Written by Shubha Srinivasan, Director- Social Impact, Deloitte India
The onset of the pandemic brought to the surface – uncertainties, gaps in technology, and most importantly, further disruptions to the existing lacunae in our systems. These critical times exposed the digital divide that exists for the unprivileged, specifically for women and children. Technology emerged as a key tool in the response to the global crisis. Countries were quick to innovate and emerge as digital pioneers, aiming to revolutionise processes across education, health and employability solutions to define a new normal.
Deloitte’s recent papers on COVID-19 and emerging new gender equations and empowering women and girls in India for the 4th industrial revolution highlights the extent of gender related challenges before and during the pandemic. The reports outline a set of future ready skills that women need to gain, which includes an understanding of emerging technologies, to narrow the gender gap across key economic and social parameters.
Women who lost their jobs during the pandemic in the services sector do not have sufficient knowledge of digital technologies to transition to the growing e-commerce space.
Women are largely employed in the unorganised sector and low pay skill jobs and have suffered significant job and income loss during the pandemic. With the growing gig economy, this wage gap or job profiles may only widen.
High levels of gendered digital illiteracy, the NFHS survey (19-20) states that only 42 percent Indian women have ever used the internet, the 2017-18 NSSO confirms the trend that only 8.5 percent women could use the internet.
Emerging technologies such as AI and telemedicine witnessed widespread usage across healthcare information delivery and pandemic control measures. There was a surge in India’s usage of healthcare tele-consultation, with majority being first-time users. Telemedicine provided women with the opportunity to independently manage their health problems and pregnancy concerns without risking physical visits to clinics during the pandemic.
These avenues to provide equitable access to healthcare are crucial, as with limited services there is an increased risk of women being subjected to the risk of unwanted pregnancies and unsafe deliveries, which saw a spike during the pandemic.
Several digital initiatives were launched to prevent learning disruptions resulting from school closures. Learning content was made digitally compatible, technology being the opportunistic sector and saviour in these challenging times. Not-for-profit organisations such as Pratham, Katha and Naz Foundation launched digital, home-based and community, initiatives using their unique models of learning – the connect was achieved using strong volunteering network, community presence, state partnerships and by leveraging locally available technology infrastructure.
Training modules for teachers and students were made readily available online on topics including menstrual hygiene management, mental health awareness and COVID-19 preventive measures. Besides access to technology, female students in India faced a unique challenge while studying at home. In households with more than one child, boys were generally prioritised over girls, and expected to carry out household chores.
It is essential to leverage technology to create gender sensitivity towards enrolment of out-of-school children, and to ensure equitable access to technology and online resources for female students. On the skilling front, videotelephony platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet have been utilised
to conduct virtual sessions. This use of technology has led to an increased reach to even the remote locations, making programmes more inclusive.
In the recent weeks, eSkillIndia (eLearning Aggregator from NSDC) partnered with various online assessment portals and MOOC platforms, thereby providing skill-seekers, varied online opportunities.
Under central government’s flagship skilling scheme Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (PMKVY) 3.0, vocational courses will be introduced phase-wise in schools for classes 9 to 12. Most preferred areas among women include textiles, office and business-related work, healthcare, life sciences and childcare related work.
During the lockdown, many urban organizations and firms moved to a ‘work from home’ model. India’s $200-250 billion technology services industry experienced a rise that allowed for flexible work arrangements, and gave fresh employment opportunities to female workers. Workers employed in sectors who have not or could not embrace digitalisation, especially in low-income and /or rural households, suffered unemployment and loss of income.
The direct benefit transfer system was used to disburse funds through schemes like PM-KISAN, Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Guarantee Scheme and National Social Assistance program. In order to maximize the potential of technology in addressing development concerns, internet needs to reach the last mile customer while bridging the digital gender divide.
The growth of the Indian economy and concepts of sustainable development can become a reality only through the inclusive participation of women in the economy. Aligned action between the government, industry and academia while leveraging technology for the delivery and implementation of gender inclusive initiatives will be the game changer. Women need access to skilling, upskilling programmes and knowledge of future ready technologies to emerge as self-reliant and empowered stakeholders in the economy.