Barriers to Internet Access and Use

Chapter 6


The digital divide percolates down social structures, aligning along already existing divides such as urban-rural, rich-poor, educated-uneducated, and male-female. ICTs play a critical role in empowering women and bringing about gender equality (Gurumurthy 2006; Huyer, 2006), but the gender gap in access, in particular, is very wide.

The earlier chapters have discussed gaps in internet penetration, modes and frequency of access, patterns of use, spending on internet services and quality of access. The analysis showed critical gaps in internet access and use. This chapter further probes the barriers to internet access and use reported by respondents.

The chapter has been divided into five sections. The first section introduces the chapter. The second discusses the barriers that low-income groups in urban India face in getting connected. This section therefore details barriers faced by non-users (those who have heard of the internet but are still not using it). The third section discusses barriers that users in the research locations face in making fuller use of the internet. The fourth presents a regression analysis that recaps and highlights the major barriers. The fifth section concludes the chapter.


Internet awareness among non-users

As observed in earlier chapters, awareness of the internet is a primary barrier to access for socially- and economically-disadvantaged urban populations. Eighty-two percent of the 5,999 household members surveyed in six settlements are non-users. Of these non-users, a whole 41% have not yet heard of the internet.

Of the 59% who have heard of the internet, there was little awareness of what it is used for, indicating that to them, ‘internet’ is just a term linked to computers and mobile phones.

Only 18% of individuals in the 16-70 age-groups in the study settlements use the internet, which means a huge proportion are non-users. Nearly 56% of households have no internet users and in 28% of households there is only one internet user (Figure. 4.6). Forty-three percent of the population in the 16-25 age-group is also not online, indicating that market mechanics and existing efforts towards digital inclusion and empowerment are not by themselves sufficient to address the digital divide.

Figure 6.1 Awareness of internet among non-users by age (n=1,070)

However, the younger age-groups are relatively more aware of the internet and its uses. A larger proportion of non-users in the 16-20 and 21-25 age-groups have heard of the internet as compared to the older age-groups (Figure 6.1). This is partly because, as we have seen, people are introduced to the internet mostly through friends and peer groups. With increasing age the awareness levels for internet decline. People are also more likely to be exposed to the internet at the workplace or school/college. So more students and those employed in the formal or non-formal service sector – even though they are at present non-users – have heard of the internet compared to daily-wage-earners or non-working people (Figure 6.2).

Figure 6.2 Awareness of internet among non-users by occupation (n=1,070)

Barriers reported by non-users

Of the non-users (those who have heard of the internet though they do not use it), 27.5% reported that lack of understanding of the internet and how to use it is a major reason for not going online (Table 6.1). This in turn is linked to levels of ICT skills and education.

Table 6.1 Barriers reported by internet non-users

Note: System missing=76, Total=502

The other reason non-users gave is that they don’t need the internet or are not interested in it: 23% of non-users cite this reason.

Around 14% of non-users state that poor infrastructure – no internet-accessible device or public access facility – is the reason for non-use.

Affordability of internet services (4% gave this as a reason) and language (1.9% said no knowledge of English was a barrier) seem to be less important reasons for non-use of the internet (though the infrastructure barrier is linked to cost/affordability of internet-accessible devices). More women than men reported that internet access was not affordable. A substantial proportion of both women and men pointed out that ICT skills and lack of education are important barriers to internet access. Each of these barriers has been analysed in the following sections.

Lack of ICT skills and education

Lack of ICT skills has been stated as the most important reason for not using the internet (27.5%). Another 16.2% of non-users cite lack of education.

In the earlier chapters we have described the clear correlation between computer literacy of one or more household members and connected households. We have also seen that households with at least one member who has completed or is pursuing Standard 10 are far more likely to be connected.

Figure 6.3 Awareness of internet among non-users by education (n=1,070)

Figure 6.3 shows the awareness of the internet amongst the non-user population by education. It can be seen that awareness of the internet increases with increasing education. Seventy-seven percent of the population without any education has not even heard of the internet. The number of non-users declines sharply with higher levels of education (Figure 6.4).

Figure 6.4 Percentage of internet non-users within each educational group (n=1,634)

Table 6.2 Percentage of users accessing the internet in an Indian language

The other aspect that hinders access to the internet is language. Eighty-two percent of users reported that they access the internet in English, while only 16.9% access it in a regional language (Table 6.2). We observed in the course of the survey as well as in the qualitative research that almost all users of the ubiquitous WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger services in these settlements have adopted the Roman script to text and communicate in Marathi, Hindi or other regional languages. The Marathi/Hindi keyboard is reportedly cumbersome to use, particularly on small handheld devices such as the mobile phones on which most of the study respondents access the net. Several respondents also stated that internet-prompts help them complete search terms, phrases and sentences when they are unsure of English words or their spelling, and that this facilitates their access in English. Many reported that their English vocabulary and usage had improved as a result. This could be one reason why the absence of local-language access is not presented as a major barrier by respondents in our study.

