How digital literacy has helped women in rural India to be independent
The company is also providing funding of $500,000 to the NASSCOM Foundation wherein 100,000 women agri workers will be given digital and financial literacy training in Bihar, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, and Uttar Pradesh.
When Google launched the Internet Saathi initiative at its first-ever Google for India event back in 2015, digital literacy among women living in the villages was almost non-existent. Data shows that at the time, one out of ten internet users in rural India was a woman. Data by Google also showed that at the time only 12% of internet users in rural India were women. Lack of connectivity and awareness coupled with the exorbitant price of smartphones furthered this trend at the time.
Google set out to address this gender gap with its digital literacy initiative. The company partnered with Tata Trusts to launch a pilot program in Rajasthan. Six years later, this scenario has changed significantly if not dramatically.
Today, four out of ten internet users in rural India are women. And the program that kicked off with 1,000 Internet Carts in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Jharkhand has over 80,000 Internet Saathis working to educate women in villages about smartphones and the benefits of using the internet.
The company at its Google for India event that was held virtually today announced that over 80,000 Internet Saathis have trained over 30,000,000 rural women in over 300,000 villages across India as a part of this initiative so far.
As Google announced the culmination of its digital literacy initiative in India, we at HT Tech spoke with Sapna Chadha, who is the Senior Director Marketing for Google India, and SouthEast Asia and some of the Internet Saathis associated with this initiative to understand how this initiative transformed their. Here's what they had to say...
Impact and insights
As far as the overall impact is concerned, Google, as mentioned before, has been able to train over 30,000,000 women in villages about the usage of smartphones and the internet via its initiative. These women have then not only supported their families financially but have also helped their kids study better.
“All of the research shows that where we have gone, women's confidence has increased, their usage of the internet has increased...There has been a major improvement in children's education. Seven of the ten women who attended the training are saying that they are now able to use the knowledge that they have gained in terms of education,” The Senior Director Marketing for Google India said in an interview with HT Tech.
She also said that the biggest trend that Google has seen since the launch of this program is in terms of internet adoption. “The biggest trend that we have seen is that rural India is driving the adoption and the overall adoption of the internet among women is increasing as a result of that...We see women are using video. Women are comfortable with video and they find it a means for them to overcome barriers that they have,” she added.
Apart from the extensive usage of videos, using voice-based hacks and the usage of vernacular language is another dominating trend that the company has noticed. “We have seen them finding these great hacks with voice. So, the video and the voice is the other hack...We see women using their camera with such innovation...We've even seen some of them use it [Google Lens] to read,” Chadha said adding, “We know women and the world on whole want to speak in their local language. So, that's an area where we will be doing much more. Those are the three trends -- video, voice and vernacular.”
Statistics and numbers aside, the biggest impact that this initiative has brought in the minds of people living in the villages where it was made available is in terms of social change.
“When we started this program, a lot of women came and said that ‘my family is not supporting me', ‘my husband is kind of lukewarm, ‘father-in-law not supportive'. We heard a lot of constraints that they had and concerns that they had on being able to make time for this and getting the support that they needed from their families...What we've again seen is that through the means of economic contribution, families have changed their minds,” the Google executive told HT Tech.
We talked to some of the Internet Saathis and all of them share a similar background. All of them were housewives who were taking care of their kids and their families before they learnt about smartphones and the internet. Today, all of them are successful entrepreneurs who are not only supporting their families economically but are also educating other women like them to be independent.
Meena Kumar and her husband had a bike accident back in February 2019 which rendered them both immobile for months. Prior to that Meena used to do part-time stitching work while her husband worked as an insurance agent in Haryana. It was during this time that she learnt about the Internet Saathi program wherein she learnt to access videos. “Since I was passionate about cooking, I would spend the whole day looking up recipe videos of fast-food items online...At the end of two months, I felt confident enough to start my own fast-food business. We opened our shop at a location that's accessible to all villagers. I sell burgers, chowmein, potato fingers and more,” she told HT Tech.
Krishna Barman from Madhya Pradesh, on the other hand, wanted to earn her own living but the circumstances never allowed her to study beyond the tenth standard. Her desire to learn didn't fade away even after her marriage. “Learning how to use the internet was the first step in achieving this. I started sharing the wealth of knowledge I found on the internet with other women in the village. This helped in connecting me to women who also wanted to start something of their own. Soon we all started a soap business together by learning soap making through video tutorials on the internet...I feel like I have an identity of my own now. When I go anywhere, they say, ‘Look, internet didi is here!',” Barman told HT Tech.
Sanjeeda Begum, who hails from Bihar, on the other hand, was educated and yet she was hesitant in using a smartphone in the beginning. On getting adept at using a smartphone, she learnt skills like cooking and stitching. "I have come a long way from that shy, hesitant girl I used to be. I want to continue working with the communities around me, to help raise awareness on social issues that plague our society and offer necessary help in times of crisis,” she told us.
For Pinki Chatterjee, who hails from West Bengal, things were a bit different. She was already working with a self-help group when she got to know about Google's initiative. “One of my relatives encouraged me to start my own business. The internet opened new ideas and opportunities and showed me a direction. I searched online for work I could do from home. The first video I stumbled on was how to make incense sticks on YouTube. I found that it did not require a very big investment, the equipment was easy to operate and there was no wastage...All these reasons made me take a loan and buy an incense sticks machine...Business has been good. When I have big orders, I employ two women to help with production and packaging. I have even opened my own net banking account which I use to send and receive money for my business,” Chatterjee said in an interview with HT Tech.
All of these women believe that the knowledge of the internet and smartphones has helped them gain confidence and gain financial independence. They also believe that women and girls shouldn't sit at home and that they should work. “Girls shouldn't sit ideal. They should work even if they are sitting at home,” Chatterjee added.
As mentioned before, Google's digital literacy initiative has created momentum, especially in rural India about smartphones and the use of the internet. Now, as the program is culminating, the company has launched a bunch of new initiatives to keep this momentum going. The company has introduced a new Women Will web platform that consists of a “how-to” curriculum on turning an interest into a business, managing an enterprise, and promoting it for growth among other things.
The company is also providing funding of $500,000 to the NASSCOM Foundation wherein 100,000 women agri workers will be given digital and financial literacy training in Bihar, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, and Uttar Pradesh. Additionally, the company today launched a global Google.org Impact Challenge for Women and Girls as a part of which it will provide $25 million in overall funding to nonprofits and social organizations in India and around the world that are working to advance women and girls' economic empowerment.