Written by Ayushi Sharma
The digital services received through the Internet are both a communication channel and a marketplace. In a way, it can be called a global integrator.
But the fruits of such services are not easily accessible to all. This unequal accessibility comes in terms of gender when women are not encouraged or taught to use digital services. The DEF’s Digital Sarthak (DS) project aims to bridge the digital divide and empower women to develop themselves as entrepreneurs. These Women Entrepreneurs (WEs) are encouraged to participate in the market and earn a livelihood of their own. I traveled to the Nagaon and Morigaon districts of Assam to learn more about these budding entrepreneurs from WEs Lucky Bhuyan and Puja Saikia.
The WEs mainly focus on specific skills that they excel at: some are involved in tailoring, a few in doll making, while others make pickles. I felt honoured to see WEs Lucky Bhuyan’s self-weaved mekhela saador, gamusa and masks. Being married off right after her graduation did not suppress her determination to establish an identity and earn a livelihood. From a young age, she sewed clothes for herself and her family. Noticing the immense talent and hard work she puts into weaving and stitching, DEF put her on the right track to channel her passion.
Like other WEs, Lucky had trained to market her products through the status/story feature and broadcast messages on WhatsApp. Learning online payment methods via GPay and Paytm, she has strictly maintained all her transactions through them. Her clientele has increased since she became a WE in March 2021 and specifically boomed during the pandemic. When asked about her overall experience of being a WE, she says that it gives her a sense of independence, as she no longer has to rely on her husband.
It is important to note here that as entrepreneurs understanding the online market is not the main challenge in this scenario. It was the challenge of digital illiteracy that required urgent addressing. Puja Saikia, Digital Sarthak from Bordowa highlighted that from switching on a device to online banking, WEs are prepared for everything from scratch. Having worked with DEF since 2014, Puja gives out a sense of authority, self-confidence, and agency compared to Lucky’s new eagerness to learn. She was one of the first DEF representatives in Nagaon who got trained on a desktop computer. Earlier, she would go door-to-door with a laptop to give digital training to women. Now she has switched to smartphones, but the hustle remains the same. Establishing herself as a known face from DEF in the village, Puja has tackled many digital issues and COVID related stigmas during the lockdown. At a personal level, she has attained an equal decision-making role in her family as well as in the village.
Moreover, being a woman who speaks her mind, Puja Saikia was the only DS to point out two issues to ponder over.
First, she pointed out that most women entrepreneurs have to balance household chores and work. If their products do not get sold, their hard work goes in vain, and they feel discouraged to continue working. These women wish their work to be promoted in a larger digital market, to keep their interests intact, and retain a stable income flow. They seem to want DEF to play the role of an intermediary between them and potential buyers.
The second and most important issue highlighted was that the younger generation (children or grandchildren) in the villages are born into the digitalised world. They can teach the older generation to operate and use modern digital services such as WhatsApp, Facebook, and online banking.
Ayushi Sharma is a post graduation student at Jindal University