Women Social Entrepreneurs and Tech Can Accelerate SDG 5 in India, the World’s Largest Democracy

Radhika Shah
Sarah Henry
Ashit Patel
March 06, 2019


August 30, 2018

The SDGs, adopted by 193 nations, weave together social, environmental, and economic goals to provide a global framework for social change that is inclusive and universal. They recognize the interconnectedness of poverty, climate change, quality education, health, and energy for all. The SDGs truly embody Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of respecting the dignity of all, leaving no one behind, and of self-reliance as a key to human dignity.

SDG 5 offers something unique: a focus on achieving gender equality as a catalyst to meeting all 17 sustainable development goals.

While there are several success stories where technology has helped level the playing field and brought economic opportunities to vulnerable communities in India, the question remains: Will technology help advance gender equality, or will it instead fuel a growing gender-digital divide?

Technology as an SDG catalyst in India and the gender-digital divide

Access to technology (including internet access and digital skills) is a key determinant for economic success in India. The country is the IT service industry leader in Asia, and has also been leading on digital infrastructure development with Aadhaar (a biometrics-based national ID system which now enables people who cannot read or write to have a legal identity, bank account, and access to government services) and the India Stack (a digital public goods platform created as a public-private partnership that allows people to leverage technology and advance their in healthcare, education, and many other areas).

And yet, less than one-third of internet users in India are women. Additionally, there is an urban-rural divide with only 2 percent of rural Indian women estimated to use the internet. Looking at Asia regionally, there is a 50 percent gender gap in mobile phone ownership.

What’s stopping us from bridging the gender-digital divide?

  1. Lack of access: Women face disproportionate barriers to digital access, some are physical such as device availability or internet connectivity; others revolve around the insufficient digital training for women and lack of female-centric tech (devices and apps). Recent reports found that  29 percent of Indian women have to borrow phones, and that a majority of women in certain states who owned phones didn’t know how to operate them.  

  2. Lack of awareness: The benefits to women, families, and the community when women have digital access and skills are not widely known. This is likely due in part to the lack of local examples of tech-enabled success for women.

  3. Lack of agency and cultural and social norms: According to a G20 report, in many of the 600,000 Indian villages home to 70 percent of the country’s population, unmarried girls have been banned from using mobile phones.

A framework to bridge the gender-digital divide: 4 solutions, 5 partners

We believe this divide is bridgeable by tackling four key solution areas through partnerships among five actors: governments, United Nations, corporations, philanthropy/impact investors, and women social entrepreneurs (WSEs):

Four solution areas—and examples of where progress is being made

  1. Tech access, training, and STEM education for girls and women

    • The government of Chhattisgarh state has launched a smartphone scheme targeting rural women.

    • A potential area for collaboration among government, UN, and corporate partners would be to combine device access with digital training, internet access. IKEA and The IKEA Foundation in collaboration with the United Nations in India have been working on technical and other training for Indian women to increase income-earning opportunities.

    • Companies such as link digital training for women directly to well-paying digital jobs from the comfort of their home or village fostering a feedback loop of digital training, good jobs, and economic empowerment.

    • One of the largest Development Impact Bonds (DIB), which focuses on girls’ education in India, is a collaboration among the British Asia Trust, the Tata Trusts, UBS Optimus, and the Susan and Michael Dell foundation. Such innovative social financing models based on multi-sectoral collaboration could support women’s digital skills training and STEM education for girls.

  2. Women-led community support groups foster greater agency and help shift restrictive gender norms in the community including those around technology. Grass-roots WSE led groups are an essential driver of greater agency for women.

    • Healing Fields is an organization that nurtures networks of local women in rural communities (WSEs) who come together to offer primary health care and self-help services, including health information and education in rural communities. These villages don’t have doctors, so these women learn basic self-help such as first aid and first responder techniques. Technology could enhance health-related information access and training for such WSEs and enable them to leverage Digital Medical diagnostics apps and connect live to remote doctors in the more critical situations.

