‘Internet Saathi’ program empowering women in rural areas

Through Google India’s digital educative initiative, the ‘Internet Saathi’ program, more than one lakh women across India have benefitted by learning how to use the Internet. The program was launched in 2015 jointly by Google and the Tata Trust.

Elaborating on the need for such an initiative, Ratan Tata, Chairman, Tata Trusts, had said: “Today, there is an urge among Indians to be a part of the world that is today, not a world that was yesterday. Google has digitised the world and it’s a privilege to work with them to bring more women online.”

The program is meaningfully improving the lives of women and their communities in rural India. In the last ten months alone, the program has reached around 4,000 villages across five states – Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. It has already trained 100,000 women in these villages. Now it is expanding to four new states – West Bengal, Assam, Uttar Pradesh and Tripura.

“The usage of the internet among women in India is lower than most countries in the world. Only one-third of users are women. This gender disparity was the big concern that we wanted to address,” said Sapna Chadha, marketing head of Google India.

While Internet users are growing at 56 percent, the growth rate of women Internet users is only 27 per cent in rural India. The program is aimed at reducing this divide in digital usage in rural India and empowering women and their communities. The program provides basic training on the usage and benefits of the internet. There are 1,900 trained women or Internet Saathis to teach them – their number is increasing by up to 500 a week.

On ground training classes is conducted by involving self-help group federations and local NGO members who are supported by Tata Trusts on-ground network. Once they are trained, these Saathis are sent off with a smartphone and a tablet, on bicycles to villages to let other women experience the net and learn how to use it.

Atop one of 1,000 specially designed ‘Internet cycle carts’, installed with a waterproof box and a portable charger for the digital devices the Saathis travel from village to village, providing training on Internet usage.

Arti Donga 28, mother of two children became a Saathi in November 2015. She was trained in Internet usage and the various benefits that can be had from it. Till now, she has taught around 450 women of the village how to use the net.

“From healthcare and hygiene to cooking and design, I have learned a lot from the Internet and I am teaching other women. I am grateful to the initiative for making me self-dependent,” beamed Aarti. She earns Rs 2,000 per month for her work.

There was hardly any awareness of the Internet among women in villages because of non-affordability, social norms, and low literacy. Now the net is just a touch away with its wealth of information which the women can use to improve their lives and livelihood.

“Their inhibition to use a computer was very high but the smartphones’ friendly appeal have made it easier,” Ms. Chadha said. To make access easier, tablets and smartphones are also placed in the school premises, community centres, self-help group meeting venues and agriculture centres.

“We provide the devices and train the ‘saathis’. The final roll out of the programme which comprises members of self-help groups and women’s federations is overseen and facilitated by Tata Trusts through its field partners,” said Ms. Chadha.

The initiative has brought changes in the lives of many women. Gayatri Devi, who has been a teacher since November 2015 says, “I never had the opportunity to read a newspaper at home. With the Internet, I can now access news from the whole world.” She said she has helped her husband set up his own business by collecting information from Internet.

“I want to educate women, so they can earn their livelihood,” she added.

The programme includes an awareness module, coupled with hands-on training modules aimed at teaching women how to use the Internet, including through mobile devices. Since the launch of this initiative, Google has directly trained over 1.5 million women on the basics of using the internet.

With local women trainers, the Internet Saathi has been successful as it ensures continuity in the process of learning and imparting hands-on training to women and children in villages, making it a highly scalable and sustainable programme.

Divided by geographies but united in their mission to empower other women and their communities to gain from the power of the internet, there are thousands of women Saathis who are becoming the agents of change in rural India.

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