While language may not be a big barrier in using Facebook or WhatsApp, which was largely the purpose of use at the time of the survey, it is a barrier in using the internet for purposes other than entertainment/social networking.

Box. 6.1 ‘In our home, no woman has used a mobile phone’

I do not have a mobile phone. When I came to know about the internet, I felt I had to have it but I did not get permission to use the internet. My father does not like these things. He said, ‘People share anything and everything on Facebook’. My father doesn’t even allow my brothers to use it… He will give them permission once they finish their education… My parents think that girls do not need mobile phones. In our home, none of us women has ever used a mobile phone. Our parents say, who are you going to call?

(Female non-user, 21, unmarried, educated up to Standard 9, domestic worker)

Attitudinal barriers

Attitudinal barriers to internet access are also significant for non-users. A large proportion (23%) of the non-users felt that the internet was not needed/relevant for them (Table 6.1). This attitude is linked to lack of awareness about the internet and its varied uses. Young users also feel that the internet is addictive (Box 6.2).

The word ‘internet’ in these settlements is often synonymous with ‘Facebook’. Frequently, non-users do not know the word ‘internet’ at all, but do know ‘Facebook’. The social networking functions of the internet are the most frequently used. They are the entry point for most internet users in the study settlements. The use of social networks by women, however, is often frowned upon, since it is seen as likely to lead young women astray, giving women an opportunity to socialise and a kind of freedom which is discouraged in these settlements.

Our interviews in the settlements reveal that attitudes towards the internet have been strongly influenced by television soaps and reality shows that often depict online abuse, violence, harassment, blackmail and misuse of private data/photographs. This has created fear and misgivings about the safety and security of women who are online, in particular. Not just non-users, many female users also reported the same security concerns, especially on social networking sites.

Box. 6.2 ‘If we use Facebook we are considered forward’

Take as much as you need from the internet. Don’t use it too much. The internet can change your life for the better – or the worse. You can get a lot of what you don’t or shouldn’t need on the internet. Some people say Facebook is good and some say it’s bad. If we use Facebook we are considered forward.

(Female internet user, 28, married, educated up to Standard 10, homemaker)

Boys do wrong things on the internet; that’s why I do not like to use it. If girls post their photos on Facebook they (boys) download and make changes in them. These kinds of actions embarrass and damage the girls’ reputations. I don’t like to befriend unknown persons.

(Female non-user, 21, unmarried, educated up to Standard 10, domestic worker)

Box. 6.3 ‘Children of the poor don’t need internet’

Excerpts from an interaction with two female non-users

Respondent R1: married woman, 45, domestic help

Respondent R2: married woman, 55, homemaker

Facilitator: Do the women in your family use mobile phones?

R1: Girls are constantly on the mobile phones. We shout at them.

Facilitator: Why?

R1: We don’t like (children) using the phone constantly. When we ask the boys what they are doing they put away the phone hurriedly. Children get spoiled because of this technology.

R2: If my son gives his mobile to someone to use and he does something inappropriate on it we fear our son will be blamed for it… It’s all very worrisome. We’ve heard about women who’ve ruined their lives this way. And we see this on TV.

Facilitator: Do you know of any specific incidents where women have suffered as a consequence of the internet?

(Respondents refuse to say anything)

R1: Men watch all sorts of things on the mobile… They take advantage of girls. The elders in the family often don’t know about this. Mobiles should be used only for calling and not for the internet. Even small children are getting affected; they don’t study; they are constantly looking at the internet. How much can we control?

R2: They are hooked onto the mobile till 12 at night… God only knows what they watch on it… They do not watch TV, they are constantly on the mobile… When we ask, what are you watching, they turn it off… People here talk about those who are constantly on the mobile phone. Children of poor people like us don’t need this. It’s okay for people living in bungalows and societies – they don’t suffer the same consequences. If boys get into relationships, it can be accepted, but if girls do then people point fingers at them and us.

R1: I have seen Facebook… it has ruined two-three households. I have seen this on television, on Savdhaan India and Crime Patrol (TV shows).

Barriers due to affordability

Affordability is a factor that hinders access for non-users. As seen in Table 6.1, only 4% of non-users explicitly cite cost as a barrier. But 13.6% say that it is difficult to obtain the infrastructure required to connect. Here they are referring to the prohibitive cost of the hardware/device, whether computer or smartphone.

