Most of us can probably remember the excitement of discovering the internet for the first time and exploring the unending facets of the web. What we can remember less well is when this internet usage graduated from being PC-dominated to the ease and convenience of tablets and mobile phones. This digital literacy, which summons all kinds of information to command, is something we usually take for granted — but there is a gender dimension to it. Only 30% of internet users in India are women — a steep gender gap by world standards.
While internet growth among women in metros is almost at par with men, in rural India this proportion drops to an extreme low. One of the key barriers for low adoption Internet amongst women in rural India is the lack of awareness about the internet and the belief that any new technology is not for them. Many times, even when the men in the family possess mobile phones or other devices, they do not encourage or permit the women to handle them or learn to use them. Sometimes husbands don’t want women to have access to the internet, looking upon its possibilities with suspicion. In the hinterlands where adult illiteracy, especially among women, is very common, there is also a general belief that only educated people can take advantage of such things. Connectivity challenges and affordability of smart devices, along with discouraging social norms also pose hurdles.
Google’s Internet Saathi programme, launched in association with Tata Trusts, has been helping close this digital literacy gap since it came into operation in July 2015. The program has been training “Saathis” or partners among women to use tablets and smartphones to explore the benefits of internet in their day to day life, who in turn train scores of other women in their villages and nearby areas.
Every Saathi, trained by trainers from Google, is provided with a tablet, smartphone, bicycle, as well as the data they need while going out for their work. While Google provides the gadgets and training, Tata Trusts uses its network of local NGOs to identify the potential Saathis and monitor progress.
Parvati Khushwa, resident of Sewa ka pura village of Saipau tehsil within Dholpur district of Rajasthan, is one of the Internet Saathis. At the time when she started her work in September 2015, women and men in her village had only heard the words “smartphone” and “internet” but never seen what they were and how they could help them.
Some men in the village had the older, low-end feature mobile phones at most and the women were not encouraged to handle even those. Eighteen months into becoming a Saathi, Parvati has trained over 1100 women within her village and the neighbouring two to access internet on a tablet and smartphone.
Even the women who are illiterate learn to utilise the voice function to vocally command Google searches. Many of Parvati’s trainee village women are now very comfortable using applications like Mail, Gallery, Calculator, Whatsapp and Chrome. They also know about e-commerce outlets, although are yet to trust its transactions due to some bad past experiences.
With the help of internet based research, Parvati helped her husband buy a dona making machine, which they use to manufacture donas and supply them to dealers in the town. The profits from this supplementary work has augmented the family’s farming based income.
Similarly, a disabled couple trained by Parvati used the internet to learn how to make various dishes and now have a sustained source of income. Bharti, a young college student and resident of Sewa ka Pura, shares her experience below of learning to use to the internet from Parvati to look up her board results when she was in class XII. She also learned how to cook new recipes and sew with new accessible designs, with the help of the internet.
Watch video | Impact of Google’s Internet Saathi Program in a Young Woman’s Life
For their part, Google has been learning a great deal about the needs of women in rural India from the internet. In a contrast to urban India, rural India’s internet usage has been a very need based, solve-for-problems approach thus far.
Neha Barjatya, Project Head of Internet Saathi at Google India, says, “They are looking at how to improve farming for the more agrarian villages, they are looking up healthcare options, education and job opportunities. So it is really focused on solving for issues — the kind of information they really need to bring about transformation. Interestingly, the other thing they have been looking up is their entitlements — the information for which is not easily accessible without internet. For example, government schemes like the Bhamashah yojana.”
The newly online individuals have also come to realize that internet can be effective for checking misinformation as well as for whistleblowing. Parvati used the information available online to register complaints to authorities regarding the lack of basic facilities such as the non-provision of mid day meals in schools and against an illegal liquor shop creating nuisance. Thanks to her efforts, mid-day meals are now being provided to students in that school and the illegal shop has been closed.
Saathis have similarly been instrumental in helping save lives in their villages by identifying the nearest hospitals using internet in case of specialised emergencies. Another Saathi has been creatively using online videos on the development progress of a human embryo within the womb, to run a door-to-door campaign in her area against female foeticide. The number of stories with transformative positive impact are too many to recount and only increasing, according to Barjatya.
Watch video | Internet Saathi Parvati Khushwa from Dholpur, Rajasthan Describes What More Internet Can Do For Her Community
While the Internet Saathi programme has achieved much, challenges still remain. Affordability of personal devices for the women remains a problem for the time being. Connectivity, its reliability and power outages are still major issues. Even in Sewa ka pura village, it is common for one to stand on rooftops and climb trees in search of a network signal. Also there is very little high speed internet in the area, and primarily 2G speeds.
According to Google, the Internet Saathi programme is now live in over 60,000 villages across ten states in India (namely, Maharashtra, West bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Andhra pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Tripura, Jharkhand, Gujarat and Assam) and over 2.6 million women have benefited from it so far.
While they are currently sticking to targeting areas where connectivity is present, the hope is that in the near future this issue will get addressed. The plan is to ultimately scale up the programme to 300,000 villages in the next few years. There are today about 18,000 Internet Saathis like Parvati in the country, and the number is growing very quickly. Usually they have a minimum qualification — they must have studied up to 8th to 10th standard minimum and have a basic understanding of the English alphabet. Besides this basic qualification, internet partners are identified among women who have been active in bringing about some sort of a change in the community. They also receive a small stipend amount for the training work that they do.
Another effect of this programme is perhaps the augmentation it has brought in the standing of the Saathis, whose empowering, positive work has automatically made them an important voice among the community members as well as the authorities in their respective areas. Parvati Khushwa is now the President of Saheli Samiti for entire Dholpur district. Google’s larger objective for India is to bring the next billion users online, and the Internet Saathi programme has been tapped to make sure that rural women aren’t left behind.