4.1Bn people online globally but women’s Internet use falling behind in India, developing countries

PUNE: New data released by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a United Nations agency, has revealed growing global Internet uptake but a widening digital gender divide. This ITU report titled ​Measuring digital development: Facts and figures 2019, published on 5 November, finds that while roughly 4.1 billion people are now online, in developing countries women’s Internet use is falling behind, implying that in most countries worldwide women are still trailing men in benefiting from digital technologies.

The ITU report estimates that over half the total global female population (52%) is still not using the Internet, compared to 42% of all men. Overall, the proportion of all women using the Internet globally is 48%, as against 58% of all men. More men than women use the Internet in every region of the world except the Americas, which has near-parity.

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Substantiating the ITU findings, another report jointly released by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and Nielsen in September, titled India Internet 2019, says that India now has 451 million monthly internet users (about 37% of the total population), second only to China.

In India, however, the IAMAI & Nielsen report finds a significantly stronger gender disparity, with male users accounting for 67% of the country’s Internet population, meaning women account for only 33% of India’s Internet users. The divide is even starker in rural India, where just 28% of Internet users are women.

ITU data show that while the digital gender gap has been shrinking in the Commonwealth of Independent States and Europe, it is growing in Africa, the Arab States and the Asia-Pacific region. It is widest in developing countries, especially Least Developed Countries.

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“ITU statistics help policy-makers and regulators make informed policy decisions to connect the unconnected and track progress at the global level,” said Houlin Zhao, ITU Secretary General.

The IAMAI & Nielsen report states that nearly 72% of India’s urban internet users (approximately 139 million) and 57% of rural users (about 109 million) access the internet daily, and the most frequent users are aged between 16 to 29.

Mobile networks – and the mobile phone gender gap

The ITU report shows that 97​% of the world population now lives within reach of a mobile cellular signal and 93% within reach of a 3G (or higher) network.

The ITU data states that in the Americas, the Asia-Pacific region and Europe, over 95% of the population is covered by a 3G or higher mobile broadband network. In the Arab States the figure stands at 91%; the Commonwealth of Independent States, 88%; and Africa, 79%.

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In India, The IAMAI & Nielsen report also reflects this drastic improvement over the last few years, finding that 85% of Indian Internet users have 4G connections. This can largely be credited to the Jio mobile network, which now has over 360 million users.

Of the 85 countries that provided data on mobile phone ownership to ITU, 61 have a higher proportion of men with mobile phones than women. Of the 24 remaining countries where there is gender parity in mobile phone ownership, or where more women have mobile phones than men, Chile has the highest digital gender gap in favour of women at 12%.

The data further confirms a correlation between the mobile phone ownership gender gap and the Internet gender gap: countries where the mobile phone ownership gender gap is large also have a high number of women not using the Internet. Given that mobile phones are the most-often used means of accessing the Internet, addressing the issue of women’s mobile phone ownership could help reduce the Internet gender divide, posits the report.

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3.6 billion people still offline

ITU data confirms that Internet use continues to grow globally, with 4.1 billion people now using the Internet, which is about 53.6% of the global population. However, an estimated 3.6 billion people remain offline, with the majority of the unconnected living in the Least Developed Countries where an average of just two out of every ten people are online.

“Connecting the 3.6 billion people still offline to the power of digital technologies must become one of our most urgent development priorities,” said Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau. “Multi-stakeholder collaboration will be key to making universal and meaningful connectivity a reality for all. It will require targeted efforts to lower the cost of broadband and innovative policies to finance network rollout to unconnected populations.”

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The data reflects that Internet use in developed countries is nearing saturation levels, with close to 87% of individuals online. Europe is the region with the highest Internet use (82.5%), while Africa is the region with the lowest (28.2%).

By the end of 2019, ITU estimates that 57% of households globally will have Internet access at home. However, the number of households with a computer at home is only expected to rise by about one percentage point – to 49.7% – between 2018 and 2019. Slowing growth in domestic computer ownership is accounted for by the fact that in many countries computers are no longer needed for home Internet access, with people simply connecting over smartphones.

Barriers to Internet use

Affordability and lack of digital skills remain some of the key barriers to the uptake and effective use of the Internet, especially in the world’s Least Developed Countries.

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In 40 out of 84 countries for which ITU data is available, less than half the population has basic computer skills, such as copying a file or sending an email with an attachment.

Although more data is needed, initial ITU findings indicate a strong and pressing need for governments to focus on measures to develop digital skills, particularly in the developing world.

“Even where connectivity exists, we need to be more creative in addressing critical issues like affordability of service, cost of handsets, and lack of digital skills and literacy to enable more people – and especially women – to participate and flourish in the digital economy,” says Bogdan-Martin.

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