Non-users from the lower wealth quintiles, and poorer income groups, are less aware of the internet as compared to those in the higher wealth quintiles (Figure 6.5). In the higher economic groups, internet awareness increases because a larger proportion own internet-accessible devices in the household. Therefore, even non-users in these households are aware of the internet.

Figure 6.5 Awareness of internet among non-users by wealth quintile (% of non-user respondents, n=1,070)


At the outset we stated that the digital divide is not just a question of those with access to the internet and those without. It is a far more complex issue of the nature of internet access, the modes and quality of access, and the social capital that determines the extent to which users are able to make full use of the internet. Figure 6.6 shows the major barriers reported by users.

Figure 6.6 Barriers to access reported by internet users (% of internet user respondents, n=564)

Note: Other barriers reported were, ‘It is difficult as I do not know English’, ‘Government kiosks do not work’, ‘I do not find content suitable to my needs’, and ‘I do not think that it is appropriate for me’

Affordability is cited as a barrier by equal numbers of men and women but there are clear gender differences in the other barriers reported. The unavailability of a device capable of internet access hampers more women. While more men have reported ‘poor network coverage’ and lack of wired facility as a barrier, for women the absence of a nearby public access facility (cybercafé) is a significant barrier. These aspects are examined in detail in the subsequent sections.

Infrastructural barriers

An assessment of internet access points is crucial to understanding the infrastructural barriers faced by users. Table 6.3 shows the access points for users in the study sample:

  • The mobile phone is the only means of access for users with no formal education (100%). This suggests that simpler mobile internet devices can help overcome the education and ICT skills barrier. Operating a laptop/computer requires a higher level of ICT skills than mobile devices do. Moreover, the mobile is the primary medium for internet access for daily-wagers (86%) who are amongst the weakest sections of the population economically. However, it needs to be remembered that internet access through the mobile phone is at present used primarily for social networking, messaging and entertainment. Access for educational purposes, submission of online forms, commercial online services etc requires better networks, speeds and data storage. 3G connections cannot be afforded by all groups.
  • Users from the lower wealth quintiles also depend more on cybercafés as compared to those from the wealthier sections. This highlights the importance of public internet access points for economically- and socially-disadvantaged communities. A large number of women would also like to use public access points but are constrained by the distance to a cybercafé, and the absence of autonomy to leave the neighbourhood. None of the bastis has cybercafés within them; cybercafés are located 500 m to 1 km away. Here too, they can be crowded and internet speeds may be slow.
  • Computer and laptop usage is higher in the older age-groups (above 36 years) and the higher wealth quintiles because they are more likely to have the earning capacity to buy laptops. It is worth reiterating that internet use on computer or laptop in these settlements is possible only with dongles, given the absence of wired connections. Internet services were offered by cable TV operators in some research locations but were discontinued because of low demand.
  • Wealthier groups and people in service also show a higher tendency to use multiple access points. This is clearly determined by affordability. If multiple access points were available to all sections of the population, barriers to internet access would decline.

Table 6.3 Internet access points (% of internet user respondents, n=564)

Wired lines (possibly at the school, college or workplace) and cybercafés see higher use by the lower as compared to the higher wealth quintiles (Table 6.4). This is probably because they are less able to afford personal devices such as feature/smartphones and computers/dongles. The wealthier groups access the internet through dongles (55%) and 2G and 3G services on internet-accessible mobiles. The preference for dongles is also because they can be carried anywhere. We observed that several users from the lower wealth quintiles also possess dongles that they use on their friends’ computers/laptops. Gaps in provisioning of public access points such as subsidised internet kiosks or public Wi-Fi thus hit the lower income groups hardest, suggesting that internet access cannot be left entirely to market mechanics. State and civil society initiatives are required to make affordable services of better quality available to residents of low-income settlements.

Table 6.4 Types of internet connection across wealth quintiles (% of internet users, n=564)

Ownership of a personal device is an enabling factor for internet access. More than three-fourths of the user respondents 16-20 years old reported owning a mobile phone. Our data also show that there is a clear gender difference in ownership of mobile phones; 80% of all boys in this age-group own a mobile phone whereas the corresponding figure for girls is only 39%.

Box. 6.4 Infrastructural barriers

At home there are problems. The network isn’t there or it is weak. I go out of the house and use the internet or move towards the road. As you move inside the basti there are more network problems, whereas outside in the open air one gets good network.

(Male internet user, 17, unmarried, final-year BCom student)

We don’t have the internet on our mobile. The cybercafes are too far away and the family does not allow us to go out.

