Written by Abner Manzar
SoochnaPreneur is an initiative of Digital Empowerment Foundation to create digital women entrepreneurs who provide access to vital information to their communities along with earning an income for themselves. DEF has set up nearly 1,500 SoochnaPreneur centres across 24 states of India with the primary aim of bridging the information and digital divide. Nearly 1,000 of these SoochnaPreneurs are women; we identify women to become SoochnaPreneurs to empower women in rural parts of the country.
Mewat is a region in Haryana and Rajasthan with a close proximity to New Delhi, the capital of the country, however, it is one of the most marginalised regions of the country. With a very low female literacy rate it is one of the most challenging regions to work in for DEF. Through the SoochnaPreneur initiative we are trying to close the gender gap in access to information and financial resources but there are many challenges.
“No, she can’t sit at the shop, this is my father’s village and she is his daughter-in-law, so she can’t sit at the stop” said Wajib, Taalima’s husband. A passerby overheard our conversation and said “this is Mewat, here a woman needs to be very gutsy to sit at a shop, but a man can make do without guts.”
To my relief, Wajib added that he sits with his wife everyday and teaches her how to use digital devices. “She already knows WhatsApp and YouTube but I have been teaching her other applications also” he said. I asked him if it would be possible for her to subsequently train the other women in the village and his face lit up “yes yes, this is something that is possible. Just allow me a few weeks time to make her comfortable using the tablets and then I will ask her to create a group of women in our village and take digital based classes.” He has promised me that the next time I visit his village I will meet his wife and the women she will be training by then.
“I keep telling her to come sir, but she has to finish her work first,” said Rahul, Juhurbi’s brother. I asked Juhurbi what work she does and she said “I have to go to the fields, finish my share of farming, then come home and cook for everyone; once all of that is done I come to the shop but by then I am already tired.” I requested Rahul to contribute to the work that his sister does and take out two hours everyday to teach her how to use digital tools. He said “yes sir I have already started and the next time you make a visit you will see her handling a lot more than she does now.”
Having seen the impact that women SoochnaPreneurs have on their communities I was disappointed to see that the women here in Mewat were unable to step out and reach their potential. However, as I spoke to Sharukh, the district coordinator I realised that in Mewat one can’t expect overnight results, he said “it is already a big deal that these women are learning how to use digital devices. At least they have taken the first step. We just have to be patient with them and keep prodding them from time to time to do better.” In Sharukh’s opinion creating a cadre of women SoochnaPreneurs in the Mewat region is going to be the most challenging thing they have done but they are ready for the challenge and they also have a role model in Rukmina.
Rukmina is a 21-year-old SoochnaPreneur from the remote village of Bidarka. Her house is on the foothills of a small hill and her SoochnaPreneur centre is at the entrance of the house. Rukmina sits behind her computer and serves the customers visiting her providing various digital services such as photocopy, printing, lamination, application for government entitlements and financial transactions. Rukmina was the perfect woman SoochnaPreneur; a digital service provider who works with the intention of serving her community. Her father has stood by her like a pillar; he himself does similar work and now instead of doing most of the work himself he sends his customers to his daughter.
Rukmina and her father; silent warriors of equality
Rukmina serves between 15 and 20 customers everyday and earns a monthly income of 15,000 to 20,000 rupees. Speaking to her father pleasantly surprised me because his attitude was completely opposite of what I had seen in the other men in Mewat. He has made sure that all his children are educated. Rukmina is doing her Master’s now and her younger sisters are in class 12 and class 6. “You just keep guiding us on the right path and I will keep pushing my daughters further so that they can step out and be more successful,” said her father.
While the state of women in Mewat is not good, a few cases like Rukmina are also there to show us the way. We are now planning to introduce Juhurbi and Taalima to Rukmina so that they understand that women can step out of their homes and break the cycle of patriarchy that has been created to suppress them.
The SoochnaPreneur initiative seeks to empower women and create a cadre of digital women entrepreneurs who bring about a more just and equal society by serving the needs of their communities and providing them access to information and digital services. While women have to constantly negotiate cultural norms and domestic responsibility to reach there, they are working towards it slowly and steadily.