Unequal, unsafe: Why girls find it difficult to log in into the digital education space

Unequal, unsafe: Why girls find it difficult to log in into the digital education space

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It’s been three years since 16-year-old Sumathi Raghu* last went to school. While most others of her age are continuing with their education, in a neglected hamlet in Karnataka’s Kolar district, Sumathi had to drop out of school because she had no home access to a digital device nor internet that most in the cities trawling Facebook and Insta reels survived the lockdown doing. As...

It’s been three years since 16-year-old Sumathi Raghu* last went to school. While most others of her age are continuing with their education, in a neglected hamlet in Karnataka’s Kolar district, Sumathi had to drop out of school because she had no home access to a digital device nor internet that most in the cities trawling Facebook and Insta reels survived the lockdown doing.

As the government-run school in which Sumathi was studying switched to online classes during Covid-19, Sumathi failed to attend her classes because her father, who ran a small shop in the village, couldn’t afford to buy a phone for her. “I missed my classes and did not write my exams. I couldn’t attend my classes in 2021 as well as they continued online,” she adds.

In 2022, educational institutions reopened across India. But by then Sumathi’s life had changed altogether. She had started working as a farm labourer to help her family. “My father had to shut his shop. Today, my parents and I work as farm labourers in nearby villages,” Sumathi says. While she misses her school and friends, Sumathi is glad that her younger brother (10) is still going to school because she is earning.

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As India got down to assess the ravages of the pandemic, several such accounts emerged from various corners of the country. Yet, there is hardly any change in the situation for girls like Sumathi, a reason why she requested The Federal to tell her story to “as many people as possible”. “My story might sound repetitive and inconsequential, but still people don’t care enough to change our situation,” she says, fully realising how quickly the rest of the world around her moved on from Covid-19.

Access to the digital world is not only difficult for most girls but is marred by risks and threats, including online sexual abuse. Along with her gender, factors like geographical location, class and caste determine whether a girl is likely to have access to a digital device. The gender disparity in the digital world adversely impacts the education of girls, as we witnessed during the pandemic when formal education shifted to virtual classrooms.

The lurking danger

Less than 100 km from Sumathi’s village in Bengaluru, lives Ankita CS*. Like Sumathi, Ankita, 17, too, faced a big conundrum during the pandemic. After her classes switched to online mode, Ankita almost quit school. This, despite Ankita’s parents having enough resources to support their daughter’s education.

The Bengaluru teenager became a victim of cybercrime, the memories of which still give her shudders. When The Federal met Ankita, currently studying in Class 12, she was engrossed in reading Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. Unlike her friends glued to their smartphones, she prefers to read books these days.

During the pandemic, as she attended online classes, she befriended a stranger on a social media site. That is when her trouble started. The man harassed her by sending his nude pictures. She hid her trauma from her parents fearing they would take away her phone. One day, she herself broke her phone. Thereafter, she stopped attending online classes for several weeks. On the advice of a psychotherapist, Ankita rejoined online classes even as her mother sat next to her. “The minor girl faced the worst form of online harassment. It badly affected her mental health and she was on the verge of quitting studies. Thankfully, she got help in time. But not many are as lucky,” says Nagasimha G Rao, director of Child Rights Trust (CRT), a Bengaluru-based NGO working for children.

Ankita’s parents approached the CRT to provide them guidance after their daughter stopped attending online classes.

Internet and gender problem

While India prides itself on “digital transformation”, the gender divide doesn’t seem to be reducing on any front. For instance, only one in three women in India has accessed the internet in her lifetime. That’s 33% women as against 57% men, according to the National Family Health Survey-5 data from 2019-2021.

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The gap widens further in rural areas. At least 49% of rural men are likely to have access to online information compared to only 25% of rural women, the NFHS-5 figures show.

A 2020 study, conducted by the Centre for Catalyzing Change and Digital Empowerment Foundation, found that 3.3% of girls in Assam (lowest) have access to digital devices and 65% in Karnataka (highest). The survey – ‘Bridging the Digital Divide for girls in India’ – was done in 10 states of the country by NGOs.

