The spirit of online entrepreneurship isn't just limited to major cities these days. And in a village near Pune in Maharashtra, some women are redefining the traditional roles expected of them by exploring the internet.
Karandi village is nearly 40 km from Pune. Along with a group of five journalists, I was headed there to meet the Google Internet Saathis, who are women entrepreneurs in rural areas across India. While headed to the lush green village, our driver seemed to have lost his way. As if on autopilot, we fired up Google Maps to help us navigate to our destination and eventually reached there.
To imagine our lives without the internet seems difficult now, considering how wired our brains are to online stimuli. But what's the importance that internet has for a group of villagers, especially women, was a question which propelled me to dig deeper.
Over eight months ago, Google, Tata Trusts and the Sakal Social Foundation, Pune introduced the Google Internet Saathi program to empower women with digital literacy. Across India, the program has been active since 2015 for women in rural areas.
For a city-bred woman like me, the internet is an empowering tool. Be it simply ordering food, booking a cab, shopping, searching for help, safety or simply browsing the web for cat videos, the internet is a universe in itself. Life would be quite inconvenient without internet access for me. But in rural areas, where networks are spotty, reliable electricity is a question mark, I was curious to find out how the internet could be useful for the women living here.
Vandana Potdar who is a member of the Google's program is also known as Internet Saathi. The Saathis chosen are high school graduates who can understand basic English. She was known to address issues of women regarding eve-teasing and ragging in colleges, during her service as a police maitri (friend).
"During one of the meetings organised by the Maharashtra Police, we were introduced to an app. Through this app, women could send alerts if they felt unsafe," says Potdar. Lack of conveyance such as buses led these women to download this app on their father's or brother's mobile phones. In Karindi village, men still have a say over mobile phones, very few women have access to it. As part of the Internet Saathi program, Google provides these women with smartphones and tablets to access the internet, but convincing women in families to use their own mobile phone and the internet has been an uphill task says Potdar.
“Initially, people were hesitant to introduce women to the internet. Men saw it as a social deterrent and treated it as a social stigma. Some said to me that women work in fields there is no point for them to have a mobile phone,” said Potdar. Utility and relevance play a big role in convincing these families, according to Potdar safety of the women led the men to allow women to use mobile phones.
In fact, as per the Kantar IMRB-ICube-Rural Internet Report for 2017, the number of internet users is still dominated by men than women.
Like Potdar, there are 19 Internet Saathis in the village who have various other villages under their wings to empower women.
With the help of Google-owned YouTube, these women have learned to make potato chips, take orders from nearby villages, setup beauty parlours and engage in handicrafts.
Karindi-resident Deepali Gowdi makes aakash kandeel or lanterns made of thick plastic ropes. She also makes silk thread bangles which she learned from YouTube. For Gowdi, this is an extra form of income, as she also runs a small beauty parlour in the village.
“We were told to write “how to” while typing the search query. When we were learning to make these bangles, we type “how to make silk thread bangles,” said Gowdi’s sister explaining the process of how a lot of the entrepreneurial women are taught how to search for the right content on the internet.
Meenakshi Sonkatare has made Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,000 since the past eight months by making over 30 quilts which she learned to make by watching YouTube videos. She is collaborating with local shop owners to increase her sales.
Neha Barjatya, chief of Internet Saathi, accounts the barrier that they had to face as they were introducing the program. People clearly had a negative perception regarding the internet. Hands-on training from these Internet Saathis gave them access to information. These women are trained with the help of voice inputs. According to Barjatiya, in her experience, most of the women preferred images and videos to overcome the language barrier.
Their training modules include basics of using smartphones, understanding of the internet and searching for relevant information online. However, digital literacy differs from village to village. For instance in Karindi, agriculture is the main occupation. Therefore, digital literacy revolves around relevance and need.
But it's not all a bed of roses for these women who want to get online. Fluctuation in electricity and low internet speeds are some of the major barriers that need to be overcome, for the Internet Saathi program to truly proliferate. But one of the bigger issues still, is the gender divide that needs to be crossed. As of now, men have begun accepting internet, however, only to the point it is useful.
It does seem like there is a long way to go.