(Female internet user, 21, unmarried, final-year BA student)

Affordability and internet utilisation

While the absence of infrastructure and devices to connect to the internet is a significant barrier, users who already had an internet-accessible device did not report affordability as a major barrier. Internet services purchased are low-value, short-duration data packs which can be purchased whenever financial resources permit. Most users buy data packs of less than 300 MB that are sufficient for social networking and messaging. These packs support minimal video streaming. The validity of such packs is also for a lower period; several users opt for packages that are valid for less than seven days. Users who buy packs of more than 300 MB include users in the 21-35 age-group and users in the service and self-employed categories (Table 6.5).

Table 6.5 Use of internet service packages

Users in service and the self-employed are able to afford more data transfers and also longer data validity. There is a clear gender divide in the utilisation of internet packages as well. Half of the female internet users reported that they did not know about the type of data packs they use, probably because they access the internet on a family member’s device. Women who used their own device also reported that they did not understand or know about data transfer limits. They use the internet until the ‘internet stops working’. They understand the usage limit in terms of the cost of the data packs (Rs 20-pack, Rs 15-pack, etc).

Table 6.6 Expenditure on the internet (n=260)

Table 6.6 shows that of users, fewer women than men spend more than Rs 100 per month on the internet. It is also clear that a smaller proportion of daily-wagers and students than those in service, self-employed or not-working spends more than Rs 100 per month on the internet. The gender barrier in affordability is most significant, and women clearly spend less than men on the internet. As discussed in Chapter 5, internet packages are available at very low rates. However, such packages have very limited data access and most of them are restricted to social media services. Affordability is therefore a barrier for more frequent access and for more intensive uses such as education, entertainment and e-governance. Although students spend less on the internet, it is possible that their needs are not continuous (they use the internet for school/college projects or access it for entertainment at intervals). It may also be that they have limited or occasional allowances from their families for such expenditure.

Our analysis of several indicators on expenditure and data usage reveals that affordability of internet services is a significant barrier to internet access, even though a very small percentage reported it as such.

This contradiction between the study’s findings and people’s perceptions may be explained by the fact that at the time the survey was conducted, a large number of respondents were using the internet mainly for social networking and entertainment. A Rs 15-20 pack was perceived as affordable and sufficient for these needs. Limited awareness of the multiple uses of the internet, as well as the absence of benchmarks for superior quality of access, contributes to this perceived affordability. The respondents were largely happy with the services on offer and the cost of that service.

Education and ICT skills as barriers

While accessing the internet does not require high levels of computer literacy or skill, utilising it for more than entertainment and social networking – for education or finding and applying for jobs or government entitlements, for instance – requires some learned skill sets. It can be seen from Table 6.7 that users with an education above higher secondary school use the internet more for education and livelihoods than do those with less education.

There is a much greater reliance on the internet as a source of information among those with higher education. Online services are also utilised more by people with higher education, as well as those in service and those in the higher wealth quintiles.

Table 6.7 Purpose of internet use (n=564)

Box. 6.5 Affordability barriers for users

People cannot afford to purchase monthly packages for dongles. That is why very few people from the community have it. I have not used a dongle but some basti people have it.

(Male, 18, unmarried, Standard 11 student)

If you spend on internet packs and get no speed and no range, what’s the point? If you spend money and you don’t get quality, then it’s not affordable. I have to sit in the window to get some connectivity.

(Female, 23, unmarried, college graduate, service)

Education and ICT skills as barriers

While accessing the internet does not require high levels of computer literacy or skill, utilising it for more than entertainment and social networking – for education or finding and applying for jobs or government entitlements, for instance – requires some learned skill sets. It can be seen from Table 6.7 that users with an education above higher secondary school use the internet more for education and livelihoods than do those with less education.

There is a much greater reliance on the internet as a source of information among those with higher education. Online services are also utilised more by people with higher education, as well as those in service and those in the higher wealth quintiles.

Box. 6.6 ICT skills as barriers

There aren’t any specific skills required to learn the internet. If you observe a person using the internet once you can easily pick it up. There’s no educational criterion for learning the internet. I learnt the internet through practice.

(Male internet user, 18, unmarried, Standard 11)

I don’t like to use the internet because I don’t know how to operate it. I did not get a computer education when I was in school. There was a computer lab there but they never taught computers. My friend had theory classes in computers but never got practical training in school.

(Female internet non-user, 21, educated up to Standard 9, domestic help)

People should be given classes on computers and the internet. Then they will come to know about the internet and be able to use it.

