Women Embracing Digital Technology: Challenges & Opportunities

by | Jul 5, 2023

I spent approximately six months in Maheshwar, living cashless and relying solely on digital payments. Whether it was my morning tea, evening grocery shopping, bus tickets, or fuel bills, I used UPI for all transactions.

Unified Payments Interface (UPI) is an instant payment system developed by the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI). The interface facilitates inter-bank peer-to-peer (P2P) and person-to-merchant (P2M) transactions. One can use iton mobile devices to instantly transfer funds between two bank accounts.

Using UPI proved to be not only the most convenient way to transact. It is also an efficient method to monitor my expenses. Although I had experienced living cashless for months in cities like Mumbai and Bangalore, doing the same in Maheshwar surprised me. There wasn’t a single instance where someone asked for cash-only payments. This led me to wonder about the ubiquity of mobile money and whether women’s self-help groups could embrace this digital transformation.

Could we use digital payments in meetings of women collectives, or could we innovate a new way of saving together? Record-keeping would become effortless, and the collected data could facilitate diverse product designs. However, my fantasies were cut short when I faced the stark reality of women lacking digital and financial literacy and having limited access to smartphones.

In a world where cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are generating all the hype, and we are expecting the future of money to be digital, is everyone really on board? Or are we forgetting about the large segments of population that we are leaving behind in this transition? What kind of progress are we making if it only encompasses a certain section of society?

It is undeniable that the environment for digital payments is becoming more conducive. But it raises the question: Who are we enabling, and who are we leaving behind?

In 2021, UPI transactions exceeded 2.5 billion, amounting to nearly INR 5 lakh crore, representing a 15-fold increase since 2018. However, the lack of data disaggregated by income, gender, or population group (eg. scheduled castes and tribes) makes it difficult to determine how the growth in the adoption of digital payments is distributed among India’s diverse population (Buteau, 2021).

With mobile phones becoming more affordable and data costs decrease, there is a strong case for leveraging mobile banking systems to enhance financial inclusion. The Pradhan Mantri Jan-Dhan Yojana (PMJDY) scheme launched in 2014 facilitated over 330 million new account holders’ entry into the formal banking system. Additionally, the proliferation of Aadhaar provided a significant portion of the Indian population with unique biometric-linked identification. Connecting bank accounts to biometric IDs (through the Aadhaar scheme) and mobile numbers aims to surpass traditional financial access models.

The fintech industry has the potential to reshape financial inclusion landscape in India by reducing cost barriers and delivering services to remote rural areas and marginalized groups such as women and migrants. Innovative solutions could provide tailored services to low-income customers, making use of digital identities and data. However, most fintech startups in India operate in the payments sector, predominantly serving the banked population. (Parakh, 2016)

Why Are Women Behind?

Affordability and education levels are crucial determinants of the digital divide. But social norms and gender inequalities significantly hinder women’s digital adoption. While working with women at grassroots, here are some challenges I see them encountering in embracing digital technology.

1. Perceived Irrelevance

Often, women receive second-hand devices or share them with family members. One of the common responses on asking why they aren’t using smartphones are, “Main kya karungi phone ka?“. Another one is “Mera keypad mein hi kaam chal jata hai“. Many women, and even their families, perceive mobile phones as mere communication devices, not recognizing the wide range of applications, services, and resources they offer. The society views women primarily as caregivers and homemakers with limited mobility and decision-making power in the traditional roles assigned to them. Consequently, people see mobile phones as irrelevant for women. Hence the potential of mobile phones to empower women economically, socially, and politically remains underestimated.

Not only do we need to raise awareness among women about the benefits of mobile technology, but it is also vital to convince their family members such as father, husband and/or brother acting as gatekeepers, of its significance.

2. Lack of Confidence and Ability To Use Technology

Many digital platforms predominantly operate in English, making it difficult for those more comfortable with regional languages. Additionally, the scarcity of localized content and learning avenues keeps women dependent on their husbands or children for basic smartphone operations. Tied to household chores and responsibilities, women are rarely able to dedicate time to adopt and use digital technology.

3. Fear of the ‘Negative Aspects’ of Digital Exposure

Many worry about the risks associated with the use of social media and digital platforms such as personal information exploitation, harassment, or safety issues. These crimes against women are seen as damaging the whole family’s reputation. This leads to reluctance among families towards women fully embracing digital technologies. One of my younger team members shared how a girl active on social media is considered parallel to her loitering in the marketplace. It’s frowned upon.

In conclusion, while strides are being made in digital finance, it is crucial to address the barriers faced by marginalized populations, particularly women, to ensure inclusive progress. Social norms, literacy, and accessibility need to be tackled to ensure that no one is left behind in the journey towards a digital economy.


  1. Emerging insights from digital solutions in financial inclusion
  2. ‘Uberization’ of financial services: How technology is driving financial inclusion in India

Featured image is for representation purpose only. Clicked by Nivedita, a 2021 fellow, during a training on digital mobility.

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