Bridging the Gender Digital Divide

WomenConnect Challenge India expands business opportunities for women and empowers them to uplift themselves and their communities.

By Burton Bollag

March 2022

Bridging the Gender Digital Divide 

A digital advocate provides training on how to use a smartphone. Photograph courtesy TechnoServe India

Across the world, people are using smartphones to improve their small businesses and make their lives easier through access to information and services like online payments and banking. But various socioeconomic conditions often exclude women from these benefits.

WomenConnect Challenge (WCC) is a global call for solutions to improve women’s participation in everyday life by changing the ways they access and use technology. Through WCC India, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) partnered with Reliance Foundation to award grants to 10 organizations in 2021. The grantees are working on bridging the digital divide by using proven strategies such as challenging social and cultural stereotypes, developing skills and economic opportunities, building confidence in technology use, growing community advocates, and designing women-centric technologies.

When women earn their own incomes, they tend to get more say in decision-making in their households and their communities. “We have seen that when women are financially empowered, they and their children have an improved quality of life in areas such as education and health,” says Niladri Sahoo, program manager at the Odisha-based Centre for Youth and Social Development, a WCC India awardee. For example, one of the WCC India participants, Sampa, is now able to complete online payments including transferring money, rechanging her mobile phone and e-commerce. For Sampa, digital access and literacy has reduced the necessity of traveling 5 kilometers to access banking and she is now able to help others in her community achieve digital literacy and limit their dependence on others for day-to-day tasks.

The WCC India projects are targeting 300,000 women in 17 states for training and mentoring on the use of smartphones to help improve their income from farming or microbusiness activities. In some states with high rates of female illiteracy, including Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh, women are being taught to use their phones by recognizing app icons and speaking into voice recognition systems.

The projects also focus on changing attitudes toward the idea of women owning and using smartphones, which still meets with resistance in some conservative communities. For instance, Lalita, who works as a seller in her community, thought that because she doesn’t speak English she would not be able to handle digital technology. However, through digital literacy training, she has learned the basic function of her phone and is active on social media and communication apps. She felt safer and confident with the ability to communicate with her son and transfer money without needing to go to a brick-and-mortar bank, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Friends of Women’s World Banking, India

The rapid spread of cell phone coverage with mobile Internet, along with the falling costs of smartphones, turned the idea of improving people’s lives through digital technology from a pipe dream to a serious proposition. “This program really came at the right time,” says Neha Kansara, program head at the Gujarat-based Friends of Women’s World Banking, India (FWWB). “Especially with the pandemic, technology is spreading so fast.”

The organization promotes microlending to support women’s small businesses and is using the WCC India award to expand its existing “Enabling technology for women micro entrepreneurs” program to assist 3,500 current or potential women micro-entrepreneurs in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Manipur with an increased emphasis on technology.

FWWB organizes classes for groups of 10 to 15 participants on skills like business planning, financial planning and marketing as well as the use of smartphones and apps. Topics include online payments, posting photos and promoting one’s business through a free account on a local social media group, and using free apps for record-keeping. In addition, experts from different micro-businesses mentor participants individually to help them better meet market demands in sectors like weaving, catering, tailoring, beauty care and handicrafts.

For example, through FWWB training Constance, a traditional jewelry maker, learned how to use digital technology to market her products and expand her customer reach. Since the training, she has created a business account on both Instagram and Whatsapp where she shares a digital catalog with prospective clients. She also maintains digital records on business income and expenditures.

Working in partnership with local NGOs and influencers, FWWB tries to persuade communities that when women improve their earnings, their families benefit too. “We understand low-income women may not be able to afford a smartphone immediately,” says Kansara. “But if they have access to one smartphone in the family, we are happy to teach them.”

Centre for Youth and Social Development (CYSD)

This WCC India grantee works primarily with tribal communities in Odisha. Its “transforming tribal women as digitally empowered enterprise leaders” project works with 6,600 women involved in harvesting non-timber forest products like tamarind, wild mango and sal tree seeds and leaves. The leaves are used to make eco-friendly dinner plates and bowls.

The women are part of 22 Indian government-sponsored collectives, each with 300 women, called Van Dhan Vikas Kendras (Forest Wealth Development Centers). CYSD has selected and trained 44 local “champions” who visit the collectives weekly to train their members in business planning and marketing along with smartphone use.

The Banashree app being developed by CYSD provides the women information on market prices and the minimum government support prices. Earlier, they did not have access to such information and would “sell their products too cheap,” says CYSD’s Sahoo.

The app also allows the sharing of inventory information with vendors and includes links to international marketing sites to provide new sales opportunities. In addition, the app provides information and videos on sustainable harvesting methods and ways producers can add value to their products. For example, removing the seeds from the tamarind fruit increases its market value four-fold, thus improving female vendors’ financial independence and providing additional incentive for women in the collectives to adopt the Banashree app.

“We want to help tribal women ride the digital wave that middle class Indians already have and use it for their economic empowerment,” says Ashish Kumar Jalli, project lead at CYSD.

TechnoServe India

The India branch of the Virginia-headquartered nonprofit organization works in rural areas to foster entrepreneurship, support sustainable local economic development, strengthen value chains and promote gender-inclusive communities. TechnoServe India is using the WCC India award for its “bridging the digital divide in Bikaner, Rajasthan” project, an expansion of an existing project supporting small growers of guar, or cluster beans, which is used in cosmetics, food production and medicines, among other products.

The initiative provides training and support to 1,600 women guar farmers. “The majority are unable to read and have never used a mobile phone,” says Jaspreet Gurm, program director at TechnoServe. The project has 80 women digital advocates, who are each responsible for 20 participants. The advocates get one day of training each month. They then go door-to-door, training others to use smartphones and access information like daily market prices to help them decide when to go to market, as well as weather apps to guide decisions on when to plant or harvest.

The advocates teach participants to recognize various app icons, and to use voice recognition to search for information. “We have seen many women use voice typing, for example, to search for photos and videos about different types of stitching” to improve small tailoring businesses, says Gurm. Overall, participants feel more confident in their abilities to be independent. “It feels amazing when I see a woman using a smartphone without taking any help from others,” says Gaytri, a training participant.

The project includes 800 men from among the families of the women participants, teaching them the same skills and increasing social acceptance of women in the community using smartphones.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the wider program used cell phones to send out farming advice to guar cultivators. Gurm says extending such help to women farmers and micro-entrepreneurs “has great potential to improve lives.”

Across the country, WCC India awardees support women’s economic opportunity and empowerment, social inclusion, and breaking down the digital gender divide.

Burton Bollag is a freelance journalist living in Washington, D.C.


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