Urban Vs. Rural Girls Online: Divergent Pathways or a Bridge to Inclusive Opportunities?
Kriti is a 16-year old girl in New Delhi. She lives in an affluent neighborhood and goes to one of “those schools” which has a three-year waiting list. She has a Facebook and Instagram account, often watches videos on YouTube, and used to exchange video stories with her friends on TikTok. Her parents just gifted her the latest iPhone.
If you look at her search history for the past two weeks, it is a combination of entertainment and educational searches, ranging from “STEM opportunities for women in India” to “latest Bollywood gossip” to “top ten universities in the US” and “top IB scores needed to succeed.”
Kamla is a 14-year old girl in Sirohi, Rajasthan. She goes to her local school but is increasingly getting pressure from her parents to drop out so she can get married and start a family. Kamla has other aspirations but is not sure who to turn to for advice. When her older brother lets her borrow his phone, she looks at old TikTok videos they posted together, songs by Rajasthani artists on YouTube, and searches for questions she cannot talk to her family and friends about.
If you look at Kamla’s search history for the past two weeks, her queries are more intimate and personal than Kriti’s. She is searching for “how not to get married” (in Hindi), “hostels for girls,” “good schools for girls in Rajasthan,” and “what is a good husband.”
These stories reflect the stark difference between girls in urban and rural areas. In Jharkhand, about 88.7% of girls in rural areas marry between 15–19 years old while only 8.6% in urban areas. In Rajasthan, the female literacy rate is 71.5% versus 46.3% in urban areas. These trends extend across several states in North India and are similar when it comes to women in the labor force. Outside of the numbers, these disparities and the opportunities afforded in girls’ lives are reflected in their digital ecosystem.
In our first post on how girls in India are embracing the Internet, we reflected on their use of the Internet as a source of information and alternative space where they can exert their autonomy and express themselves on their own terms. In this part, we dive into the nuances of girls’ presence online in rural and urban India. What are their hopes and aspirations? What are their fears and anxieties? How do they view educational opportunities and career goals differently?
This piece is especially important in the Covid-19 climate: concerns on increases in girl’s school dropout rates in rural areas arise and the combination of unexpected economic shocks and digital literacy gaps sets back girl’s education by decades.
What are girls in urban areas searching for?
Girls in urban areas foresee a path to opportunities in their school, work, and home lives. They have higher chances of going to school, graduating, and being employed. Through this journey, they are more likely to interact with boys, enter relationships, face workplace biases, and become aware of discrimination and safety.
Safety remains a central concern, with increased searches for ‘women’s hostels’, showing a clear need for employer-sponsored accommodation that can support working women. There is pressure when it comes to marriage, as seen in higher search volumes for ‘when to get married’ and ‘right time to marry’, but it also indicates more space to negotiate and gradually learn to balance responsibilities as a wife and mother.
Girls in urban areas speak out about their educational successes — from pictures of graduation to posts about winning awards. They are unafraid to share their aspirations along with making lifelong female relationships that continue into their workspace.
Across several states, there are increased searches for girls’ private schools in urban areas which indicates a high demand for these institutions along with employment programs for upskilling. Urban girls are not defined by their husbands — they proudly balance responsibilities as a caregiver and working woman and place newfound importance on self-care and indulgence instead.
As they embark on their path of opportunities, the Internet serves as a diary- filled with unhindered self-expression, portraying a bold and confident self that is not marred by others. Urban girls are more likely to capture happy moments in life through glamorous selfies, inspirational quotes, and vlogs accompanied with positive messages. They are also more likely to be exposed to the world by consuming local and global content from current affairs to pop culture and fitness. This prompts them to be more open-minded towards women’s rights and unafraid to stand up for what they believe in.
What are girls in rural areas searching for?
Rural girls, in stark contrast, face a path of uncertainty, shaped by tradition and deeply seeded gender norms, limiting mobility and exposure to the world. Girls in school face concerns around safety, support, and a lack of infrastructure. Search trends show a growing interest in ‘girls schools’, ‘women’s colleges’, reflected in NGO and government initiatives, like Educate Girls, and Beti Bachao, Beti Padao — to enroll and keep girls in schools.
Rural girls are also burdened with additional responsibilities, like balancing house chores with studies. Thirty-two percent dropout in secondary school — making a future beyond school difficult.
Those who achieve the milestone of graduating are faced with the challenge of employment. There are increases in searches for vocational programs, jobs that don’t require education or a degree, or even starting one’s own business from home. This demonstrates that women are keen to work and earn but restricted by their families or lack of education. With limited opportunities to work the only other path left is to become a traditional female role or caregiver.
Unlike urban women, rural girls are more likely to live with older women in their family who have influence over them. Even when girls start a family of their own, their life revolves around their family with photos of their husbands, in-laws, and children. They maintain traditions and routines — fulfilling society’s expectations of them as daughters and wives.
Despite the many barriers rural girls are fearlessly claiming their space online. They are more likely to aspire towards the idea of ‘modernity’, like donning accessories and modeling outfits, but remain as objects of photos. Furthermore, rural girls portray themselves through other people’s ideas of femininity which is majorly established through young men’s opinion. With more flirtatious poses and captions, there is higher interaction in their comments as it symbolizes popularity and agreement with their posts.
Finally, unlike urban girls, girls in rural areas are more likely to engage with hyperlocal content which includes Indian celebrities, grassroots organizations, local pages, and businesses. This also tends to present local culture and beliefs that perpetuate unhealthy social norms — like women’s roles at home.
Girls will continue to carve out their spaces online at a higher rate every year — making them a force to be reckoned with. Our analysis showed some common interests among rural and urban girls, especially in searching for women role models such as athletes or women leaders. As government and civil society continue to invest in programs and campaigns that tackle gender disparities — their behavior change messages must consider the stark realities of girls in urban and rural areas and ultimately lead all girls to a pathway of success.
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