Families across the world have been under tremendous pressure in the face of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Deep seated gender inequalities and discrimination have ensured that the dice is rolled against women and girls. As quarantine measures force people to remain at home, close schools and day-care facilities, the burden of unpaid care and domestic work on women has increased exponentially. Young people, too, are faced with their share of challenges. School closures and curfews have meant that children and adolescents are missing out on their education, and are vulnerable to mental health issues. Those aged above 65 have been subject to the most rigorous isolation, as they continue to be at higher risk of mortality due to COVID-19. The negative physical and psychological impact on them is evident.
This year the International Day of Families, observed every year on May 15th, is focussing on the effects of new technologies on the well-being of families. The prolonged COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the importance of digital technologies in shaping our world. At the same time, it has revealed the need to take cognisance of vulnerable populations and pre-existing inequalities, as a result of the digital divide, when expediting the use of digital platforms and technological solutions.
Poonam Muttreja, Executive Director, Population Foundation of India, said, “Providing access to technological solutions across sectors for women and children, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, is critical for ensuring their health and safety. Evidence from past epidemics, including Ebola (2014-16) and Zika (2016) suggests that women and children are at greater risk of exploitation and violence. Women’s economic and productive lives are disproportionately affected, and they spend twice as much time on unpaid caregiving work. We have seen how lockdowns have impacted maternal health, with women unable to access maternal services. We must leverage online platforms and come up with innovations to respond to gender-based violence and risks to women’s health and employment going forward.”
Digital connectedness has helped encourage information sharing and contributed to alleviating the economic impact of COVID-19 by providing platforms and tools to protect livelihoods amid lockdowns. Online classes have helped many students continue their education. Those fortunate enough to be able to avail work from home options have benefited from technologies that allow for seamless information sharing even while out of the office. Digital technologies have helped create awareness on COVID-appropriate behaviors as well as availability of health services. People have gained enormously through telemedicine services, which have made safer and prompt health care delivery possible.
Despite the obvious benefits of technology for families, this digital divide between demographics and regions that have access to internet-enabled devices remains significant. In India, 78 percent, or about 1.06 billion, people have mobile phone connections (2020) and more than 574 million people are able to access the internet (2019). While we are likely to have about 900 million Internet users by 2025, large swathes of the country still have limited or no access today. In 2019, only 46 percent of users in India were from rural regions, while only 35 percent of women and 37 percent of school-going children had online access. The age-based digital divide has also heightened the negative effects of isolation among the elderly, who may not have the skill to use available technologies.
Population Foundation of India has been working closely with partner organizations to safeguard the wellbeing of families, especially of women and young people. Given the adverse effects of the COVID-19 crisis on already marginalized and vulnerable groups, it will be critical in the coming months to build support systems to reverse this impact. From a technology standpoint, providing women and children with the tools they need to continue their education, connect with support systems and access quick and effective medical care could go a long way.