This story by a DEF team member was first published by The Better India on May 5, 2016
A foreign national working in India with Digital Empowerment Foundation, Cathy Pin-Chun Chen was recently touring in rural parts of India to document stories of women whose live have changed following digital interventions. She shares their stories and their aspirations here.
You are indirectly locked to a seat for almost two hours. Two women who you have never met — one speaks your language and the other is a foreigner — chat with you and interrogate you about your daily routine, childhood memories, personal relations, and how they’ve changed in the last 10 years. Several questions are asked. Why do you get up so early in the morning? Who are you closest to in your family? What kind of television programmes do you like to watch? What do you like to do when you’re alone? How is your relationship with your in-laws? Imagine, these and many more questions at thrown at you; will you be comfortable enough to share your stories, your view and your values?
As timid and quiet as these women — who are brought to the interpreter and me — may seem, they all wait patiently to share a few slices of their lives while I sit with a calm smile, sometimes with a little anxiety, sometimes with a little doubt; yet with respect and confidence.
Through understanding of one’s daily routine practices — a decade ago and now — one perceives the differences in their social cultural behaviours, lifestyles, relationships and shifts in perspectives and values. Courage and empowerment are simply surfacing labels in their stories. They view life through a rose-coloured lens, a lens that sees optimism and opportunities in multiple corners of their experiences and in economically, socially and/or culturally challenging situations. It is a vulnerable lens that gets mocked for its naïve nature but hopeless positivity; yet the belief of “life will be better, if…” maintains that rosy perspective as these women improve and nourish, not just themselves, but their families and their communities.
During a recent trip to rural parts of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, I met several women who showed me their rosy lens of life. They all came from socially backward and financially weak households but they held big dreams in their eyes.
Neha Vikey sleeps for only two to three hours a night because she feels 24 hours are not sufficient for her to finish all her household chores, tutoring classes and centre coordinator responsibilities. As a trainer and coordinator of a community information resource centre (CIRC) in Hoshangabad district of Madhya Pradesh, Neha provides digital literacy skills to children and adults in villages; helps community members in filling forms for ID proof, government schemes & entitlements, Right to Information queries; manages reports and accounts of the centre; recharges people’s mobile phones; assists help seekers in Internet banking; and provides citizen services like photocopying, scanning, printing and passport-size photographs, among others. At home, she tutors her elder sibling and teaches her mother to write.
Neha aspires to bag a job in the railway sector and earn enough money to provide a comfortable lifestyle to her parents who have spent a lot of energy and financial support for her education and upbringing.
As a young girl, Somti Gathiya was forced to marry her sister’s brother-in-law in an effort to provide the sick sister with a helping hand with the household chores. While she couldn’t oppose the marriage, the marriage could not curb her desire to learn either, which only grew stronger after marriage. And so, she saw an opportunity in joining a self-help group (SHG) in the village. Her husband, however, was opposed to the idea of Somti stepping out the house. He wanted her to concentrate on the household chores and the family’s agricultural field but her sister understood Somti’s aspirations and helped her convince her husband to allow her to join the SHG. It was through the SHG that Somti heard about a nearby CIRC and enrolled herself for digital literacy training. Today, Somti is a trainer at the centre, and her husband, who drops her off at work every morning, has also expressed an interest in learning digital skills; perhaps not from her, not yet. He now also understands that household chores are not the responsibility of women alone.
Somti’s desire to learn has never been about only increasing her knowledge; for her, learning means sharing the knowledge with other women in her community.
Shashi Narre was always busy doing household chores. Her in-laws always had some work to burden her with, and she would obliged. Until, she learnt about a SHG and decided to join it. As part of the SHG, she was among a big group of women who were trained at a CIRC in using digital tools for efficiently collecting data and accessing the Internet for information. Courtesy this training, Shashi now understands her rights as a citizen of India, a woman and her BPL card holder and helps mobilise other women in her community to become aware about the same.
She is no longer scared of her in-laws either, they, in fact, share the chores now.
Twenty-four-year-old Shahnaz is married to a folk musician based in Mungaska village of Rajasthan. Aware of their family’s financial situation, Shahnaz’s father fixed her marriage at an early age, hoping her husband would be able to pay for her education. He always believed that her daughter could achieve something great if she was given an opportunity. Luckily for Shahnaz, her husband supported her and her desire to learn. Today, she is a computer trainer at the community information resource centre in Mungaska, and helps children, women and men acquire digital skills. Shahnaz wants to create an individual identity and not be recognsied as bhapang player Yusuf Khan’s wife. And she wants people to know her father as “Shahnaz’s father”. And she wants to do something that reporters would want to want to write about in their newspapers.
Shahnaz says, “I want to see more (positive) reports about women in the newspapers, just like males are entitled to.”.
As a protective father who did not want his daughter to be involved in any “bad company”, he wanted Pushpa Tanwar to continue her college education but through correspondence. However, Pushpa and her mother saw things differently. They understood the value of education and knew that a exposure to learning that a student gets in a classroom would be much more than reading up textbooks at home and appearing for exams. Together, the mother-daughter duo convinced her father to allow her join a nearby college just like the other students. Today, Pushpa is a second-year student of Mass Communication and is also enrolled at a CIRC in Kapashera, on the outskirts of Delhi, where she regularly receives career counseling.
She aspires to become a TV news anchor, and her father is waiting for the day he can see his daughter on television.
It’s amazing how these girls shared their personal experiences and values with me. It reflects their openness, their acceptance of ground situations and the willing to move forward in lie. They naivety helps then believe in the betterment of their current conditions, the never-ending learning choices, and the potential of women’s ability to evade and crack the four walls of their houses — and some tradition values that had supposedly nourished but actually stripped them of their freedom and rights. They do not dismiss their past, but embrace it with their versions of rose-coloured lens, and we know their dream of a future through their rosy lens is achievable.
New Delhi-based Digital Empowerment Foundation’s Community Information Resource Centres or CIRCs provide it the basic backbone needed for rolling out all kinds of digital interventions for development in rural and semi-urban areas of backward districts. The CIRCs are equipped with computers, printers, scanners and all basic digital equipment together with Internet connectivity to spread digital literacy and empower the information-dark and marginalised communities to access all possible benefits of digital inclusion and access to the global information superhighway.