Women and the web

Written by  Swati Shinde

Janata Vasahat is a sprawling settlement that stretches across Parvati hill in the heart of Pune. Off the main road are over 100 neatly-demarcated lanes leading up the hill. From north to south the settlement runs 2.5 km. Over 10,000 dwellings are packed closely along these narrow lanes, steps leading higher and higher.

Most of the houses here are pucca dwellings, with kuchcha ones only in the farthest reaches of the 'slum' that epitomises urban India's aspiring middle class. Janata Vasahat is a whole universe -- with its own schools, tuition classes, computer classes, computer repair shops, bakeries, the ubiquitous beauty parlours, 25 anganwadis, its own police chowki -- even some homegrown gaming zones monopolised by kids.

In every second or third home in the relatively prosperous Janata Vasahat there seems to be someone who is connected, using the internet to download songs or Facebook. Most of them are teenagers or young adults. And male. The women we meet seem to know the internet only as something their brothers or other male relatives know about. They themselves seem to shy away from it. Haven't you seen all those TV serials like Crime Patrol, they ask. The internet is not safe for women.

The samaj mandir in this 60-year-old colony, where we were scheduled to conduct our internet literacy workshop for some of these women, turned out to be a big hall with shining white tiles, good ventilation, and several fans! We needn't have worried about finding a wall to project our videos on.

All was in place for the workshop on this hot Monday afternoon. Except the participants who had registered for it. They hung back, unsure. The participants we had signed up were all women, the ones who did not know what the internet was all about, or who had only vaguely heard about it. We went house to house, trying to persuade the women who were sitting idle outside their doors, chatting. What use is it to us, they asked, all this internet stuff. Bring your children along, we said. That worked: anything that would benefit their kids. We stared in some consternation at the number of noisy little kids who streamed in, but tried to focus on the adult women.

The participants watched the campaign videos and learning module keenly. They seemed surprised to find that the internet worked on most mobile phones, and that netpacks could cost as little as Rs 5.

It wasn't easy though getting the participants to use the tabs we distributed. Overcoming their diffidence and nervousness as one woman in each group took the lead, they finally began to handle the tabs with wonder.

We had a little competition on the group that could make the fastest searches on topics of their choice: mehendi designs and places they would like to visit. The internet connections of both the service providers we use were painfully slow in this settlement and we got a taste of the frustration that many users in these informal settlements report when they can't connect or stay up nights in order to surf because it's faster then. The other challenge was that almost all the participants could type only in Marathi and using the virtual Marathi keyboard on the tabs when you're not accustomed to them is really not easy.

By the end of the workshop, however, the participants opened up and got more adventurous with their devices. The chocolates we distributed as prizes for fastest-finger-first helped! Posted by Swati Shinde on May 19, 2014

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