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Internet as a pathway for women’s empowerment....India....where do we stand today?

“Equal access to participation and decision making by women in the social, political and economic life of the nation,” states the National Policy for the Empowerment of Women presented by the Ministry of Women and Child Development in 2001. But the truth is that women in India are still struggling in a male-dominated culture despite various efforts made by a number of organisations to introduce gender equality in the society.

In 2011, a well-known journalist and prominent face on Indian television news, Sagarika Ghose, was threatened online on her Twitter account. A similar online attack was experienced by Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association and a prominent Delhi-based women's activist, during a recent online discussion on violence against women on and activist Meena Kandasamy chose to file a police complaint when she faced online abuse via Twitter in connection with a beef-eating festival at Osmania University in the city of Hyderabad. She was threatened with "live-telecasted gang-rape and being torched alive and acid attacks."

On 18 November 2012, two girls in Mumbai were arrested by police over their Facebook post after they questioned the shutdown of the city due to the death of local politician Bal Thackeray. They were arrested under Article 66A of the Information Technology Act (IT Act). According to the act, “(a) any information that is grossly offensive or has a menacing character; or (b) any information which [is known to be] false, [and distributed for] the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will…” can be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years or with a fine.

Information and communications technologies (ICTs) have been identified as a potential tool to empower women and to promote democratic values. But social media have become an easy platform for online violence, reflecting the worst instincts of gender inequality. Empowering women from all classes must be ensured at any cost.In Indian society, disparity between men and women is blatantly glaring economically and socially. In the context of ICTs, the majority of women have been excluded from the “world wide web”. Women have also traditionally been excluded from the information society in general, due to factors working to their disadvantage such as lack of freedom of movement or low levels of education.

Women in India have long been deprived of equal participation in the socioeconomic activities of the nation, despite the fact that the Constitution of India guarantees equality (Article 14) to all women, and the sustainability of India’s developmental efforts hinges on their equal participation in the social, political and economic fabric of the nation. Several articles in the constitution express provisions for affirmative action in favour of women, prohibiting all types of discrimination against women to enable them in all walks of life. Article 15 (1) guarantees no discrimination by the state, and equality of opportunity is guaranteed through Article 16.[14] Article 51 (A) (e) guards against practices that are seen to be derogatory to the dignity of women and also allows for provisions to be made by the state for securing just and humane conditions of work and for maternity relief (Article 42). The constitution also recognises equality of the sexes and provides certain provisions under the chapter on Fundamental Rights, but in actual practice they are observed more in breach than in compliance.

Feminist activism in India first picked up momentum in the 1970s when women activists came forward after an incident of custodial rape of a tribal girl, Mathura, in 1972.The protests were widely covered by the national media and forced the government to amend the Evidence Act, the Criminal Procedure Code and the Indian Penal Code, and introduced the category of custodial rape for the first time.

In 1985, the Department of Women and Child Development was set up as a part of the Ministry of Human Resource Development to give the much needed impetus to the holistic development of women and children.[16] Later, the National Commission for Women (NCW) was set up as a statutory body in January 1992 under the National Commission for Women Act (1990) to review the constitutional and legal safeguards for women, recommend remedial legislative measures, facilitate redress of grievances and advise the government on all policy matters affecting women.

The government of India ushered in the new millennium by declaring the year 2001 as “Women’s Empowerment Year”, focusing on a vision “where women are equal partners like men.” The National Mission for Empowerment of Women (NMEW) was formed in 2010 on International Women’s Day, with the aim of strengthening the all-round developmental context for women.

Yet in spite of the various government policies and programmes that have been initiated, Indian women continue to lag behind men in education, employment, health and political empowerment. Statistics such as a sex ratio of 940,a female literacy rate of 53.7%..maternal mortality of 450 per 100,000 live births, an adolescent fertility rate of 68 births per 1,000 live births, and a low level of representation of women in the legislature (below 10%) substantiate this assertion. Indian women suffer from lifelong subjugation, discrimination and exploitation. The plight of rural women is particularly dismal.

Despite numerous challenges, social actors have exploited new technologies as a tool for social transformation and gender equality in India. These new technologies have given power to go beyond issues of access and infrastructure to consider the larger social context and power relations.

