ICTs for Grassroots: Women from South Asia
By Maud Hand
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND, 01 April 2005
Like bright flowers in a grey space, the grassroots women of India livened up February’s Prepcom proceedings and it wasn’t just their stylish saris that did the trick. Undaunted by the suits and officialdom of Geneva’s UN machinery, these Indian representatives vigorously demonstrated the value of ICTs in their working lives and made a cogent case for finances to build more equitable ICT infrastructures in developing countries like India. Over chappatis and chi, they shared their stories with Maud Hand for APCNews.
Geeta Sharma, the programme manager of OneWorld South Asia, the NGO responsible for bringing the women to Geneva, is aptly placed as their advocate. No stranger to the diplomatic procedures of international conferences given her remit as programme manager for OneWorld South Asia – a network of organisations promoting sustainable development and human rights – Geeta gives the spotlight to the grass roots women themselves. Her colleague, TN Anuradha tirelessly translates for this determined South Asian delegation.
WIRELESS FOR THE WOMEN
“Where I come from, you need very strong muscles to walk the steep hilly paths,” says Pratima, a tribal woman from a mountain village near Dehra Dun in the Northern state of Uttranchal next to Nepal. “There are lots of wild animals but locals like me live with the animals as friends,” she states. It’s probably this fearless practicality which enabled Pratima to pioneer a wireless alert system in her mountain neighbourhood where she works as a health and education co-ordinator.
There are no telephone or power lines in Pratima’s community. “I’d visit women in the mountain villages in the morning but if there was an emergency later in the day when the men folk were at work, the women had no way of getting help. That’s when I figured we needed some technology to link up these isolated communities.”
The system is simple – walkie-talkies powered by batteries and operating from four nodal offices in the region. “Training is straight-forward. We tell the women about frequency and how to operate the system, switching it on and off, talking clearly into the speaker and most importantly of all, the need to share the responsibility for recharging the battery,” says Pratima.
But that’s a task in itself given that the spare battery can only be re-charged using power supplies down at the town market. So whenever a family’s due to sell its produce, they take turns in bringing the battery back and forth for recharging.
“It’s worth the effort,” says Pratima. “Now if a cow gets sick, a woman’s about to give birth or there’s a criminal element hanging round the villages, we can use the walkie-talkie to get help.”
TWO BUCKETS OF WATER AND A BABY TO POP!
After 14 years of campaigning for better health facilities in her Delhi neighbourhood, Asha Sharma is now a respected mother figure in her community but it wasn’t always like that.
“People were very suspicious at first. No-one would listen even though facilities at our local dispensary were so bad that a pregnant woman would have to carry two buckets of water with her if she wanted the doctor to help her give birth.”
Asha laughs now at how ludicrous the situation was but the reality forced her to act. “We live in an urban slum which is one of the poorest parts of Delhi. With no proper water supplies, people depended on tankers to come every three days but these tankers were very often unhygienic never mind the containers that people used to collect the water. I knew I had to do something about it.”
Even though health care was free at the local dispensary, Asha discovered that most people were unaware of this. “They might come once but if the doctor wasn’t on duty, they’d never come back. I decided that we needed a telephone helpline where patients could phone to check surgery times as well as get health advice for common ailments.”
The phone line was so successful, that with the support of OneWorld South Asia, Asha campaigned to get a permanent supply of water into the dispensary. She continues to promote better health and education services for her urban community. She’s thrilled to be in Geneva where she has the chance to learn from other groups about how they’re using ICTs in their work and bring that back to her own people.
VIDEO QUEENS OF AHMEDABAD, GUJARAT
Aruna Parmar loves her work as a video producer with Video SEWA and from the moment she spots my recording gear, she’s exchanging notes and comparing kit. But Aruna wasn’t always working at what she loves. As a 10 year old, her educational opportunities were cut short when she had to take a job in a screen-printing factory to help bring in some money for her family.
Some years later, her mother used to attend classes at SEWA, an educational NGO that runs an array of training and development projects in the Gujarat area. Aruna came along for the fun and was intrigued to see the men at SEWA using video and cameras.
“I thought I’d like to learn how to use this equipment. Then luckily a job came up on the video project and even though I was sure I’d never succeed against all those educated people applying, I was selected,” she smiles proudly. “Gradually I began to learn the skills and now I make my own videos thanks to SEWA’s encouragement.”
As most of the women in Aruna’s rural Gujarati neighbourhoods are illiterate or semi-literate, video is a powerful teaching medium. So Aruna and her colleagues make videos around health and education themes covering everything from AIDS and literacy to assertiveness training. They use locations and people from their own community which enables the learners to relate more easily to the content.
“Initially villagers were very suspicious and we had to build up a rapport with the village chief but gradually we were trusted and now the rural women are actively using video to empower themselves.”
Video SEWA is so competent that they were appointed by the state to document the Queen of Bhutan’s recent visit to the region. “There we were among all the big shot press men of the world but we held our own and produced some excellent footage.” OneWorld South Asia has also commissioned Aruna’s video group to document their conference events which is “yet another boost for our morale and great experience to help us improve.”
CHERRY ON THE GRASSROOTS ICT CAKE
Bhagaya Lakshmi is an ICT researcher at the Pondicherry branch of the M.S.Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF). Specialising in a rural women’s agricultural network, Lakshmi is helping to develop an information village centre.
“We’re linking up twelve rural villages across Pondicherry, providing them with computer and internet access so that they’ll have more immediate information to help them in their farming work.”
Through the Information Village Centre, the farmers can check weather forecasts, bus timetables, crop prices as well as get advice on best practices when it comes to buying seed and growing their produce.
MSSRF is a centre for research on sustainable agriculture and rural development which has been in operation since the mid-eighties, bringing much needed insight and guidance to the grass roots rural communities in the region.
SO WHAT DOES LAKSHMI AND THE OTHER GRASS ROOTS WOMEN WANT?
Listen to our voices – we’ll make 100 points and may be you’ll hear at least one
We want to expand our services but we need more investment in the basic ICT infrastructures in our local Indian communities, most of which are very poor
Hear what grassroot organisations like ours have to say, then go off and make an agenda to decide on how to develop the internet
Let’s have more action. UN officials talk and talk but do very little
Come and see how we do our work in reality … and then we can exchange and share knowledge
We’ll have lots of stories for our families, kids and communities on our return from Geneva … we’re glad to be here. Don’t forget us.