According to Rao, as one travels from urban to rural areas, a lesser number of girls/women get to use digital devices. “In a patriarchal society like India, the girls always get a raw deal. Then there is poverty to fight with. The girls from the Dalit and Adivasi communities have to fight harder.”

However, his colleague Nagamani CN from CRT says, the “biggest tragedy” is that girls who have access to the internet are becoming prey to “cybercrimes”. “Women and girls face disproportionate vulnerabilities because of the internet, further pushing them away from accessing information and entertainment online for their knowledge and growth,” adds Nagamani.

According to the 2022 National Crime Records Bureau report, cybercrime against women has increased by 28% since 2019. Out of the 52,974 incidents reported in 2021, 10,730 — 20.2% — were reported as cases of crime against women. Cybercrimes against women primarily include instances of cyber blackmailing, threatening, cyber sexual abuse, cyber pornography, posting/ publishing of obscene sexual materials, cyber stalking, bullying, defamation, morphing, and creation of fake profiles.

Talking about online dangers children face, Pratishtha Arora, CEO and co-founder of Social Media Matters (SMM), says, “Our focus groups are children and women. We mostly get cases of revenge porn, online harassment, fake profiles, impersonation and online abuse. We have our helpline services.” One can reach out to SMM on its WhatsApp number +918826348817 or email id: help@SocialMediaMatters.in

The Delhi-based non-profit organisation, SMM, is working to provide a safe and positive online space for users.

Arora says SMM has received several cases of online sexual abuse of girls. Recalling one of them, she adds, “There was one girl who was harassed by her former boyfriend. After their relationship ended, the boy blackmailed the girl with photographs that they had taken together earlier. He created a fake profile where he uploaded those pictures. It created a lot of trouble for the girl after her family saw the pictures. She was mentally stressed, which could have led to self-harm.”

Arora adds that such incidents often impact the “victims’ education” as Indian families usually put restrictions like denying girls access to digital devices or the internet. “The guardians think the measures would protect them from further harassment. Such curtailments prove detrimental to girls’ education as they can’t access information online. Some are also forced to leave schools by families after such unpleasant incidents in the name of safety.”

Effect on mental health

Farzana Khan, head of programmes, My Choices Foundation, Hyderabad, an NGO working to free women and children from violence and exploitation, says online harassment of girls makes them prone to mental health issues. “In our work, we have met many girls who have become victims of online abuse and harassment. Such girls develop serious mental health issues. Some of them develop suicidal tendencies,” she says.

A Sridhara, Bengaluru-based psychologist, researcher and behavioural expert says victims of cybercrimes suffer from anxiety, low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts, depression and feeling of powerlessness. “It is a vicious cycle. With the advancement of technology, minors are using online platforms for education and entertainment purposes. Most often minor victims of cyber abuse and bullying suffer silently. But there are tell-tale signs of distress which should not be ignored. Parents, teachers and elders should speak to children about their online activities on a regular basis.”

Sridhara says girls face more abuse and bullying compared to boys online because of the prevalence of patriarchy in our society. “Elders should encourage children to speak whenever they are in an uncomfortable situation. There is a need to build confidence among children. They should be informed that bullies and abusers are using them to arouse hostile passion.”

To help girls escape the clutches of crimes prevalent in the virtual world, My Choices Foundation, works closely with the police. The She Teams of Telangana Police – a dedicated unit for women’s safety in the southern state – earlier nabbed several accused after the NGO reported the incidents. “Police intervention becomes necessary once the girls approach us with their problems. The victims are also provided counselling to get back to their lives. Healing is achievable but it is a long process,” says Khan.

My Choices Foundation regularly conducts awareness programmes in schools across Hyderabad to make the virtual world a safer place for youngsters. The Hyderabad organisation has designed an online quiz to know “how healthy a relationship is” to help participants get assistance, in case they are in need of it.

While most of this is already known to most people with digital access, it’s a pity that what happened to Sumathi and Ankita keeps repeating. Perhaps, a reason enough to keep retelling their stories till the time the world wakes up and does something to stop that from happening again, and again.

(Some names have been changed to protect identity.)

(The author is a Laadli Media Fellow, 2023. All the opinions and views expressed are those of the author. Laadli and UNFPA do not necessarily endorse the views).

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