Women’s empowerment is defined as “women’s ability to make their strategic life choices where that ability had been previously denied them.”[20] New ICT technologies have provided women opportunities to reorganise economic activities in ways that can bypass the traditional male-dominated society. In many examples, ICTs have opened up a direct window for women to the outside world. In 1972, the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a Gujarat-based organisation, was the first organisation to realise the potential of using IT for growing productivity in the informal sector. In an effort to provide computer literacy to their “barefoot managers”, SEWA established its Technology Centres in 11 districts of Gujarat. The aim was to build the capacity of women organisers and leaders and strengthen the micro enterprises of SEWA members. While more and more women are getting online, rural women who are remote from the urban centres are falling behind in the access stakes.

Out of the total 150 million internet users in the country, around 60 million women in India are now online and use the internet to manage their day-to-day life, according to a new report by Google India. Women have easy access to internet at homes, cyber cafés and offices and there is a growing adoption of smartphones. Women who are online are relatively more affluent and younger – 75% are in the 15-34 age group, with over 24 million women accessing the internet daily.

According to the National Family Health Survey, India has the highest number of cases of anaemia in the world. Almost 79.1% of India’s children between the ages of three and six and 56.2% of married women in the age group 15-49 were found to be anaemic in 2006. Almost 20% of maternal deaths are caused directly by iron-deficiency anaemia, which is a contributory factor in 20% more deaths.

In an effort to bridge the gap in delivery of health services, projects like e-Mamta, initiated by the state government of Gujarat and the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), have enabled pregnant women to receive health information on their mobile devices.

The Datamation Foundation initiated a project for Muslim women living in the slum areas of Delhi in 2003, and established an ICT centre to link resource-poor women to the information and tools for knowledge management. This ICT centre has created self-confidence in women, an awareness of their interesting lives, and enabled them to take collective decisions.

A Pune-based voluntary organisation, Savitri Marketing Institution for Ladies Empowerment (SMILE), has enabled women entrepreneurs to sell their products like soft toys, candles, bags, utility items, etc.

This revolution in the use of ICTs is not only limited to urban-centric women’s organisations, but has also inspired rural women, particularly those who are poor and illiterate. One example is of a 55-year school dropout, Norti Bai, living in a desert state of western India, Rajasthan. She can hardly speak any language besides her local dialect, but she uses a computer to disseminate water-related information to 11 villages.

In India, there are 700 million mobile phone subscribers, and 97 million people access the internet through their mobile phones. With the revolution of the mobile phone in India as an affordable means of communication, Indian women have started using mobile phones not only as a social communication tool but also as a tool to communicate with frontline health workers, receiving health information, safety alerts, etc.

Women community health workers in Bihar state use an interactive voice response (IVR) feature on the mobile phone with special-coded keys, called Mobile Kunji, to communicate with pregnant women while counselling them. The mobile app, Helpls, allows women to ask for help when they are in danger even if they do not have internet access.

Last year’s brutal rape and murder of a 23-year-old girl in Delhi sparked a nationwide outcry. Women’s organisations, activists, media groups and protestors joined together over the issue of women’s safety and security, not only through offline vigils, but also by using social media as a platform for venting outrage and lending solidarity to street protestors.

Within four days of the incident, the online petition site,, received over 65,000 signatures after an appeal to sign the petition, “President, CJI: Stop Rape Now!” The appeal was initiated by ex-journalist Namita Bhandare, and sought the intervention of President Pranab Mukherjee and Chief Justice of India Altamas Kabir. Netizens also created their own online petitions such as “Death to Rape and Rapists in India: Death Penalty to Rapists”,and “Death Penalty For Rapists”, seeking capital punishment for the accused.

Internet users used social media sites like Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter and replaced their profile photo with a “Black Dot”, signifying “shame in a country where women are unsafe.” Within 10 days of the incident, Facebook groups such as “Gang Raped in Delhi”,created on 20 December 2012, and “Delhi for Women's Safety”, created on 18 December 2012, received 5,046 and 4.263 “likes” respectively.

While Facebook called for mass protests, Twitter witnessed moment-by-moment reports by protestors. Twitter has about 16 million users in India, and has been abuzz with news of the protests. Hashtags such as #Damini and #Nirbhaya (a name created for the victim), #JantarMantar, #Delhirape, #DelhiProtest, #IndiaGate, #stopthisshame, #RapeFreeIndia, #braveheart, #delhigangrape, #StopCrimeAgainstWomen, and many more emerged.