  3. Gender-focused digital platforms and digital public goods can increase awareness of the benefits of women’s access to tech and contribute to a shift in prevailing digital gender norms. Philanthropic organizations can provide catalytic funding for WSEs creating digital public goods. The UN could assist with bringing these to scale, assessing their effectiveness, and disseminating findings globally. Furthermore, governments could develop necessary policies to make it easy for local WSEs to start such platforms. For example, the Indian Government’s Digital Aadhaar ID and related India Stack digital infrastructure could be enhanced with special focus on features valuable to WSEs and with special gender-focused applications and content. Some of the newly mandated 2 percent CSR funding from all corporations in India could be earmarked via a national government directive for digital training of WSEs as well as to finance creation and adoption of gender-focused digital platforms and public goods.

    • The Internet Saathi initiative supported by Google and Tata Trusts is a WSE-led digital platform that empowers rural WSEs (Saathis) to drive the digital transformation of their villages by bringing digital training and internet access to their communities, leading to ubiquitous access to information on farming techniques, health, and  income generation opportunities.

    • Another example of a WSEs-led network of 3,000 digitized rural entrepreneurs is Frontier Markets, a last-mile distribution company helping rural customers with access to clean energy solutions. Women are at the center of the value-chain and products are co-created with rural households who understand best the products they want and need and the impact on their community. Entrepreneurs are trained in technology access, tech repair and marketing, and data collection is a part of this integrated approach.

    • ZMQ Technologies is a tech for development consultancy offering project design and implementation. Their mobile Mira channel provides real-time information on maternal and child health to women and self-help groups. Their gamified, icon-based app (for limited literacy users) provides critical education and information for girls. YourStoryTeller provides digital stories to communities–stories that raise important issues with powerful protagonists that inculcate behavior change.

  4. Economic empowerment, opportunity, and incentives through tech leads to shifting digital gender norms, greater agency, and increased societal awareness of the benefits of women’s access to tech. There is potential for policy and innovative financial models to bring more digital jobs to women through WSE networks. Corporations can also bring digital jobs to women’s homes or villages. However, it is important to assess the unintended consequences to women that could result such as increased violence due to the change in underlying power dynamics in their households.

    • Samasource brings digital jobs from tech companies to rural women, enabling them to earn at times more than the male family members, which in turn fosters family and community support for their work and improves their status at home.

    • The National Rural Livelihoods mission (NRLM), launched in 2011 by Government of India is a national scheme focused on increasing rural house-hold income via sustainable livelihood and improved access to financial services. NRLM provides Revolving Fund and Community Investment Fund as an ongoing resource to institutions of the poor. State-level autonomy (SRLM) in implementation has been chosen as a way to deliver on this policy—several states have made women’s self-help groups central to delivering this mission (e.g., Café Kudumbashree in the state of Kerala is a chain of women-owned and operated cafes, a Maize producing company in Bihar is run by rural women). The SRLMs train these self-help groups on skills such as entrepreneurship and business skills and financial management capacity building. 

    • A similar national policy/scheme (with state-level contextual implementation) could be created to support, nurture, and incentivize WSEs who bring digital livelihood to rural women (perhaps via government subsidies & financing as well as free digital and vocational training that could be provided by Government).

The way forward will require collaboration and analysis

Scaling transformative digital initiatives such as Internet Saathi, Samasource, and ZMQ—which nurture WSE ecosystems across large parts of India—can close the gender-digital divide. It will be critical to take an integrative approach among the five actors coupled with extensive gender analysis to deeply understand underlying constraints, ensure no unintended, undesirable side-effects, and support catalytic WSEs. The recently formed Global Gender Equality Center at Stanford University is planning to do such gender analysis to advance SDG 5 across the world. An army of digitally empowered women social entrepreneurs could help India advance all the SDGs.

We believe tech and WSE-led multi-sectoral collaboration can bring tremendous agency and digital empowerment to hundreds of millions of women changemakers in the land of Mahatma Gandhi—thus enabling India to leapfrog on the digital gender divide and SDG 5 and setting an example for the world to follow.

Radhika Shah is the Co-President of Stanford Angels & Entrepreneurs, Advisor of The SDG Philanthropy Platform, and a member of the CGD study group, Technology, Comparative Advantage, and Development Prospects. Sarah Henry is the Executive Director of the Global Gender Equality Center at Stanford University and Sr. Advisor on Gender at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Ashit Patel is the Director of Software Engineering at


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.