This article was first published in the Mint newspaper on June 16, 2017.
Actors. Actresses. Nayanthara (a south Indian film actress). Clothes. Cooking. Chapatis. Noodles. Paani puri. Pizza. Games. Chess. Embroidery. Paintings. The girls shout out one word after another, drowning out each other’s voices in excitement. It’s almost difficult to make out the words when a group of 12 girls is encircling you, eager to tell you what the first picture they will look up will be if they can access the Internet.
This group of girls was recently introduced to one of our digital resource centres (we call them community information resource centres, or CIRCs) in Mangalapudur, in Tiruchirappalli district of Tamil Nadu. Only a few weeks after being exposed to digital tools, these girls from a neighbouring village school and the first generation in their families to learn computers, are learning the basics at the moment—switching them on and off, recognizing the different parts of a computer, and understanding the functions of simple offline applications. They are eager to explore the Internet soon.
Meanwhile, in another part of the country—Netrang in Bharuch district, Gujarat—a young woman told her trainers that though her family owns a mobile phone, she is not allowed to touch it. Unlike her brother, she isn’t trusted with technology; her parents do not see a benefit in her using it.
It’s been 15 years since we began striving to make individuals, groups and organizations at the grass roots digitally literate. In this period, we’ve not been blind to the fact that the patriarchy present in the offline world has also seeped into the online world. This would explain why 72% of women are still offline (according to a report titled Connected Women by GSMA, a lobby group of mobile operators worldwide) or why only 29% of India’s Internet users are women (according to a 2015 report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India).
Yet, when women hold technology in their hands, they never fail to do wonders. Be it physicist and mathematician Katherine Johnson at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or Arti Devi in Rajasthan, who is a self-taught community radio programme editor and broadcaster. Neither of them comes from privileged backgrounds. Neither of them was traditionally trusted with technology. Neither of them was trained in using the technology that they eventually aced.
When I meet women like Arti Devi, I am always overwhelmed. Imagine what a beautiful world it would be if our women had the power of technology in their hands to empower the communities they live in. Take Usharani Deka, for example. She’s a 63-year-old widow from Madhya Pradesh who became a regular visitor at one of our CIRCs last year. At her age, she wasn’t looking for an “extra” qualification to prove anything to the world. She simply came to CIRC with the intention of utilizing her free time to do something productive in life. Today, Deka feels that she can type faster than she can write on paper (also because she’s barely ever handwritten more than a page).
Tasmiya is 20 and lives in a semi-urban part of Karnataka. On days when the centre’s trainer is absent, she adjusts the angle of the computer screen to hide it from the coordinator’s gaze and watches make-up tutorials to learn how she can hide her pimples and dark circles. What is even more fascinating is seeing her record the video she is watching on the computer on her phone—she doesn’t want to risk losing the beauty tips!
What encourages me to ensure that more and more women have access to digital literacy and digital tools is when I meet these women and they tell me how they utilize this access. So many of them hold aspirations today—for themselves, their families and their communities—that they didn’t five years ago. The confidence in using a technology that they were kept away from and the opportunity to access infinite content has widened this for them.
Rimpy, who never went to school because she “wasn’t interested in studying”, doesn’t accept the same excuse from her three children because she can see a brighter future for them if they are educated in various subjects, including computers. Rimpy was 30 when she first started visiting a CIRC. She would come with a childhood friend who had returned to her village a widow—time spent at the centre was supposed to be a distraction for the latter and a break from chores for the former. The last time we met the two, they were planning to sell pickles through a popular social networking site.
And so, for the last few years, we’ve been making a conscious decision to ensure that the gender ratio among our beneficiaries stands at 60:40 if not 50:50—though our ground staff is constantly working to achieve the latter. In fact, we’ve even implemented projects that cater exclusively to women and girls. However, encouraging women to come to a centre or convincing families to send their girls for exposure to digital tools is not an easy task. We need to understand and make others understand that “digital” is not just a tool but a means to bring about social, attitudinal, behavioural and cognitive changes. Nothing impacts a family or neighbourhood more than the role of its women. For a woman, digital media is her multifunctional Swiss knife, and one that she should be given access to.