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I See A Phone In My Brother’s hands & Wonder If I’ll Get To Use One

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“Why do our girls need access to digital devices?”, “Cooking, cleaning, and looking after the house is all they have to do after all!”, “Why does she need a mobile phone? She will be getting married soon anyway!”

As archaic as these statements might sound to some, this is the reality in most families in remote villages in Uttar Pradesh, where using digital devices like mobile phones is considered taboo for young women.

Image of a child holding a phone and writing in a notebook while studying.
Representative image.

According to a recent survey, only 20.5% of young girls have access to digital devices in the state, compared to 79.5% of young boys. This gender digital divide is alarming, especially in the current times when virtual learning has become the new normal.

As a result, many young girls have to drop out of school, are pressured into getting married early, or stay at home. It affects their learning outcomes and restricts their ability to participate in the workforce. As a result, the female labour force participation rate in Uttar Pradesh is just 13.5%.

With the gig economy becoming popular, it has opened up many more opportunities during the pandemic, especially for young women to work from home. Moreover, it allows them to explore alternate livelihood opportunities as mobility constraints are no longer a cause of concern.

This might sound like a good option for young women settled in urban cities having unrestricted access to digital devices and the internet. But how accessible is this option to a young woman living in a remote village in Uttar Pradesh?

Recently, a program called Swarambh was started by Medha, a non-profit working in this region, to encourage more young women from rural pockets in the state to become digitally literate and explore the gig economy. They have worked with 161 women so far and equipped them with digital literacy, financial literacy, and local market research skills. As a result, 83% of these young women completed freelancing projects with Miraky, Manthan Foundation, and Kudabazar.

However, the real story lies behind these numbers. The Swarambh team shared how challenging and arduous it was to counsel the communities in villages like Mirzapur, Dashrathpur, and Bhadohi to train the young women living there.

Firstly, permissions had to be secured from the village Pradhans and local governing bodies to enter the village. After receiving permission, they started a door-to-door campaign to inform people about the program and benefit young women. But this was a difficult journey.

They faced intense backlash from the community, which was extremely resistant to the idea of making their girls digitally literate and financially independent. In addition, the families believed that giving access to mobile phones and other devices would negatively influence their girls, perhaps also encouraging them to run away from home.

One of the participants from the program shared, “I used to see a mobile phone in my brother’s hands and used to wonder, will I ever get to use one?

To bond with the community and gain their trust, the team participated in their family functions and local rituals and mingled with them regularly. They sat down with family members and explained how technology could be used in a safe manner without causing any harm to their daughters.

After four months of persistent efforts, the team observed a shift in the mindset of a few families. These families were now willing to explore the possibility of letting the young women in their houses participate in the Swarambh program.

Another participant shared, “Now we know how to create and operate a Facebook business page or an Amazon account, where we can sell products we make. Also, we feel we are more informed about what is happening outside of our village, as we watch trending news videos and reels made by other people.

A Swarambh session in progress. Source: Medha

Some of these young women have bigger dreams, like wanting to be a police officer or a History professor. While they figure out a way to pursue their dreams, working on temporary freelancing projects in the gig economy can be a good way to gain self-confidence and agency.

Programs like Swarambh are very much the need of the hour, but it remains to be seen how effective they are after the team exits the field. For example, would these young women continue to be ‘allowed’ to own a mobile phone or a laptop in the future by their families?

Sensitizing and counselling a community requires a lot of time and effort, as illustrated above. Can programs like Swarambh maintain this level of engagement with communities as they work with new villages, especially in the pursuit to scale up and reach more young women?

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