In South Asia, the internet is still largely the preserve of men. Mostofa Mohiuddin, who manages the English and Digital for Girls’ Education (EDGE) project in Bangladesh, explains the situation.
Let me offer you two predictions: first, it’s quite likely you’re reading this article on your smart phone or other mobile device; second, if you’re reading it from a digital device in South Asia, it's likely you’re a man.
I’m more confident of my second prediction because, in South Asia, men are 62 per cent more likely to own a digital device than women, according to a 2015 report by Groupe Speciale Mobile Association (GSMA). The same report suggests that more than 1.7 billion women in low- and middle-income countries do not own mobile phones or a digital device.
What explains this gap in ownership and use of digital technology?
Girls and women in South Asia face a complex set of barriers
In South Asia, women are less likely to earn an income, and if they do, it would usually be much lower than that of their male counterparts. Financial dependence is therefore one of the greatest barriers to women owning and using mobile phones.
Even if a family purchases a digital device, it is more likely that the father or sons, rather than female members of the family, will be allowed to use it. In large part, this is due to many boys and men having little interest in sharing their knowledge of technology with their female relatives and other women in their communities. There is also a common belief that allowing women to use technology will encourage them to challenge paternalistic societies. Girls and women demanding to use mobile phones are therefore met with suspicion and resistance.
It is also believed that girls and women are unable to use the technology – a belief that serves merely to reinforce itself, as few women get the chance to develop the skills they are said not to have. Not surprisingly, many women in rural areas of South Asia only have a very limited understanding of technology. They might know that the green button on a phone is for answering a call, and the red one is for hanging up, but not much else. It is a similar story for other digital devices.
The example of Bangladesh
Girls and women in Bangladesh have less access to education than men, and therefore fewer opportunities to learn English or digital skills. For example, once girls reach secondary-school age, the percentage of enrolments begins to drop; just under a third are married by the age of 15; and two thirds are married before the age of 18.
The Bangladeshi government aims to achieve gender equality in part through a programme to increase access to digital technology. However, much of the content and software developed so far is in English, excluding women without knowledge of the language.
How much women may use public ICT (information, communication, and technology) facilities, such as cyber cafés, is also limited, as these spaces are often male-only, and women can either be denied entry or made to feel uncomfortable. In addition, public ICT facilities and English language centres are mostly based in urban areas, and require people to travel long distances to attend training. Due to domestic responsibilities, women tend to have less time than men, and are unable to visit these facilities during the day.
Many women are also restricted as to how much they travel or move in public at night due to safety concerns, including sexual harassment. These restrictions on travel are particularly common in Bangladesh, as family members and local community leaders rarely support or encourage young girls to commute long distances for educational purposes.
How men and boys can change their ideas about women and girls
The support of fathers, husbands, brothers and other male members of the family is paramount, but it's not always easy to secure. There is however one way that male community members have been able to change how they view girls. The EDGE project (formerly EITA), which is a network of non-formal, community-based English clubs for girls, was set up to give adolescent girls from marginalised communities access to digital devices, so they can inform themselves about issues relating to health and human rights, and learn English and other skills that may help them get jobs. The project, nearing the end of a four-year cycle, has directly reached around 7,000 girls across seven divisions in Bangladesh since 2012. But what is it about such initiatives that changes men's perspectives?
One participant, from Sariakandi, explains how she's been able to gain the respect of male family members: 'I have taught my uncle preparing PowerPoint presentation; helped cousin to prepare and use Excel sheet. ... My family is very supportive and they are proud of me. They claimed that their daughter has done a great job.'
Another girl, from Gaibandha, recounts how her newly gained English language skills have improved her standing in the community: 'Once, a foreigner came to our village and asked something to a boy. But the boy could not understand. The foreigner asked "How are you? What’s your name?" but the boy could not answer. Then, I went to them and he asked me again "How are you? What’s your name?" I answered in English and he replied "Thanks, Thanks". The local people asked me to talk with this foreigner in English, and I replied ‘Yes’. After that, my relations with these people became better.'
Find out more about the British Council's projects for girls and women around the world.