Asia

Why the vast majority of women in India may never own a smartphone

A street in New Delhi.

A street in New Delhi.  (AP Photo/Saurabh Das)

Air conditioners, washing machines, cable television. Balbir, a retired cook, has embraced them all. But there is one innovation that isn’t welcome in his home—the smartphone.

Mr. Balbir, who goes by one name, can afford one. They sell for less than $50 in India these days. But he fears the freedom that comes with them could lead his daughters astray.

“They start talking and the next thing you will have a love marriage or she will run away with a boy,” said Mr. Balbir, who has forbidden his girls from having cellphones. He has a cellphone not connected to the internet for calls only.

Such attitudes have helped create a new kind of digital purdah for tens of millions of Indian women, who are finding themselves barred by fathers and husbands from taking advantage of technological leaps that benefit men.

In India, 114 million more men than women have cellphones. That represents more than half the total world-wide gap of around 200 million between men and women who possess phones, according to GSMA, an international cellphone-industry group.

Tech evangelists often tout cellular phones and internet access as great levelers—tools that promote equality and ease social disparities.

But in countries such as India, the new technology is exacerbating an already deep gender gap. The gulf is blocking women from increasingly crucial ways of communicating and learning, and making it harder for them to find work, upgrade their skills and assert political rights.

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