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International Women’s Day 2017: How Google’s ambitious Internet Saathi program is digitally empowering women in rural India

Reality check. Currently, only 1 out of 10 internet users in rural India is a woman.

Internet-Saathi-07

It’s very well known that the digital divide in the country has resulted in two entities within the same nation — Bharat and India. And if you consider gender disparity, then this gap only widens. According to Google’s statistics, at 400 million users, India has the world’s second largest internet population. Of this, only 30 percent are women. Unfortunately, the technology and gender gap further widens if we consider rural demographics in India. Just 1 in 10 internet users in rural India is a woman. Alarming, isn’t it?

Rural India Digital Divide

Pushpa, mother of a five-year old, and also a volunteer for Google and Tata Trust’s joint venture — Internet Saathi — recalls how she’s frequently prodded by men in nearby village in Rajasthan with questions such as “Why do you women need to learn smartphones?” Pushpa teaches other women the basics of operating a touch-based device and has taken up the responsibility of making other women in the rural sections of the state digitally literate.

Since I’d consider myself fortunate to live in a metro city, my notion of equality is restricted to equal opportunities, equal pay, equal rights, and the like. But my visit to Chatarpura was about to change that. A village located in the interiors of Rajasthan where even standard landlines aren’t available, and houses are either semi-permanent or temporary, seeing women like Pushpa confidently talk about how becoming internet literate has added more meaning to their lives and brought in a tremendous change, made me rethink my own definition of equality and gender divide.

Today, India isn’t quite the third-world nation it was referred to. As a nation, we’re 4G-ready, and preparing to take the leap of growth with the world’s best. In fact, we’re already talking about 5G. India has an impressive economic growth rate when compared to other economies in the world. We’ve certainly leapfrogged and embraced newer technologies and means of communications. Since the days of feature phones, we’ve moved to smartphones, and now slowing inching towards the smart homes and IoT era.

With these encouraging trends, there are some challenges that we need to overcome as well. Rural infrastructure in India is still a work in progress. Whether it’s water supply or rural electrification, saying we’re a decade or two behind wouldn’t be far from reality. Amidst the rough weather, the silver lining is the penetration of smartphones in rural India. ALSO READ: International Women’s Day 2017: 5 last-minute gifting ideas that anybody would love

According to the latest report by Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and market research firm IMRB International, Rural India’s internet user base grew by 22 percent in October 2016 to 157 million. It’s expected to reach 170-180 million by June 2017. Nearly 92 percent of rural users consider mobiles as their primary device for accessing internet. With lower penetration of computers in the rural region, the populace has leapfrogged to smartphone technology to access internet.

However, 750 million potential users in rural India still continue to present themselves as an opportunity to be welcomed as internet users. If only they are reached properly. By helping bridge technological and gender barriers that exist in rural India. That’s precisely what the Google and Tata Trusts’ Internet Saathi program aims to do.

What is Internet Saathi and how does it work?

Internet Saathi is a digital literacy program initiated in 2015 and developed by Google in collaboration with Tata Trusts. The program is currently underway villages in 10 Indian states including Maharashtra, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Tripura, Jharkhand, Gujarat and Assam. Since its launch, the program boasts of making over 2.6 million rural women in India take up the first step towards digital literacy. The Internet Saathi program is currently live in over 60,000 villages in India. Going forward, the plan is to expand the program to reach 3,00,000 villages across India, covering 50 percent of the villages in India in the next few years.

Behind bringing something as basic as literacy around the use of a touch-based phone and accessing the internet through smartphones, the two organizations begin by identifying remote villages where the program can be initiated. Volunteers then look out for potential Internet Saathis who can become torchbearers and can be trained for various types of modules which include navigating through a smartphone, checking internet signals, battery status, and making a search online. After completion of their training, these women, capable of spreading the word, move ahead to teach other women in their own or neighbourhood villages, thus creating a ripple effect.

Internet Saathi

Despite the fact that smartphones today cost as low as Rs 3,000 with 4G VoLTE connectivity, it is still a far-fetched dream for those living in villages and for whom the source of income mostly includes farm produce and the needs remain limited to the daily meals. In such a situation to help initiate the digital learning process, the organizations behind the Internet Saathi program provide the required equipment which can facilitate the process.

Each Internet Saathi is provided with one tablet device and two smartphones to teach and a bicycle to commute between villages. They are further supplied with power banks to keep the devices running till they finish their lessons. These low-end Android smartphones and tablets from Indian manufacturers including Lava and Celkon are supplied along with data connection so that the women can also learn the basics about internet such as using Google search for learning about better seeds or pesticides for farming, using voice search, and explore YouTube among other things.

