Photo Essay: Bridging the Digital Gender Divide in Uttar Pradesh’s Chitrakoot

Meet the women who are battling all odds in UP's Chitrakoot district offline and online. The latest Mobile Gender Gap Report says the number of women with smartphones is only 26% versus 49% for men.

The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2022 shows that India’s digital gender gap continues to be wide, despite the initial uptick in women owning smartphones and using mobile phones in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The numbers show that while smartphone ownership for men increased to 49% in 2021, it’s only 26% for women. Male users of mobile internet have also grown from 45% in 2020 to 51% in 2021, but the percentage of female users have remained constant at 30%.

The report says that in low- and middle-income countries, women are still less likely to have access to mobile phones and mobile internet, particularly women with low literacy and low income levels, and those who live in rural areas, or have a disability.

The digital gender gap also continues to persist because of the restrictive gender norms. Are women able to exercise autonomy when it comes to owning their phones? How do they use them?

In Chitrakoot district of Uttar Pradesh, we found women to be in constant negotiation over autonomy in their everyday lives. They are pushing back against conventional, violent, patriarchies in the real world, while also engaging with various forms of gender norms in the virtual world.

Here are some behind the scenes glimpses of what goes on in the women’s online and offline lives.

It takes only a minute to make a video, says Shozi, but to deal with what happens after is all consuming. People regularly slide into her DMs, hypersexualising her.

Nikita, 20, an artist, wants social media to know her through her art. People dig into her when she posts nude drawings, but she remains unapologetic.

With her online profile, Neelam is defying society’s expectations of a widow. She posts dance videos.

Recently, Khushi, 20, got into a violent fight with her brother over her online presence. He bashed her with a pressure cooker, she ended up in hospital.

Shivkali is an out-of-work typist. Her neighbours have been warning her husband that she spends too much time online.

Sonam, 20, lives in Khatikana basti, Chitrakoot district, where she works as a waste picker. She makes dance videos in between work shifts and housework.

She is an enthusiastic social media user. She is not literate but has figured out Instagram through trial and error.

Sonam is not only a waste picker; she picks up additional, seasonal work from time to time. In this photo, she is working in a kitchen, during a busy wedding season in Chitrakoot.

Sonam makes masala on a stone grinder. Her basti doesn’t have electricity, so they borrow power from a pole in the nearby railway station to charge their phones.

All photos by Monika Anivarti, Chitrakoot Collective.

Priyanka Kotamraju and Monika Anivarti work with the Chitrakoot Collective.