(Female internet user, 24, married, educated up to Standard 9, homemaker)


Figure 6.7 Non-users’ awareness of internet by gender (n=1,070)

An interplay of social, cultural and economic constraints leave women in the low-income and socially-marginalised settlements under study further disadvantaged. In these patriarchal settings women lag far behind men in critical socioeconomic indicators: 29.9% of the women in the study settlements have no education compared to 12.7% of men; 73.9% of the men had completed secondary education, against only 55.8% of the women (Table 3.14). While 11.3% of men across households were not working, as many as 58.8% of women were not working, the majority of them being homemakers. (Students form a separate category from ‘not working’.) Even women who are earning have little autonomy in decisions related to family or personal expenditure. Additionally, women’s mobility is restricted and controlled in these settlements, as the interviews in the boxes accompanying this section reveal. This gender discrimination, coupled with the stereotype that women can’t handle technology, manifests in acute digital inequalities between the sexes.

Women’s access to and ownership of ICT devices

The gap begins with awareness: 55.4% of male non-users in our survey had heard about the internet, compared to 43.5% of female non-users.

Figure 6.8 Computer use in the household by gender (N=1,634)

The gap in awareness is compounded by women’s poorer access to internet-accessible devices – computers and mobile phones. Thirty-two percent of households reported having at least one member in the family using computers (far fewer households own computers at home). Only 29% of households report the use of computers by women, in contrast to 58% of households which reported use by men. Only 11% of households report both male and female users of computers (Figure 6.8).

Ownership of mobile phones, the primary mode of internet access for these populations, is also skewed across gender: 78.5% of men at the household level report owning mobile phones against only 40.4% of women. Among individual respondents, 86.5% of the men reported ownership of a mobile phone against 47.6% of women (not shown in figure/table). All-India statistics on mobile ownership show that 31% of mobile phone owners are women, compared to 68% of men (Murthy 2014).

The gender difference in ownership of mobile phones is also sharp among internet users in our survey. At least one-fourth of female internet users do not own a mobile phone. However, the corresponding figure for males is less than 10% (Figure 6.9).

Figure 6.9 Ownership of mobile phones for internet users by gender (n=564)

Qualitative interviews and field observations reveal that it is the men in the household who acquire smartphones, while women are handed down the older basic phones which do not allow data access, or feature phones which allow only limited internet applications. In these diversely-literate settlements, the internet is frequently accessed through apps rather than urls keyed into browser windows. Apps cannot be downloaded on feature phones.

The restrictions on ownership of mobiles for girls are not only economic (Box 6.7). Parents feel that girls don’t need mobiles as much, as they move out of the home less than boys. There is also a widespread feeling that mobiles made available to women will lead to unwanted romantic liaisons and exploitation of women. These biases keep women at the periphery of the information society.

Box. 6.7 Barriers to ownership of mobiles for women

Boys are free to go out. No one keeps watch on what they’re doing. Boys share everything with their friends. Women are limited to their family circles. They have to share mobiles with the women in the family. Few families give their daughters a mobile phone of their own.

(Female internet user, 24, married, educated up to Standard 9, homemaker)

Many of the women do not have mobiles and if they do, they have devices that cannot access the net… Men get better phones (smartphones).

(Female internet user, 23, unmarried, college graduate, service)

Girls here don’t use the internet much because they don’t know how to use it and they don’t learn to use it because they don’t have smartphones on which the net can be used. They have simpler phones, and many girls don’t have phones at all.

(Male internet user, 17, unmarried, Standard 12 student)

We don’t have internet on our mobile. We have to go too far for the cybercafés. So we don’t bother. Often the family does not allow us to go out.

(Female internet user, 21, unmarried, TYBA student)

Boys and men are not restricted from going out. So they work anywhere and earn money. They use those savings to buy mobiles.

(Female internet user, 24, married, educated up to Standard 9, homemaker)

Internet access by gender

Figure 6.10 Gender distribution of internet users (n=564)

As we have seen earlier in this report, at the household level only 8% of all women in the surveyed settlements use the internet, compared to 27% of all men in the settlements.

At the level of individual respondents, only 25.9% of internet users in our study were women, against 74.1% men.

Irrespective of gender, most internet users were in the younger age-groups (<30 years) and unmarried (three-fourths of total users). The gender barrier is further compounded by age barriers in the case of women above 30. Only 7.6% of our female user respondents were >30, compared to 14.2% of males.

Table 6.8 Educational Status of internet users by gender (N=1,634)

The positive factor is that the gender gap between internet users reduces with an increase in educational levels. Higher education increases the likelihood of women going online. The majority of female internet users are educated up to higher secondary (Standard 11-12) or above. More men than women with education only up to secondary (Standard 6-9) or high school (Standard 10) are seen using the internet (Table 6.8). This could be because women with higher education are more likely to be given access to mobile phones. Girls tend to be allowed internet access only when absolutely necessary, particularly for school/college projects, whereas everyday use for communication, social networking and entertainment is frowned upon for women.

