How can technology be used to combat sexual violence, when women have minimal access to tech?

This series establishes an understanding of women’s safety and sexual violence as a public health concern and offers an overview of how tech based solutions are increasingly making an effort to address related issues of sexual violence in India.

Being a woman anywhere in the world carries a corollary of having reduced access to public spaces. With the internet increasingly being seen as a public space, this spillover issue of access for women is seen here as well, affecting how women use technology - if they are able to access it at all. This raises important implications for applicability and use of tech based interventions to address issues of sexual violence, especially against women, when most women do not have access to such solutions.

The World Wide Web Foundation states that only 17% of women in India are connected to the internet. The gender gap in ownership of mobile and internet devices is also high: an estimated 28% women own mobile phones as against 43% men, of this, 19% of women who own mobile phones use mobile internet.

The rural-urban divide also exists, while only 25% of the people online in rural areas are women, in urban areas, women make up 40% of the online population.

Social factors and reduced access

Deep social conditioning translates into reduced access for women to technology and virtual spaces as it does to reduced access of women to public spaces. An inherent gender bias ensures that young male members of the house may have a mobile phone but female members will not. Technology is seen as a thing that will corrupt women. For e.g., khap panchayat directions, as in Uttar Pradesh, prevent women from using the internet due to patriarchal concerns of female independence and privacy as inherently being seen as something wrong and detrimental rather than empowering, as it actually is. Women also realise the consequences of such reduced access, a Google study highlights that 62% of women who don’t use the internet fear that they are being left behind as technology advances.

Online trolling, including sexual threats, cyberstalking and other incidents of sexual violence perpetrated against women in online spaces, through the use of technology, restricts the access of women to these spaces. It can often lead to women withdrawing from these spaces as a measure of self protection and is also used an example for continued disallowing of women to use technology by those with control over familial decisions.

What are the effects of such reduced access?

Understandably, not having access to technology reduces how women can use tools that are provided through tech based mediums to tackle sexual violence. For e.g., a woman who does not own a mobile phone cannot use an SOS app or button to reach her closed ones in times of distress or a woman who uses public transport and not app based cab aggregators, cannot provide tracking details of her journey as a means of protection to her family. Such tech based interventions are rendered of no use to those who don’t have access to the means required to operate them and if increasingly solutions are tech based, it would mean the exclusion of several women from services designed to build their capacities in addressing sexual violence.

Women withdrawing from virtual spaces as a result of online sexual violence also creates virtual spaces that are similar to offline spaces, where women have reduced access and an even further reduced say, leading to a deepening of the gender divide.

An Observer Research Foundation study of Indian Twitter users finds that under political trending topics, 7.72% of tweets were by women, 46.15% by men, 34.83% by organizations, news outlets and other groups, and 11.30% by users who did not indicate their gender. - highlighting that when women don’t have access to technology and virtual platforms, they additionally lose their voice online, individually and as a political group, correspondingly their ability to impact political decisions as a gendered group lowers. In terms of action against sexual violence, this means losing the ability to influence government action against perpetrators along with the ability to influence possible strengthening of laws and policies that deal with sexual violence, both online and offline.

How can such issues of access be resolved?

Government, police, and judicial bodies need to be sensitised in dealing with sexual violence and according sexual violence online importance and taking adequate measures to curb it.

Initiatives meant to create awareness about the positives of technology, especially for women, need to be implemented, at the rural and urban level. Perception of women as second class citizens and social norms that disallow women freedom to access spaces as they like is a key deterrent to their access to such resources. Education that reduces gender discrimination and paves the way for gender equality is important towards ensuring that access to technology and virtual spaces loses its gendered dimension.

In the long run, attempts to increase connectivity for larger populations to technology and provision of low cost services can aid such access. In the short run, providing for communal access to such services at centres in districts or villages, where individual provision of services is not possible, could be a starting step. Tech based interventions need to build in features that allow for those without access or with limited access to use their services through alternate means, for e.g., by way of missed calls, text messages or helpline numbers accessible through public phones.

About the Author

Vandita Morarka

Vandita Morarka is the Founder and CEO of One Future Collective and the Policy, Legal and United Nations Liaison Officer at Safecity (Red Dot Foundation), tweets @vanditamorarka.