For 39-year-old Asha Kamble, a resident of Supane village in Satara, stepping out of home on her own was unthinkable before the untimely death of her husband. Now, she travels to villages across the district with a smartphone and Tab, as she imparts digital literacy training among rural women. As she speaks about her journey, a gradual smile begins to light up Asha’s face as her 18-year-old daughter approaches her. “When I look at my daughters, I realise how independent and confident I have become just by learning how to use the Internet. I am filled with a sense of pride as I look at my daughter, who is searching for jobs online,” says Asha.
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Initially, she was sceptical about becoming an Internet Saathi, through the digital literacy programme launched in 2015 by Google along with Tata Trusts. Today, Asha has managed to train nearly 1,000 women, making them more independent and self-reliant. Google’s initiative to empower rural women, by making them aware of the benefits of the internet, can be seen in over 60,000 villages across 10 states in India. They claim that only one out of 10 internet users in rural India is a woman and to change that, Google and a vast network of NGOs work towards identifying villages across India and training Internet ‘saathis’.
Lack of internet penetration in rural areas has been attributed to various causes such as low awareness levels, misinformation, inaccessibility and myths surrounding the use of internet. Yet, braving these ordeals and undertaking training on how to use the Internet for online banking, reading news, looking up recipes and tailoring techniques, among others, has prompted some of the women, in and around Supane, to start their own business and even teach their children English and other subjects.
Pallavi Kamble (33), a mother of two, realised the importance of being digitally empowered when her son had to be hospitalised. “The bank was not giving me the money I required for his treatment due to demonetisation. I learned how to access online banking and transferred the money online,” says Pallavi, a housewife. She admits that it took her one-and-a-half months to learn how to navigate a smartphone, and she is glad that she didn’t give up. “… I use the internet to help my children with their studies… I even use it to pay the electricity bill,” says Pallavi. Manisha Badekar, 28, says that today, she “can’t do anything without the internet.” As she leads the way to her dimly-lit home, where a sewing machine nestles in a corner, Manisha, who has studied till Class IV, speaks about how the internet has transformed her into a fashion designer and businesswoman. “I paid a fee to take a tailoring course. Had I known that I could learn it for free on the internet, I would have saved so much money. Now I use YouTube to look for fancy blouse designs and then sell them,” she says.
The spirited young entrepreneur, whose phone is equipped with 4G and a net pack worth Rs 120 every month, is now using it to learn English. She is also teaching her 18-year-old niece how to use the internet. Monali Shinde, whose husband is in the Army and is posted in Jammu, says she is ecstatic at the prospect of having a smartphone of her own. She is looking forward to WhatsApp conversations with her husband, posted miles away. The women also purchase products from online portals, even if it entails walking a few kilometres to receive the goods from Karad, the closest taluka.
According to Manisha, difficulty in learning how to use the internet, lack of resources to buy a smartphone and the social stigma attached to illicit use of the internet are some of the hurdles that sometimes prevent rural women from enjoying advances in technology. Meanwhile, the women huddle around Asha for a training session, as they look online for the recipe of Kolhapuri chicken. The setting sun does not dull their enthusiasm of replicating the recipe in their kitchens for dinner.