At a time when the number of Internet users in India is set to hit 500 million by June this year, only one in 10 women have access to the internet in rural India. So as India moves forward digitally, there is a whole section of them getting left behind.
But Google, through its Internet Saathi program is trying to change that. Teaching women in rural India how to use smartphones and giving them access to the internet is slowly changing lives.
Take Rohini from Maharashtra. Using the internet, she has learnt bee farming and is now extracting honey. Then there is Mridula from Andhra Pradesh who has helped students find coaching classes and even helped a school headmistress learn to use the internet and help interest students more and make their learning more fun.
Neha Barjatya, Chief Internet Saathi says that the idea is to make information accessible and useful for everyone.
The key to making this happen is understanding the construct within which you have to work and then work within that construct to make people want to learn, Neha says. When they first went to train women in villages, the barriers they faced were very different from what they expected. “We though access would be a barrier, cost of smartphones would be a barrier but what we really had to face was perception barrier - that internet was a bad influence and that women should not be on the internet. Even if there was a smartphone in the house they weren’t allowed to touch it,” Neha said while speaking at a panel discussion at an education and technology conclave at T-Hub in Hyderabad.
What is important, she says, is to make learning relevant to these women rather than superimposing something we think is important and is the right thing to do. It needs to be done in a way that fosnt hamper someone’s lifestyle but fits it.
So when women, because of several barriers and challenges couldn’t come to Internet Saathi’s training classes, they took the internet to them. They picked women, called them Internet Saathis, gave them access to smartphones and trained them how to use the internet so that they could go and teach other women in villages to use smartphones and the internet
Two-and-a-half years later, Internet Saathi has trained 45,000 internet saathi across 150,000 villages, who have gone out and taught 1.5 million women on how to use the internet.
And what this has done is not just given them access to information but has opened up new learning, employment and revenue opportunities.
These women, Neha says, are using the information to upskill themselves and to solve for their daily needs.
“Their use cases are very different from what we know. They are going online to know crop prices, where the nearest hospital is. Women are participating much more in social causes and because of the skills, 25% believe they can earn an income for themselves. From an economic standpoint, 45% of women trained by Internet Saathi said they had improved their income by learning a new skill,” Neha adds.
Technology, therefore, has immense power to bridge barriers of gender, disabilities and more. Thanks to technology, women who werent allowed to travel to go to school are now getting education without having to step out.
“We need to see how can we use technology to bridge barriers. Inclusivity will come from there. We need to think of new ideas and broadening the horizons. We just need to give them equal information and it has to be in a manner in which which they are comfortable with, open to and accepting,” Neha says.