In cases of any damage, the organization replaces the affected devices and doesn’t penalize the women. However, the women who are volunteering to teach other women receive a monthly stipend of Rs 1,500 for teaching 150 women. Those who are able to reach the target of teaching 1,000 women, become eligible to avail a free smartphone from the trust.

Challenges

When I first visited Chatarpura village, the sheer curiosity I saw in the eyes of women there in learning something as simple thing as unlocking a smartphone and using the calculator, moved me. I wondered if teaching fellow women and adding confidence to their personalities was a cakewalk for Internet Saathis. It wasn’t.

Often, when these volunteers go to teach in neighboring villages, the initial response is of resistance. Men in the family often question the need for such a training. If that somehow sees the light of day, the women of the house aren’t easily allowed to step out of the house to train other women, and so on.

Internet users -Google stats

Another major challenge is that many women in these villages either lack basic education, or aren’t educated at all. However, for such a section, image-based learning is what comes to the rescue. As these Internet Saathis are trained on Android, most smartphones feature similar looking icons and thus even for those who can’t read or write, identification of functions and features through images is possible.

For organizations working towards bringing digital education to remote locations, the challenges are different. When I asked K Raman, Managing Trustee of Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, which are the most challenging regions to sow the seeds of digital literacy, he says, “every region is as challenging as the other.” He further said that local NGO partners along with trust volunteers do most of the ground work to gauge the feasibility of the project based on the availability of resources and the need for the program. “For example, for a place like Rajasthan, the challenge is the spread of the villages in the region and the organization then looks at ways to enable the Internet Saathis to easily commute between the villages. In the North East region, the challenge is very different because of the geography and reach. There each Saathi covers lesser number of villages, but she does a far more intensive work of how she engages with the community,” explained Raman.

Some case studies

As they say, with knowledge comes power and with power comes responsibility. Once the women receive training and become self tutors, the internet becomes their home and the teachings from the world of web are implemented in real world resulting in progress. ALSO READ: International Women’s Day 2017: The day is so much more than the color pink

From which seeds are better for better farming, to understanding which henna design is suited for brides, having ‘virtual darshans’ of major temples, and even learning how to cook special dishes to impress their mother-in-laws, women in Chatarpura village can’t stop listing down the ways learning the basics of a smartphone helped them in their daily lives. The men too from being resistant turn into facilitators and let the women deal head on with digital illiteracy.

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Pushpa: One of the torchbearers of the program, Pushpa has not only learnt the basics but also joined the bandwagon of online shoppers. “I have ordered an iron,” she adds. She faced resistance from the men of other villagers, but has been able to fight her way out of the societal pressures and help lead the program. “I have taught 700 women in seven months of joining the Saathi program,” says Pushpa.

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Kaali: For Kaali, learning the basics of using the smartphone has changed the way her sons perceive her. Children now look up to their mother, instead of their father, to ask about anything related to the device because they think she is much smarter than him. In Rajasthan’s remote village, raising sons who think highly of their mother and have respect towards her implies a lot more than just digital progress.

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Jyoti:  A young girl who has dreams of opening her dance studio one day reveals that based on the how-to videos on YouTube, she has been able to earn good amount of money. With interests in henna art and dance, Jyoti exudes confidence that matches any of the city girls when she grooved in the private corner of the house at the tunes of Pinga.

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Neelam: For Neelam, YouTube’s How-to videos on makeup and hair styles have helped her learn new things from the internet. The beautician in-the-making runs a small make-shift parlor in her house and looks forward towards further developing her skills.

The road ahead

Even as the government stresses on building a ‘Digital India’, there are plenty of basic challenges that need to be addressed. Digital literacy among women is certainly one of them. Google’s Internet Saathi is one such program correctly planned and executed. The idea here is not to immediately make rural women employable, but to help them gain digital literacy and improve their skill sets which can help them in situations when they seek out employment.

Companies like Google, Microsoft, and Intel are doing their bit to empower women in rural areas. Even the government is encouraging such programs in the country. But the government and companies cannot achieve this alone. We, the people, equally share the onus of bringing about the change.

This International Women’s Day, let’s look at passing on digital education to women around us. Be it your mother who has been long asking for help in setting up her social media account, or your office help who makes delicious tea for you but doesn’t know how to make a WhatsApp call, start by telling them the importance and need of being digitally educated, help them in setting up their digital bank accounts, and maybe, just maybe when the next figures of the gender and technological divide in India are released, we women will be more on the positive side.

BGR India attended SaathiDay in Rajasthan’s Chatarpura at the invitation of Google.

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  • Published Date: March 8, 2017 11:35 AM IST
  • Updated Date: March 8, 2017 1:23 PM IST