After outrage and protests erupted, four businesswomen set up, a website set up to identify locations where women have experienced or witnessed any type of sexual harassment. The website works with a concept it calls “Pin the Creeps”, allowing women to report incidents of harassment and abuse. The mobile app FightBack was also launched by Anand Mahindra, chairman of the automobile company Mahindra. This allows women to seek emergency help. The app sends SMS messages to emergency contacts if a woman presses a panic button. It also flashes the live alert page of a web portal, and can update a user’s Facebook wall.

The continued efforts of media and social media have created an atmosphere compelling the authorities to fast-track sexual assault cases. On 23 December 2013, a three-member committee was formed, headed by Justice J. S. Verma, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Its purpose was to recommend amendments to the Criminal Law so as to provide for quicker trial and stronger punishments for criminals accused of committing sexual assault against women.[31] As a result, the draft Anti-Rape Bill – Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2013 –was presented in the parliament on 22 March 2013.

Swift technological change and increasing urbanisation have put the internet in the hands of more people than ever before, and in the coming years, these factors will continue to reduce the impediments that women and girls face in accessing the internet. Broadband and 3G access in urban areas will continue to increase. More women will be pulled online by their interests, social networks, and improved accessibility. However, without long-term, dedicated interventions, rural women will potentially fall farther behind, as will women and girls at the bottom of the social pyramid.

More affordable technology penetration alone will not help women gain awareness of the internet’s benefits, improve their technological skills, or reduce the effects of confining gender norms. Without help reducing these barriers to access, women and girls risk getting left out of a world that is increasingly connected. With rapid structural change afoot, there has never been a better time to help women and girls realise the transformative potential of the internet. All stakeholders should work hard in the upcoming years to remove the bottlenecks. Doing so will give women and girls the tools to imagine and live better lives, not only for themselves, but for their nations and of course for the world.

This story was written for World Pulse’s Women Weave the Web Digital Action Campaign. Learn more »


ikirimat's picture

This is a real elaborate and

This is a real elaborate and informative piece. thank you for the insights. Its a story worth sharing.

Grace Ikirimat

"It takes the hammer of persistence to drive the nail of success."

Y's picture

Well-done, Arunima! You may

Well-done, Arunima!

You may want to look into this anti-rape clothing line that is still in the prototype phase.

AR Wear - Confidence & Protection That Can Be Worn


kellyannaustin's picture

Amazing piece. I especially

Amazing piece. I especially loved the time you spent detailing the ways that women use the internet to protest. You explored so many ways that they are empowering themselves and extending that hand to others whether through updates on twitter or the mapping of sexual harassment. There are so many ways we can use technology to our benefit. Our imaginations can be our allies!

Many thanks,


Sarah Whitten-Grigsby's picture

Thank You, Arunima --

-- this is a tremendously informative piece of work. I had not understood what, "custodial rape," is until I read your piece and Googled the phrase to understand it better. While it is very encouraging to read about the many phone apps that women can now use for self-protection and self-care/health issues, it is of course also discouraging to be reminded of how far India still has to go to truly empower all women.

I appreciate the definition you quote for what empowerment means, and also the solution you provide at the end of your piece, which is that people get out of each other's way so that the avenues can be widely opened to all the women who need them and want access to them. Connecting with the world is crucial to a woman's need not to feel isolated, let alone to feel well-informed, to know that others are truly hearing her and that she can make a difference in the grossly unjust circumstances of her life.

Arunima, this piece is eye-opening, thorough, well-presented and, while painfully realistic, also hopeful. I applaud your research, your hard work, your writing skill and your voice.

Please, keep speaking out and may many read your work!

With Respect,


Sarah Whitten-Grigsby

arunima dutta's picture

Dear Ikirimat...

Thank you for reading the article...its motivating to hear from you...

Stay Connected....
God bless!

arunima dutta's picture

Dear Y

Thank you for your kind words.....


arunima dutta's picture

Dear Kelly

Its really encouraging to know you have read my article and liked it...

God Bless!

arunima dutta's picture

Dear Sarah

Wise people said if pain doesnt kill you it makes you strong...i can vouch on it as i have walked this path,seen and felt pain at multiple levels in varying forms..

I have put a lot of effort in gathering informations for this article,it was a hazardous task and risks were many,authentic datas were not available and when they were they were kept behind curtains....

Thank you so much for reading it and offering your inputs...


