The program is the result of a partnership between Google and Tata Trusts, a non-sectarian philanthropic organization. It provides women the chance to learn about using the Internet and mobile technology so that they can improve their lives and spread their knowledge to other women by traveling to various villages in the country.
“Even as the world becomes increasingly connected, rural India is witnessing a widening online gender gap,” a Google representative said. “Google is committed to bridging this divide. Through our Internet Saathi initiative, women ambassadors will train and educate women across 300,000 villages on the benefits of internet in their day-to-day life.”
With roughly 134 million active web users in the rural area, India is a fast-growing internet user market that is largely dominated by men. In 2017, only 29 percent of the country’s internet users were women, according to a UNICEF report. Causes of such an unbalance include long-standing cultural barriers, availability of smartphones and tablets, and usage affordability.
According to the report, a major challenge of immersing more people in internet usage is that the “extremely poor would still have to contend with high airtime and data costs.”
Yet data plans are slowly becoming more affordable in India, and the Saathi program is an initiative meant to close the disparity between men and women in innovative fields by improving digital literacy among India’s rural women by providing them with a smartphone and a tablet.
“As some of the members in the household had smartphones, many ‘saathis’ knew what a smartphone was, but they were told not to use these for fear of spoiling them,” said Raman Kalyanakrishnan, Head of Strategy for Tata Trusts. “Now, these ‘saathis’ claim that male members of their family ask them for help when they face any issue while using the internet. From being told to not use the phone to being consulted now is an achievement for many of them.”
Internet Saathis work across villages in India’s 12 states: Rajasthan, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Tripura, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, and Bihar.
“Altogether we worked in seven districts and had 2,300 Internet Saathis,” said Alka Tripathi, COO of Jagriti Enterprise Center. “They were trained on how to use a smartphone and a tablet, how to switch it on, switch it off, how to browse, how to access the internet, how to Google, how to search, very basic stuff.”
In addition to new knowledge, more and more women are becoming entrepreneurs by entering the e-commerce business, in turn expanding their income-generating methods. One Internet Saathi used the web to boost her beekeeping business by creating an email, WhatsApp ID, and accepting orders online.
“Today it’s not traditional learning that is taking us forward, it’s the Internet that is,” said Sugandha Pandey, an Internet Saathi from eastern Uttar Pradesh’s Deoria district.
The more women who become technologically savvy, the easier it will be to close the gender divide in technology in India. The Internet Saathi program is allowing women to have the necessary knowledge to be independent women with the digital literacy necessary in today’s world.
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