Table 6.9 Occupation of internet users by gender (N=1,634)

The role of education in bringing women online is also seen in Table 6.9, where female students are slowly catching up with male students in internet access.

Gendered patterns of use

In Chapter 5 we saw that women use the internet much less frequently than men. This is directly related to their lack of access to a personal device, their dependence on a family member’s device and their lack of autonomy in using the internet.

The purpose of internet use for women, as we have seen, also tends to be more for education, job search or application to state entitlements.

The quality of access is markedly poorer for women who are more likely to be accessing on feature phones with slow 2G connections. Their expenditure on the internet is also lower than it is for male users.

In the absence of personal devices, it is now women from lower income groups who are more dependent on public access points or cybercafés. (Earlier, cybercafés were dominated by men.) But because their mobility is restricted and their financial resources limited, they find it difficult to even visit cybercafés frequently. Women more than men therefore report distance as a barrier for use of cybercafés (Figure 6.6 and Box 6.5).

The socio-cultural attitudes and restrictions that women face are therefore seen as intensifying infrastructural and economic barriers, underlining that:

  • Restrictions on women’s mobility cause them to face greater physical barriers to access (location, distance). Therefore, provisioning of internet infrastructure for women is especially called for.
  • Women also face greater economic barriers, because they do not have the resources to buy/use devices that can access the internet. Even when they are earners they are unlikely to have control of financial resources or autonomy in making financial decisions. Therefore, the purchase of suitable devices, spending for access at cybercafés, spending on larger data packs etc become significant hurdles for women.
  • Patterns of internet use in the case of women are closely monitored by family members, mostly male siblings/spouses. Many men said the internet is not needed for women especially those who are homemakers or at home (Box 6.3). In most households, not just men but older women too are seen to impose restrictions on younger women who use the net, citing security concerns. This has also resulted in the perception that women who use the social networks are ‘forward’.
  • Women themselves are diffident about their ability to use new technologies. Many of them reported apprehensions about using the internet. In contrast, educated and employed women who are more exposed to ICTs are more comfortable and confident about using the internet.
  • More women feel that the internet is addictive as they say they have observed men getting hooked on to social networking sites and paying less attention to work/education.

Attitudinal barriers therefore appear to be significant in keeping women offline. In Intel’s study ‘Women and the Web’ (Intel, 2012), 38% of female non-users in India reported that discomfort with or unfamiliarity with technology was a barrier to access. In addition, 40% of female non-users from India stated that they did not need access to the internet. Another 10% of non-users in India believed that their family would be opposed to them using the internet.

Box. 6.8 Patriarchal barriers faced by women

Men have this attitude towards women… They say, ‘Why do you need internet, you are at home’. Women are given phones to receive incoming calls only… Most men have android/smartphones, women get simpler ones.

(Female internet user, 23 years, unmarried, college graduate, service)

People in our settlement don’t like to see girls on the mobile all the time because it does not look good. People in our settlement have certain views about girls and the community thinks that if girls are on the mobile they are not conforming to community culture.

(Female internet non-user, 45 years, married, not educated, domestic worker)

I don’t have restrictions as such, but my friends do. Their family says, ‘Why do you need the internet, you are anyway at home’… There are restrictions on girls. Brothers restrict their sisters’ use of FB thinking that if they get on FB, everybody will get to know them. They do not think about the positives of her being able to communicate. Even if sometimes their intentions are good – to protect their sisters from risk – women should not be restricted.

(Female internet user, 21, unmarried, college graduate, service)

I feel proud that though I am married, I still get a chance to use the internet… Most girls do not get permission to use the internet. Both my mother’s family and my in-laws’ family use the internet, so it is a plus point for me.

(Female internet user, 24, married, educated up to Standard 9, homemaker)

Boys get more internet access than girls… Why? Because girls do not get time, they have to do the housework, attend college, then study. Boys take studies casually and go to college but often bunk lectures. They usually go to the cybercafé and use the net, or somewhere else. Men sit in groups, listening to songs, sending MMS, messages… It’s all timepass… We do not go outside the house. We go to college and come straight back home.

(Female internet user, 19, unmarried, TYBA student)

I don’t get time… I go to the cybercafé whenever I get time. Sometimes it’s boring to use the internet every day. Nowadays internet is in every household. Boys have mobiles and they are using the internet, but girls don’t get permission to use it. Girls don’t even get a good mobile so permission to use the internet is out of the question.

