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4 women & a tech revolution
Sangeeta Singh |
March 19, 2005
They're not high-powered CEOs clad in designer suits carrying laptops and PDAs; nor are they the wives of suave corporate honchos; and they're not even activists or politicians representing the have-nots.
Yet these modest women have the spark and the confidence that make you sit up and take notice, and this is what set them apart from the crowd when they came to attend a high-powered conference on information, communication and technology in New Delhi last month.
Their confidence emanates from the fact that they feel truly empowered after their work in community development and social empowerment, work that has been widely recognised and applauded, even at the World Summit of Information Society 2005, held in Geneva in January.
The four women flew out to Geneva as part of the Summit after they were handpicked by OneWorld South Asia, an arm of the UK-based OneWorld Network, which uses ICTs like the Internet, mobile telephones and community radio for poverty alleviation.
These four women were a natural choice for OneWorld, as they worked at grassroot levels, using ICT tools to help their communities, and especially other women, to know and demand their rights.
As though they had been flying to Geneva and speaking at conferences for years, these four women were able to demonstrate to UN officials and policy makers across nations that computers, mobile phones and pagers are not the only ICT tools in the modern world.
In fact, as they pointed out, these high-tech tools are the least likely to be available to the rural poor in developing countries, who can make better use of simpler tools such as mobile phones and video cameras.
So who are these women? The first is P Packialoutchmy, of the Pondicherry-based organisation MSSRF. She runs a newspaper and a radio channel in a vernacular language to disseminate information on topics as diverse as weather conditions, the impact of changing weather on different crops, how to make fish pickle and how to organise and run voluntary organisations.
She also uses the Internet to download life-saving weather reports on the sea conditions and then shares these through radio broadcasts with the fishermen in nearby villages, and disseminates information from government departments on health facilities.
She now has 30-odd volunteers to help her in her work, and has created 100 self-help groups across her region.
Both the newspaper and radio channel run on the basis of sharing experience and the benefit of having a mutual interface.
These benefits were especially illustrated after the tsunami ravaged local crops last year. Packialoutchmy's village in Pondicherry was among the first to be devastated.
"In the post-tsunami period, some of our farmers found that there were three particular varieties of rice which were not affected by the salinity caused by tsunami floods. We spread this information to all our listeners and readers, thereby benefitting not only farmers but ordinary people who would otherwise have starved," she says.
Packialoutchmy also spoke about the use of different kinds of ICT tools at the Geneva summit -- her recommendations were translated from Tamil into English, and were widely lauded.
Similarly, Anubhabhen Parmar uses video production to empower women in rural India. A SEWA volunteer in Ahmedabad, she says, "I make films on destitute people, and especially women, doing their menial jobs and being compelled to abide by demeaning societal norms (for example, not taking their husband's name, observing purdah, not being seen by their fathers-in-law, and so on), and show them in public. Watching themselves do such things have made several women feel small and help them become more assertive," says Parmar.
"And it also helps some people, who never travel outside of their villages, to know how other people are living and fighting norms. It makes them realise that they too can fight."
She travels extensively across the tough terrain of rural India to capture the travails of women in India accompanied by team members who once worked as vegetable sellers, street vendors or as casual labour.
Then there is Asha Sharma, community coordinator, Prerana, a Delhi-based NGO. She uses a simple telephone line to empower slum women in the capital's Badarpur area.
Sharma has been working with health issues for 14 years, making women and girls aware of their health needs, their sexual rights and of HIV/AIDS.
She also opened up a line of communication between a slum community and a government hospital. "The World Bank funded a government hospital for the benefit of slum-dwellers, especially women. But the hospital authorities couldn't care less about these women. This phone line empowered people to demand their rights and services due to them from the hospital," says Sharma.
There are still others like Partima, who is a co-ordinator with Rural Litigation Entitlements centre in the newly carved Indian state of Uttaranchal.
Partima uses the wireless to educate and train hundred of Gujjars (tribals) to provide them with critical information. This includes information relating to bad weather, pulse polio immunisation, epidemic outbreaks, and so on.
"With the help of around 100 wireless sets connected to our nodal office we are able to serve thousands of gypsies when they fall ill, are attacked by wild animals, or meet with an accident," says Partima.
But will these women be able to spread what they have learnt at the convention in Geneva or will their trip only have romantic value? "I have been to Thailand also for a similar conference.
"So going phoren was not what enchanted me. The fact that people who rubbished us initially, looking at our clothes and ungroomed personalities listened most attentively to our presentations and cheered us immensely after it concluded," says Partima.
Agrees Anubhabhen: "Initially it was the snowfall and picture-perfect beauty of Switzerland that fascinated me. But I soon realised that I had a job to do. And I was happy that delegates realised that effective community service can be done through outdated modes like wireless."
So how did OneWorld pick these women? "Mostly, the grassroot volunteers that we work with come from conservation backgrounds and men in their community don't want their women to go out. We found these four women deserving as well as forthcoming -- it was not a difficult choice to make," says Basheerhamad Shadrach, director, OneWorld South Asia.
Their days of struggle over, these four women today have a tremendous sense of achievement. Their storiescan serve as a role model for other women -- both from elite and rural backgrounds.