A friend indeed

Alisha Shinde
Sunday, 11 August 2019

Google India and Tata Trusts’ Internet Saathi is trying to bridge the digital gender divide in rural India and driving a positive change in the communities

When Google Internet Saathi was launched as a pilot project in Rajasthan in July 2015, Google and Tata Trusts announced their ambitious plan to scale the programme to cover 3 lakh villages across India. In its four-year journey, the programme has reached the length and breadth of the country, covering 20 states. Today, 70,000 fully trained Internet Saathis are making a positive change in their communities and the programme has already benefited over 2.6 crore women. The programme has contributed towards bridging the digital gender divide in rural India, and now expands to cover two new states — Punjab and Odisha. 

In Punjab, the programme will cover around 5,000 villages, starting from Paras Rampur, Kotli Than Singh, Burj, Vehra, from Hoshiarpur and Kapurthala districts. In Odisha, the programme has kicked off from Sindhia in Baleshwar, Parakana in Puri, Bhuinpur in Kendrapara, and will cover 16,000+ villages. 

Telling us more about the initiative, Neha Barjatya, Chief Internet Saathi, Google India, says, “Even as India has taken the lead to become the fastest growing internet user market in the world, the net is still dominated by male users. When we started Internet Saathi in 2015, the situation was much worse in rural India where only 1 among 10 internet users was a woman.” 

They are creating women change agents in villages who become role models. Using ‘train the trainer’ model, they train and equip women from within the villages with smartphones and tablets and these women further go on to teach other women in their own/ nearby villages on internet usage basics and how one can benefit from it. 

“Apart from not having access to a smartphone and little knowledge of the internet, mindset barriers like how the internet is perceived to be a negative influence on women prevented them from using it. To overcome these barriers, Internet Saathi was launched,” explains Barjatya.  

Internet Saathi or Internet Friend is modelled around India’s traditional information/ communication distribution system where Internet Saathis are akin to the village postman who is the single point of contact for the village with the outside world both in terms of information as well as communication. 
In recent times, digital literacy has become important especially with regard to women’s empowerment. “When a diverse group uses the internet, the online world becomes relevant and useful to more people and the programme has shown us that with the right opportunities, there is no limit to what women can achieve,” says Barjatya adding that  their needs and usage of the internet has been very different from the usage patterns seen in urban India. 

Rural women use the internet to access information for their daily needs like the weather, government policies, health, education, farming and even to find different ways of up-skilling themselves by learning more about stitching, designing and the crafts. 

“It is remarkable to see the passion of women in rural India, who are learning about the Internet, not just for their own needs but for their families, kids and their communities. While some have gone ahead and started their own micro-business, many others are empowering their families and communities with new skills to enhance their livelihood, and then there are those who are creating awareness for issues like girl child education, menstrual hygiene and so on,” she says. 

Barjatya is of the opinion that digital narrative can change the future of rural India, in a way that is beneficial to them in terms of education, infrastructure and even health. “Today, Internet Saathis have become agents of change within their communities, and we have heard many amazing transformational journeys along the way and what’s heartening to note is that the social and cultural barriers that restricted them in the start, have not diminished their passion to learn new skills, and explore new opportunities. It is in this pursuit that they see the internet as a force to learn and create a better future for their family,” says Barjatya.  

Talking about the four-year journey as chief Internet Saathi, Barjatya says, “I’ve met hundreds of saathis from across the country over the past few years and there is one consistent theme I always hear: ‘Ab hum bhi kuchh kar sakte hai, hamesha kisi ke bharose nahi baithe rehne padega’. This is because the internet has given these women hope by giving them access to information and opportunities.” 

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