Women are stepping up in India’s off-grid rural communities

In India’s north-east, in its rural off-grid villages where electricity has barely lit a single light bulb something truly beautiful is taking place. Women and girls from tribal communities, many former forest dwellers, once hunter-gathers, where resilience thrives, are inspiring each other through a communal space very new to them – the internet.

This article is an extract from UPLIFT, a new film by Andrew Garton in association with the Digital Empowerment Foundation. UPLIFT traces the motivations, challenges and victories of the Foundation’s life among the downtrodden and unknown peoples of a continent where medieval communities and modernity finds both friction and fortune – heritage and triumph at the coal face of India’s information divide.

Below poverty line women find solidarity in Muzaffarpur

Indu Devi’s husband sold fish at the nearby markets in Muzaffarpur, a town in the Bajjikanchal region of Bihar. He fell ill, Indu describing it as a “brain disease”. Their family is now entirely dependent on her for their income. She is legally entitled to work at least 100 days per year on agricultural land. The work offered to her barely meets the quota allocated to all Indian’s who live below the poverty line.

Sanjay Sahni is an electrician. He works 10 days a month in New Delhi and spends the rest in the agricultural communities of Muzaffarpur. Within a dirt floor, stone and brick farm building Sanjay fires up a laptop, a single internet connection and loads up a government website. Every day for the rest of each month he will provide women like Indu, who stream in from off the fields all day, with labor market information; hours worked, how much they ought to have earned and what to do if employers rip them off. Plenty of them do. Many of these women are much worse off then Indu. Their husbands are abusive, refuse to work spending much of their days drunk, stoned or both. In spite of the harsh circumstances the women of Muzaffarpur are finding strength and solidarity directly as a consequence of knowing their labor rights.

 Sanjay Sahni, Indu Devi, Madina Begam
(L-R) Sanjay Sahni, Indu Devi, Madina Begam. Photo – Andrew Garton

Led by the formidable Madina Begam they have formed themselves into an organisation, the Samaj Parivartan Shakti Sansthan. They cry “solidarity” when talking about their strengths and when called upon will, as a group, humiliate husbands when their behavior becomes entirely unacceptable. They have come to protect each other.

A job card that every below the poverty line worker is entitled to and a single net connection has seeded a movement among the women of Muzzaffarpur, informed and emboldened them.

Basanti and Reena escape child marriage in Baran

In the once lush forests of Baran, in the southern region of Rajasthan, Basanti Bheel and Reena Sahariya tell me why the internet is so useful. “It’s great for fashion tips,” and burst out laughing. “Aloe vera is good for the skin!”

Basanti Bheel and Reena Sahariya
Basanti Bheel and Reena Sahariya. Photo – Jary Nemo

Now both in their late teens / early twenties it is incomprehensible to think that only a handful of years ago they were too frightened to speak. Both had attended a course at the Manomi Community Information Resource Centre (CIRC) where they learned how to use computers and the internet. They now teach there. Manomi is the home to a vast wireless broadband network established with the support of the Delhi based Digital Empowerment Foundation who also supports Sanjay Sahni’s work in Muzaffarpur.

Where barely a radio has been heard Basanti and Reena’s communities of former forest dwellers have access to video conferencing, telemedicine services, video on demand, email. Name it and they have it. Though they may adore aloe vera as any woman of their age might, both have high hopes for themselves and their communities. Basanti has already gathered around 500 women in her village to whom she shares information about women’s health issues, sanitation, general access to the internet and no doubt fashion tips.

Though child marriage is still rife in Rajasthan Basanti and Reena found that even a meager education ensured their escape from this practice. Both their families and friends are supportive of their new-found strength and commitment to helping other women.

It is women such as Indu, Madina, Basanti and Reena that are changing the perception of women in their villages. Small steps in a vast country.


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