(Female internet user, 24, married, educated up to Standard 9, homemaker)


Socio-demographic characteristics and internet access

Regression analysis for internet access and its correlations with various socio-demographic characteristics is revealing. Various controls were adopted including gender, education, occupation, caste and wealth (Table 6.10). The factors that have a significant bearing on internet access have been shown.

Table 6.10 Regression of socio-demographics on internet access for all respondents

Note: N=1,634; b=unstandardised regression coefficients; Exp (B)=standardised regression coefficients *p<.05 **p<.01 ***p<.001

Being male is advantageous in terms of access to the internet. Men are around eight times more likely to use the internet than women. The likelihood of use of the internet increases with increases in educational levels. The model shows that a college graduate is 34 times more likely to use the internet than a person with primary education. Similarly, a rise in wealth quintile also increases the odds ratio of internet use. Those in the fifth (highest) wealth quintile have almost twice the likelihood of internet use as those in the first (lowest) wealth quintile. However, age plays a dampening role on internet use: the elderly are less likely to use the internet than younger people.

Household ownership of a smartphone is a significant determinant of internet use. Households with a smartphone are five times more likely to be connected to the internet than those without. Therefore, the following population groups are associated with higher internet use:

  1. Males;
  2. Younger age-groups;
  3. Those with more than high school education;
  4. Those in service;
  5. Students; and
  6. Those possessing smartphones that enable internet access.

Internet access for men and women

Table 6.11 Regression of socio-demographics on internet access for males and females

Note: Males (N=721), Females (N=626); b=unstandardised regression coefficients; Exp (B) = standardised regression coefficients *p<.05 **p<.01 ***p<.001

1. None of the women respondents with less than secondary school education use the internet. Therefore, women with no education/education up to primary school have been excluded from the analysis. The reference category for women’s education is ‘secondary school’

Here internet use has been analysed for men and women separately. Various controls were adopted, including education, occupation, caste and wealth quintile (Table 6.11). The factors that have a significant bearing on internet access have been shown. It is evident that age, education and household possession of a smartphone are significant predictors of internet use for both males and females. However, while graduate males are 19 times more likely to use the internet in comparison to persons with only primary education, graduate females are only about 14 times more likely to use the internet than females with primary education. This shows that despite being educated up to graduation level, gender plays a role in restricting a woman’s internet use, compared to men. However, it is also interesting to note that women with higher secondary education are more likely to use the internet than men with similar education levels. Further, a respondent’s occupation emerges as a significant predictor only for women. It is seen that women engaged in service and those who are studying are more likely to be using the internet than those who are not working.

Household characteristics for connected and non-connected households

Table 6.12 Regression of household characteristics on internet access for connected and non-connected households

Note: N=1,634; b=unstandardised regression coefficients; Exp (B)=standardised regression coefficients *p<.05 **p<.01 ***p<.001

Education plays a vital role in determining internet penetration. Various controls were adopted including gender, education, occupation, caste and wealth quintile (Table 6.12). The factors that have a significant bearing on internet access have been shown. The study highlights that the likelihood of a household being connected to the internet is three times higher if any member has completed school or is in Standard 10. Households with at least one member who has received computer training are twice as likely to be connected households. Household ownership of a smartphone also affects internet access. Households that have smartphones are three times more likely to be internet user families as against households with no smartphones. Overall, ownership of internet-accessible devices, whether computer, laptop, internet- accessible phone, or smartphone/tablet, and the presence of a computer-literate member of the household are significant predictors of connected households.

Box 6.9 The liberation of the virtual space

The social exclusion transgenders face in real life seems to melt away online. Disha Kene’s first-person account of how her community overcomes barriers of cost, literacy and language to connect over the internet

I was born and raised in a village in Nashik district. At present I am based in Shrirampur in Ahmednagar district, Maharashtra, but work brings me to Pune frequently. Almost all of us have an itinerant lifestyle, but that’s not a problem as we have strong community networks in most places. It doesn’t matter so much where we are anymore. With my tab I can be in touch with my friends as well as chelas and gurus, who form my extended family. Most of us do not live with our natural parents, so these family-like relationships matter a lot to us.

I come from a poor family. My mother worked as a waste picker and I accompanied her along with my other siblings in her daily treks. Three years ago I left home and started living with my community. I was new to the group and each of them had their own life, friends and partners. To overcome my loneliness, I began chatting with friends through text messages.

Then a friend told me about Facebook. I had a standard handset, but could access FB on it. Sometimes we used cybercafés, but that was only a passing phase.

Facebook opened up a whole new world to me. Now I could share pictures along with text. But the device was slow and took ages to upload and download pictures. I could not download video links and Indian language fonts were unreadable. Despite these limitations I used my phone extensively for FB chatting.

