A digital literacy initiative is helping improve the lives of women in Uttar Pradesh's villages

Akansha Singh is a young girl studying for her BA in a local college in a village where she lives — about 50 km from a tier 3 town in Eastern Uttar Pradesh. She is bright and curious as she talks about how the use of her mobile phone and access to internet has empowered her. She is weighing many options for her future — as a school teacher, but also as an entrepreneur. When asked about what was important as an attribute for an entrepreneur, she mentioned having the right attitude!

As someone who has designed and trained poor women in knowledge, attitude and skills for entrepreneurship, I know that attitude is the most difficult attribute of the three to convey to them. And yet, Akansha brought this up without prompting. She had not been part of any training in entrepreneurship either. I asked her to explain how she was able to think of attitude as an important part of entrepreneurship and she said “Maine Shiv Khera padha hai (I have read Shiv Khera)"! She had accessed information on Shiv Khera via the internet, having heard his name from a relative in a nearby town.

For many decades, self-employment in India was rooted in the lack of options to move out of villages and small towns for education and a job, preferably in government service, though with the opening up of markets with the reforms of the early 1990s, private sector jobs were also sought. Those with secondary education migrated to urban areas within and out of state in search of better employment. Those among the poor who were effectively literate only up to Class Eight level, established tiny businesses in their villages such as kirana shops, roadside cycle and motorcycle repair, small electrics, and later, mobile phone repair and recharge. For women, self-employment options were similarly limited to local markets with production from locally-available resources. Later, as reforms ushered in access to global markets, women became part of the supply network in national and global value chains though in low productivity and low return activities.

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Now, there are ways to bring the world to one’s towns, villages and homes through digital technology. Images courtesy the writer

Much has been written across the world about this cycle of low productivity, low returns and hence continued economic vulnerability of the poor, particularly women. Capacity-building to move the poor up value chains are attempted — but mainly by NGOs. However, scale and expected better returns for those at the base has remained limited due to a variety of challenges, principally their “confinement” to the areas where they live leading to persistent lack of exposure to see, feel and understand a rapidly changing environment around them.

But now, there are ways to bring the world to one’s towns, villages and homes through digital technology and the potential for this to steer a surge in motivation, to move beyond subsistence cannot be underestimated. The opportunities for upgraded learning and self-employment via access to internet on mobile phones is as remarkable for the aspiration it has generated in a short time as it is for its impact as a social leveler. Self-employment can now be rooted not in the lack of options, but in pursuance of new and accessible prospects that are both safe and dignified.

Akansha is one of more than 1500 young women who have been trained to access the internet on mobile phones in the small towns and villages of Eastern UP; the intended outreach is 15 lakh clients within one year, with the objective to make them internet-literate on their mobile phones in Deoria, Kushinagar and Gorakhpur by Jagriti, an NGO. Girls like Akansha were elated with the rapid access to knowledge and information that internet literacy provided. School teachers said they are able to respond quickly to questions asked by students in the class (including synonyms, antonyms and English translation of Hindi words). Some now feel technically enabled to run coaching classes of their own for extra income. Asha workers said that they are able to access information on basic health issues that they are unfamiliar with, especially everyday health problems of adolescent girls. Those already skilled, such as in stitching and craft, and currently making clothes and jewellery for self-use are able to access new designs and techniques to incorporate with eye on enterprise.

UP is a state that is better known for its patriarchy than movement towards improving outcomes for women. World Bank reports confirm that the majority of rural women in UP are in farming and non-farm jobs are more likely to be held by men. Despite improvements over the last ten years, UP’s maternal mortality ratio remains among the highest in the country (only Uttarakhand and Assam are worse). Despite gender gaps in schooling narrowing for younger groups in UP, female labour force participation is among the lowest in the country. Physical safety is a challenge for girls pursuing secondary school as travel to these schools is not always safe.

Yet, there is hope. The World Development Report of 2012 on Gender and Development had already affirmed that information and communication technology (ICT) has enabled women (and men) across the world to access markets by lowering information barriers and transaction costs for market work. The increasing availability of mobile phones has facilitated this further. As the report adds, time and mobility constraints are more severe for women than men so women stand to benefit more from new technologies. As safety of girls remains a concern in UP, girls and their families are seeking knowledge and skill options that are both dignified and safe. With their exposure to internet literacy this year, families favourably view “home-based” learning via mobile phones as providing respectability and physical safety in education and skills for girls where little or none existed before.

Digital technology is now considered one of three crucial assets along with property and finance for gender equality by the UN Women Report on Gender Equality 2016. The report advocates the use of mobile phones to take forward digital inclusion for women. This global policy fillip is important since governments are required to report on progress. Given the family encouragement for digital literacy that is in evidence, that this can combine with a favourable global policy environment gives a vital boost to skills and enterprise for a new generation at national, state and local levels.

On the ground, the post-demonetisation digital push has widened the options for girls to access more technology-driven skills for self-employment as service providers for digital payments and for catalysing entrepreneurship in the villages.

With knowledge and information available almost at the doorstep, family support — along with the girls' own motivation — has become key to the empowerment ecosystem that is now emerging in villages where Jagriti is running the digital literacy programme. Akansha’s father takes her on his two-wheeler for helping her reach out to girls in other villages, that she has to do as part of the programme of Jagriti. This is at the cost of his own business that he now able to attend to only part-time. Other girls spoken with provided details of a range of family support including simple moral encouragement, to learning and outreach by parents not opposing access to or their spending time on the mobile phone or teaching others — to more active support, such as siblings taking over their household chores. More significantly, male siblings are providing tutorials since they have had a headstart in access to digital literacy. All this has not only widened and honed Akansha’s own expertise on mobile internet, it has stirred the family “trust” atmosphere to empower girls like her to envision bigger and better prospects for themselves in enterprise. She has already thought of starting a small digitally-enabled coaching center at her home that she and her parents hope will become a reality soon. Digital content in the curriculum can go beyond the skills and placement emphasis and be curated in a way that many more girls like Akansha find motivators like Shiv Khera online, to spur women’s enterprise.

These are significant steps towards what could well become a business model of family nurtured and nested enterprises led by a new generation of aspiring women — a far cry from the earlier family enterprises that women not only did not lead but that marginalised them within the family. That this possibility has been seeded in a state like UP, is indeed noteworthy.

Vanita Viswanath is on the Advisory Board of Jagriti. She is former CEO, Udyogini.

Updated Date: Apr 02, 2017 10:31 AM

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