family members during the COVID-19 period, ensuring their sons had the privilege of digital devices and data packs access even when facing income constraints, but did not extend the same treatment to their daughters.”, they stated. Intra-household discrimination such as male relatives governing women’s online activities, and mobile phones being viewed as a risk to women’s reputation turns the gender-based digital divide wider. 

If one aims to dive deeper to assess the roots of these situations, the ASER 2023 report further highlights the factor of more women than men handling household work daily, which either confines them to those chores alone or leads to an imbalance between their academic aspirations and fulfilling societal norms in contrast to their male counterparts who have a better academic and professional stage and thus deemed more deserving of the digital resources. “Overall, this difference is about 20 percentage points”, the report states. 

Oxfam India’s CEO Amitabh Behar said that “there is a notable digital divide in the country, and it mirrors the existing socioeconomic inequalities of the country.”

In the absence of effective steps, this growing disparity has the alarming potential to augment the inequalities, causing females to face a lack of access to essential services like health, education, and financial inclusion. The widespread use of smartphones in rural areas is seen as a potential pathway to expand education. This can be achieved by spreading awareness of the responsible and constructive use of technologies among teachers and civil society in general.  

India is rapidly becoming more digital. However, the women of the nation must be also given equal opportunities in this arena. Therefore, apart from women’s smartphone ownership, it is crucial to expedite digital literacy programmes and work towards ending gender disparity in the online world.

Maryam Hassan is an aspiring writer. She has completed her graduation in English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.

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