"What is the point of buying a car if I don't know how to drive it?" responded a 39-year-old housewife from Chalitabari, Sylhet, when she was asked why she did not have a mobile phone.
"Digital Bangladesh", a term coined by the Government of Bangladesh in 2008, has reached every corner of the country. Yet, there is a growing concern among policy makers about the widening digital divide in the country. Digital divide exists between different socioeconomic groups, of which the divide between men and women is an important one.
Bangladesh, over the years, has made remarkable progress in bridging the gender gap in areas such as education, labor force participation and wages. However, the gender gap in accessing digital technology is still high.
According to the GSMA 2020 report, Bangladesh has a 29 percent gender gap in the ownership of mobile phones and 52 percent in the use of mobile internet. This means women are 29 percent less likely than men to own a mobile phone and 52 percent less likely than men to use mobile internet.
Access to technology is the first step of becoming proficient in using it. With such a large gap in access, how will women catch up with men in digital proficiency? In an increasingly digitised world, it is imperative for both men and women to have the necessary skills for attaining the full benefit of digitisation.
What is worse, women generally do not possess a similar level of skills as men in using ICTs even when they have access to ICT, It is because of the same cultural factors that weigh women down. And these factors are more prominent in villages.
BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) conducted a nationally representative survey with 6,500 rural households in eight divisions to understand the access and use of ICTs among rural people. The survey reveals a stark digital divide between rural men and women.
In the survey, each household identified the most digitally-abled member among all the members. There is a striking gender gap among the most digitally-abled members of the households; 63 percent households identified a man as the most digitally-abled person, almost twice as many as women. Even among the digitally-abled men and women percentile, there is a gap in accessing and using ICT.
Both digitally-abled men and women were found to have similar levels of access to a mobile phone and ability to use the phone for basic features. Almost 95 percent of digitally-enabled men and women use phones and about a third use smartphones.
More than half of both men and women can read and send text messages. We need to remember that we are comparing between digitally-abled men and women of the households and the men were twice as likely to be digitally able. Thus, the gender divide is likely to be much larger among the general population than these people.
The gap becomes wider in accessing and using other forms of ICT. Only three percent of digitally-abled women use computers, while the rate is 11 percent among men. 31 percent of digitally-abled women have access to the internet compared to 40 percent of the men.
Women are also less likely to have required skills to access ICTs. Compared to men, more women use the internet for entertainment purposes. Digitally-abled women lag behind in using the internet for reading news, using social media, searching for information and paying bills.
In the survey, there was a first-hand test on the ability to browse and find simple information on the national passport website. Eight percent of these women were able to pass all the tests compared to the 13 percent men. This shows a generally low skill level for both men and women, with women having it worse.
It is possible that the households that identified male members as the "most digitally-abled person" have an equal or higher number of digitally-abled women who were not identified as such due to the social and cultural norms of the rural society.
To dig deeper into this statement, a discussion on the socio-economic background of these women is important. While most digitally-abled women who can access and use ICTs are literate, this is not the case with men. Many illiterate men were identified as digitally-abled.
The households of digitally-abled women also have higher educated women. In 46 percent of the digitally-abled women's households, a woman has the highest level of education compared to the 13percent of digitally-abled men's households.
It seems that a woman must be educated to access and use ICT, which is not a requirement for men.
The reason behind this scenario is the social belief in the rural societies. A farmer in Upar Shyampur Mouza in Sylhet believes that his wife will not be able to operate a smartphone as she is uneducated. However, he does not hold the same belief about himself, even though he, too, is illiterate.
He also believes that his daughter will be able to access ICTs because she is getting education. Women themselves seem to be convinced about this. We met a woman who believes that she cannot use ICT because of her lack of education, even though she runs a successful business of selling bay leaves to local factories.
Seventy percent of the digitally-abled women identified themselves as housewives. About 41 percent of these housewives are also household heads. Additionally, 12 percent of households of the digitally-abled women have no male members present in the family.
It appears that many digitally-abled women learn how to use a smartphone because they have other family members, husband or son, living abroad. That is why we found a smaller gender gap in digitally able persons' ability to use video calls: 16 percent men and 13 percent women.
The data also suggests that married women are in a favourable position in terms of accessing ICT in comparison to unmarried women.
A discussion during our field visit in Sylhet indicates that unmarried women are not allowed to use phones. Fear and norms play a role in letting women use their own phones. "Girls in our family do not use phones. Only bad girls use phones," a survey respondent described the reason behind women not using phones.
He insisted that he does not let his daughters touch his phones, even though his much younger sons were using his phones right then. He believes that his daughter might get involved in premarital relationships and ruin his reputation.
As we are progressing toward a digital Bangladesh and transforming all the public services into e-services, access and skills to use ICTs are becoming increasingly important for rural people, both men and women.
Without the skill of accessing ICTs, women might have to go to brokers or intermediaries, which costs money, or depend on others to get access to their desired e-services. This gender gap in digital access and skills can clearly exclude women from the essence of digital Bangladesh.
Our study suggests that rural people' social fear about the safety issues associated with use of ICTs is one of the reasons to restrict women from using ICTs. Providing proper knowledge and awareness about the use of ICTs, along with traditional education in rural areas, can help to overcome this social fear about the threat and safety issues of ICTs.
Nusrat Jahan is the head of Business Development and Knowledge Management of BIGD at Brac University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Iffat Zahan is a Research Associate of BIGD at Brac University. She can be reached at email@example.com
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.