Betty B. Ackah's picture

Good job

Arunima, this must have taken painstaking research to achieve! There is so much information here... I would especially love to comment on the bit about the gap of inequality widening even further with the advent of ICT's in the fight against gender violence. Especially as it relates to uneducated and rural women. Isn't it amazing how some tools that empower can in their own way disempower other social groups? There is so much to be done, and it really has to be a multifaceted effort to be able to tackle all the different angles of this problem. It warms my heart though to see that progress is being made.

Good job girl!

Maternal Health Channel
Asking questions. Seeking solutions. Saving lives

arunima dutta's picture

Thanks Betty

I am humbled by your appreciation...
You are right,there is so much to be done and the effort has to be dextrous and adroit...raising awareness at multiple levels is required to tame the hounding issues...
A woman needs to rise up and raise her voice,ask questions,seek answers...

Feel Empowered,

bitani's picture

Thank you Arunima for this

Thank you Arunima for this comprehensive well-researched and documented essay on women's access to the web. I notice that there are many theoretical laws that claim equality for women, but in reality none-or few-of these are applied.

Keep you voice rising!


"Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else."
—Judy Garland

Kristina M's picture

Great Job

Hello Arunima,

I join my fellow commenters in saying this was a well researched, detailed essay. It makes me sad to see that even with all of those laws and regulations concerning equality for women, enforcement of any of them is the exception not the rule. It does make me happy to see that despite this, women in India are stepping forward and trying to make changes to improve their world. While it will take many people to breakdown the barriers to access, the chance to empower women and girls to live better lives is a worthy goal.


Tam's picture

A New Level of Reporting

Dear Arunima,

I also join fellow commenters in thanking you for such an important piece of work. We have had to depend on conventional news reports, which at best gave sketchy bits on what was and is happening to women. Your report changes this, and allows collective action so much stronger, as we can now all carry the information you have given us. To know about the movement of women in India since the 70's, working in parallel but not reported, undoes years of denial of connection, and solidifies our bonds. You offer news that I have wanted to know, raise problems (eg. on line violence) that are new to us and that we need to brainstorm on together,and you remind us with current examples of the ongoing need to work toward equality in every way. Your reporting of particular ways that action is being taken on line
is also helpful. 60 million women in India on line is not nearly enough...but it is almost twice the population of Canada! That gives me hope,as does your excellent reporting. Thank you.


lydiagcallano's picture

Very informative!

Well said, Arunima! You've shared a good situationer on the Indian women and how technology is used to support them, especially the abused. The information you gave strengthen the news we get on TV or the internet that Indian men in general have to change their regard for their women and children. Thank you very much for sharing. Keep on writing!

Ma. Lydia G. Callano
Iloilo, Philippines
+63 33 3158137 or 5138830

arunima dutta's picture

Dear Bayan

Thank you for reading the are right,laws have been made but the road towards implementation is still rocky..however,women here are starting to feel empowered and that's a positive start..i guess,we have finally learnt that nobody gives us power,we have to take it...


arunima dutta's picture

Dear Kristina

I am humbled by your words...
keep reading....keep inspiring....


arunima dutta's picture

Dear Tam

Its gives me immense pleasure to know your views on the article and the issue at large..

I guess women have to harness their power, it’s absolutely true. It’s just learning not to take the first no. And if you can’t go straight ahead, you go around the corner. You take your life in your own hands, and what happens? A terrible thing: no one to blame...


arunima dutta's picture

Dear Lydia

My article has brought to light the burning issues women in india face today and i am happy its being read and appreciated on a global platform like this..your words inspires me to do better work..

Keep motivating

Dear Arunima,

You have done a beautiful job explaining government and grassroots initiatives designed to empower women while also showing how technologies in the form of cell phones and computer internet access are transforming the landscape of power and opportunities for women of India. Despite these initiatives and technologies, your journal post also tells us women in India still face daunting health issues, backlash from members of the society who feel threatened by a loss of a power and try to hold onto it using violence, and many rural women lack access to the rest of the world (and potential opportunities) because these technologies are unavailable to them. Your essay illuminates the complexity of challenges that need to be addressed. It seems each step forward generates its own new set of challenges in addition to those that linger from the past. Each challenge, however, seems to unleash creative ways to address it, (one needs only to look at the work of BRAC and the Acumen Fund among other amazing organizations of transformation), and the inexorable dance of our development moves forward with magnificent and surprising unfolding. I am encouraged (and at times feel a bit breathless) by the rapid transformation and mobilization of women in India and elsewhere, as well as the explosion of women-focused programs that are allowing women to create their own businesses, become educated, and move into positions of greater autonomy and public power. I am hopeful, too, despite the backlash that seems to always accompany forward movement.

