Ravi Agarwal, author of the book 2018 Connected India: How the smartphone is transforming the world’s largest democracy says that for many Indians, the smartphone is their first private television screen, personal music player, computer and camera. Agarwal compares it to the experience of owning a car for the first time: autonomy, privacy and mobility.
This is especially true for women, who are less likely to be literate or employed in the formal workforce. Even among literate people, many read and write in one of India’s more than 30 official languages - another barrier to accessing the internet on personal computers and laptops with English keyboards. In 2015, only 10% of Internet users in rural areas of India were women. As smartphones and data plans have become more accessible, that number has risen to around 30%, according to IAMAI, a professional group of internet and telecommunications companies.
Companies such as Google, Intel and Facebook have collaborated with local organizations to facilitate women’s access to the Internet. Google and Tata Trusts, for example, run the Internet Saathi, or Internet Friend, program, which trains rural women to become digital pioneers. They learn how to use smartphones in sessions where they are equipped with phones and power banks. By December 2019, the program had trained more than 83,300 women to become Saathis. In turn, they have introduced more than 34 million women to the Internet.
Raman Kalyanakrishnan, chief strategy officer at Tata Trusts, says the Saathis can decide what and how they want to teach, although the four-day training period emphasizes the use of voice commands in local languages. “We don’t assume we know what interests women across the country,” he says.
Pinky Katariya, 36, is a Saathi from Jind, northwest New Delhi, who joined the program in May 2018. She married young and lived with her in-laws when her husband worked in a another city. “I’ve always wanted to run a small shop,” she says. “But I was not allowed to have my own money, I did not have the resources to be an entrepreneur.” In 2016, women made up less than 5 percent of the formal workforce in Jind State of Haryana.
Today her life is different. “I am looking for high quality fabrics on the market. I research new trends on YouTube and learn how to put different models together, ”she says. Her clothes come at a high price. “In the village, I would earn around 200 rupees (less than $ 3) per dress. In the market, my designs sell for 450-750 rupees ($ 6-10), ”she says.
In April, during the pandemic-induced lockdown, Katariya created a group of WhatsApp friends and acquaintances. “If I saw an interesting video, I would share it with the group and take the pre-orders,” she said. Katariya has created a visual catalog and built an inventory in anticipation of a future increase in demand, particularly towards the end of the year. “Now with the festival season my business is picking up,” she said. Being familiar with the internet has given her both credibility and a bigger social network in Jind. “If someone who doesn’t have a phone needs to look for something, they come to me,” she said.
Service can be spotty as India’s 700 million cell phone users compete for limited bandwidth. Katariya often has to wait for videos to be buffered. Mallika has to go to specific places in the forest to use her phone. The Indian government is working to modernize networks, which will also allow millions of women to learn, win, shop, argue, resist and talk in a society that often micromanages their lives.
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