Women break free in rural Maharashtra, get appsolutely phone-smart

Tabassum Barnagarwala
Maharashtra, Maharashtra rural smartphone, smartphone penetration rural India, rural Maharashtra, Maharashtra State Commission for Women, smartphones, mobile in villages, digital villages, india news
Maharashtra, Maharashtra rural smartphone, smartphone penetration rural India, rural Maharashtra, Maharashtra State Commission for Women, smartphones, mobile in villages, digital villages, india news

In Palghar, a training session has over 200 women from nearby villages. (Express)

In rural Maharashtra’s Daregaon village, a 16-year-old girl last month used her phone to register an online complaint on the Tejaswini application against a local boy who was sexually harassing her.

In the nearby Ramnagar village, Neeta Nene learnt how to upload all identification documents on Digilocker.

Neeta’s neighbour Radha Kishore now uses Google Assistant to see recipes.

And Sangeeta Satpute spends most of her spare time searching about the online dairy market, and how to sell her cattle produce in Jalna.

The Maharashtra State Commission for Women has started giving digital training to rural and tribal women to make them self-sufficient in using the Internet to pay utility bills, access government schemes, and register complaints online.

All that they need is a smartphone. Since November, 50 workshops for 1,000 women have been held across Maharashtra. The Commission plans to finally organise 450 workshops for 1 lakh women.

In Wada, a town in the tribal Palghar district some 90 km from Mumbai, Akshata More (39) was ready with a notebook and pen to take copious notes in a panchayat hall with 200 other women during one such workshop.

Several women had brought their husbands’ phones for the day.

More has a basic smartphone, and only knows how to dial a number. She does not understand what the Internet is, but plans to teach her three daughters, the eldest aged 18, its use for online education material.

As the session begins, trainer Komal Jadhav starts with explaining the difference between smartphones and ordinary ones, and teaches the basics of using a smartphone — taking pictures, connecting to WiFi, setting up wallpaper.

Jadhav then moves on to a more complex operation: how to download a mobile app. As she gives step-by-step instructions, the women are glued to their mobile screens, asking each other about which icon to select. Some without a phone make notes to later try it at home.

“I want to learn more about farming and how to sell our produce online. There are so many fertilizers to chose from. I thought I can learn how to use the Internet, and teach my husband,” said Archana Sambre (34), a villager in Wada.

Her neighbour Kanchan Palekar (24) is more digital savvy, she knows how to use WhatsApp. “But I want to learn more, all these apps that we can use for payments,” she said.

These women are being taught six mobile applications — Tejaswini, Bhim, Aaple Sarkar, Umang, NaMo, and Digilocker — apart from using Google Assistant. “One villager has started using Google Assistant to even set alarms,” said Gracy Cardozao, project incharge at the women’s Commission. The Commission has trained 50 women to give digital training, and each is paid Rs 3,000 per session.

After every workshop, spanning over four hours, the women are added on a WhatsApp group, and given daily exercises. Says trainer Usha Shinde, from Jalna, “There is excitement in middle-aged women to learn more. Every day we ask them to try something new on phone, make a digital payment or scan and upload documents. Those who face problems are given step-wise assistance.”

39-year-old Manasi Sawant, a villager in Palghar, said: “My son knows how to use a smartphone, but never had time to teach me. I want to learn how to make calls, chat on WhatsApp, so that I don’t need to rely on my children for help.”

Kamini Waghat (23), who came along with her newborn baby, said learning how to use the Internet will help her family in farming. “There are new techniques on the Internet about farming. We can now use it to improve produce without relying on the local administration,” she said.

While the Umang app provides information on 440 government schemes, the Bhim app is useful in making digital payments. Maharashtra’s Aaple Sarkar provides a portal to register complaints against government officials.

“On the Tejaswini app, women can register complaints of sexual or domestic violence, or workplace harassment. Several women fear reaching out to the village panchayat,” said Vijaya Rahatkar, Chairperson of the women’s Commission.

For trainer Usha Shinde, the best outcome of digital training has been the motivation it has provided to two schoolgirls, aged 15 and 16, in her village Daregaon.

“Both registered sexual harassment complaint on that app. A few boys in school were sexually harassing them. They could not dare to approach police. But after I taught them these apps, they quietly registered a complaint on the Tejaswini app,” Shinde said.

The only hiccup in these sessions has been with the NaMo app — the first app that these women are taught to remain updated with news about Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It is 50 MB in size, and takes up 30-45 minutes to download in poor network regions.