Thank you for witnessing and for sharing what you see and understand. Your writing reveals very important issues/trends.

With kindness,

Ridingthecamel's picture

in action.

Dear Arunima,

Thank you for sharing this wonderful post -i could almost literally see the passion exhuming from your words.. the way your heart is in it... which makes your words all the more precious. So again; thank you for sharing!
You write about many encouraging things; India is changing and
social media seems to be playing a major part in this (and can be used more so if done wisely.)
But it seems a lot of work still needs to be done.
Do you have any thoughts on how rural women could get more included?

And just out of curiosity... How do you feel about the Anti-Rape Bill – Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill's implementation?
(i read somewhere it was implemented in April, if that's correct?)

All the best,


Leslie Stoupas's picture

Fascinating and inspiring

Dear Arunima,

I was both fascinated and inspired by your piece. So much has been done to change women's lives in India (at least theoretically), and so much of that change has relied on women being willing to stand up for their rights and what they need to improve their health, their safety and their lives. You do an excellent job of showing the way that is happening through different aspects of social media and why, as a result, technology is so important to implementing social and cultural changes for women all across India. Thank you for such important insight and a strategy for thinking about technology as an instrument of social change!

Leslie Stoupas

kati.mayfield's picture


Dear Arunima,

You cover so much in this article, I think I will have to read it multiple times to absorb it all.

I appreciate that you give both a macro-level perspective of the laws and systems which have been put into place in India to promote women's equality; as well as a micro-level account of what it's still like for women, and the solutions they are creating to improve their situation.

As a Westerner who has heard about events such as the Delhi gang rape but only gotten limited information, it is eye-opening to learn more details, and heartening to read about the reaction of solidarity on the ground and the use of technology to demand justice and spark advocacy.

You are a sharp-eyed journalist who clearly believes in the power of technology to transform lives, but gives us insight about the dark side of technology as well.This quote struck me: "Information and communications technologies (ICTs) have been identified as a potential tool to empower women and to promote democratic values. But social media have become an easy platform for online violence, reflecting the worst instincts of gender inequality."

Thank you for the painstaking time you put into this article, and I really look forward to reading more of what you write!


*resolved this year to think twice and to smile twice before doing anything*

documama's picture

Arunima, this is an

Arunima, this is an incredibly well written piece on the course of equal rights and safety for women in India and the role of social media. It is frustrating how for all of the legislation that women still have a long way to go towards safety and equal rights. I am impressed by all of the apps being developed to help women,I hope that mobile technology can also be used in rural areas to provide women with online access for education. In your piece it sounds like social media will be a transformative for in the politics of equal rights for women in India. I can see as you say how it can also be used as a platform for abuse, and wonder if there is any legislation against that in your country. I don't know the details of the laws here in the USA, but know people can be arrested for "cyber bullying". Thank you for such an illuminating and well done article!

RosemaryC's picture

How do we leave no women behind?

Dear Arunima:

Thank you so much for this thoughtful and wonderfully-written post. And most especially, thank you for being able to see that without some specific actions to make it possible for them to access the internet, poor and rural women may be left behind, even if 60 million women who are better off do have internet access.

I was really struck by these words:
"...without long-term, dedicated interventions, rural women will potentially fall farther behind, as will women and girls at the bottom of the social pyramid. More affordable technology penetration alone will not help women gain awareness of the internet’s benefits, improve their technological skills, or reduce the effects of confining gender norms. Without help reducing these barriers to access, women and girls risk getting left out of a world that is increasingly connected."

I wondered if you would share your thoughts about strategies to reduce these barriers to access - and if you are aware of any programs in India or elsewhere that are currently focused on reducing such barriers to access?

Best wishes,

courtneyo's picture

Thank you, Arunima

Such a beautifully written, thoughtful piece that is driving such important conversation. Thank you for taking the time to research and share the stories and history of struggle for safety and equality for women in India. We here in the US too often take the technology we have access to for granted, only until it's used for abuse and endangerment. I hope that same technology can be accessible to the women from even the most remote areas and used to educate, empower and ensure a sense of safety. Thank you for sharing with us.


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