As an outreach worker with a community-based organisation in Nashik, I was building awareness on HIV, minimising high-risk behaviour and promoting safe sex practices. Reaching out to MSM and TG people who are not staying with or connected with the community is difficult since most of them constitute what is termed the ‘hidden’ population. They happen to be the most-at-risk population as well. Facebook became my medium to talk with such community members who were unwilling to be open about their sexual and gender identities.

We use this virtual space to do what we are not able to do in the real world. The community FB group is also a strong peer support. WhatsApp has made it even easier for us. Even the semi-literate among us find ways to overcome literacy and language barriers. Even those who are not on social networks themselves know what they might be used for. The other day, an elderly TG asked me whether I can help her ‘see’ her relatives on FB. Most of us use FB to trace our schoolmates and close relatives, whom we are unable to meet in real life.

Now I have a fancy tab. I do not let my monthly internet expenses go beyond Rs 500. I usually use a Rs 198 net-recharge and try to fit my net usage within that. Sometimes I don’t mind spending a little more. I use a photo editor to give special effects to photos before sharing them. When I have the time and the mood I make short AV clips clubbing my photos and poems. Creatively it is much more satisfying than merely sharing selfies or forwards.

I also do a lot of surfing on topics of interest, like for instance media portrayal of TGs, who are often presented as stereotypes. There is hardly any awareness or sensitivity among media people who cover these topics. We have formed a WhatsApp group and Facebook page to share and discuss positive and negative media stories related with our community. Sometimes we forward such stories. But I also try and share issues of concern that are not covered by the mainstream media. Recently, when I was doing mangati (seeking alms) in a passenger train, I saw a police constable extorting money from some ticketless travellers. I could not shoot him taking the bribes, but later I video interviewed a victim and posted his byte with my narration on our group. I feel there is a need for this kind of immediate response on issues of concern and the social media provides that valuable space. I am still learning to tap its potential.

And I’m really not an exception as far as internet usage by TGs goes. Most TGs I know are keen to have smartphones and adapt quickly to apps. The technology has reached people all over. TGs can’t spend hours in shops or malls handling the products they would like to use. These are spaces they are excluded from. So they do their window-shopping online, getting details of cosmetics and other products and then going out and buying them at accessible locations. Some of us have started placing orders online, paying cash on delivery.

One of my friends has a dance troupe and performs bida (dancing at family functions). She downloads song and dance clips. Since she is practically illiterate I asked her how she finds what she is looking for. She said she knows the steps to follow and the keys and visual prompts to press. Some of us who have sophisticated phones use voice commands.

Even our gurus use WhatsApp to stay in touch with their chelas. Some of us take trains to seek alms and our guru decides the route for us. Whenever there is an emergency, like an accident or delay or police round-up, our guru, or anyone who comes across the information first passes it on to us. Some of my friends use an app that tells the exact location of a train in real time, so they can board the train at suitable stops.

I feel I have taken enormous strides since I started using the internet. I feel it is an incredible journey considering my humble background and exposure.

~ As told to Vidya Kulkarni,, July 2014


In the case of non-users, barriers to internet access include:

  1. Complete lack of awareness of the internet or limited awareness of the internet’s uses, prompting people to think the internet has no relevance in their lives.
  2. Absence of ICT skills and education.
  3. Absence of enabling infrastructure at the public/community level, which makes respondents completely dependent on private ownership of internet-accessible devices.
  4. Inability to afford computers or any internet-accessible mobile devices of their own.
  5. The perception that the internet is not suitable for women because it gives them too much freedom.
  6. The feeling that the internet can have negative influences, be addictive, and compromise the safety of women in particular.
  7. In the case of internet users, major barriers to regular and fuller use of the internet are:
  8. Lack of awareness of the many different functions/uses of the internet, other than social networking and entertainment.
  9. Absence of ICT skills and education that facilitate further use.
  10. Language and the cumbersome keyboards offered for regional languages.
  11. Absence of enabling infrastructure such as high-speed public Wi-Fi or wired broadband in the settlement, although it is the poorest who cannot afford private infrastructure and are most dependent on public access points.
  12. Limited financial resources for purchase of computers, dongles, smartphones and tabs on which to connect, as well as limited finances for internet services which prompt use of low-cost data packs of limited data transfer and validity.
  13. Poor quality of access (limited connectivity/slow speeds).
  14. Gender-biased attitudes and practices which restrict the agency and movement of women, making it difficult for women to access the internet autonomously or regularly, on shared family devices or at public access points outside the settlements.
  15. The feeling that the internet can have negative influences, be addictive, and compromise the safety of women in particular.