Home / Opinion / Online-views /  Mobile phones empower women

The week before last, I was having one of those regular conversations with Sunil Jaglan, the sarpanch who has been more in the news than perhaps our prime minister, more recently for his innovative idea of “selfie with your daughter" campaign to save daughters and against female foeticide. Sunil and his panchayat village, Bibipur, Haryana have been part of our digital panchayat movement since 2011. And he was one of the first sarpanchs to come forward and create his panchayat website among the 500 panchayats that we brought online.

Sunil is a true digital native, never short of ideas on how a digital tool or intervention could make an impact on society and communities. He dropped in with two requests: One was to come to Bibipur to judge a story-writing competition on the topic, ‘How the mobile has made critical contribution in her life’; and to establish a Community Information Resource Centre (CIRC) in his village.

The event was on 5 July and the competition was actually organized by CABI (Commonwealth Agriculture Bureau International) and hosted by Kisan Sanchar and Bibipur panchayat. The competition was limited to the women of Bibipur village and the purpose was to gather the maximum number of real-life stories from girls and women who use mobile phones.

From the 1,200-household village of Bibipur, where each and every house is built with concrete; where each home has cattle that live inside the concrete houses, side by side with their owners; where all the village roads are concrete; where most adult and married women always hide their faces under their colourful stoles; where almost all women carry fodder and dung on their head; where the village entry gate says: “Bibipur—The Women’s World"; where at least 50 homes have a nameplate with a woman’s name along with their email address; where village functions have more women than men participating; where 76 women wrote stories and participated in the contest. Of the 76 storytellers—all in Hindi—28 were schoolgirls, 11 were housewives, nine older than 55 years of age, three completely illiterate and seven who asked somebody else to write their stories. The rest were youth.

Out of the six finalists who were supposed to narrate their stories in front of an audience of about 200, we were supposed to choose three as winners with rankings based on narration, depth, intensity and originality of the story. I want to share with you just the two stories that took my breath away.

“It is a story of the time when I was in grade 10. It was an evening of big celebration. There was a marriage ceremony in Bibipur village, people were dancing, the music band was on high pitch, and firecrackers were making a loud noise. I saw a firecracker roll away from the hand of a person and he did not notice. Curious, I picked it up and kept it as a treasure, not knowing then that it was actually an unfired firecracker. One day my father saw me playing with it. He asked me to throw it away. I thought what could be a better place to throw it than the home stove (shove it in the kitchen chulha). I ran into the kitchen, my mom was cooking something on the homemade chulha; I wanted to ensure that I not just throw it away but completely destroy it so that my father was satisfied. I threw the firecracker inside the stove, and there you go, ‘boom’. My mother was hurt badly, she was bleeding and seeking help. Totally frightened but somehow conscious, I picked up my mother’s mobile and called my father and relatives who immediately took my mother to hospital—she was saved, but her trembling hand still reminds me of the accident. But it was the mobile which I believe saved my mother’s life and I give full credit to the mobile as the most essential tool to a human being. Mobile par hogi jis ki command, duniya mein hogi uski demand (Those who will have command over the mobile will be always in demand)," is the slogan with which Manisha More ends her narration.

The next story should actually be read in its original Hindi. It’s a heart-warming love story: “As a young girl, every woman dreams to get a prince for herself. Although I also know that not more than 10 out of 100 get the life partner who is more a friend than a husband. But I am one of those 10% lucky ones to whom God and mobile have gifted that prince of dream, who, more than husband, is a friend. We are two sisters and a brother; my father is a small-time farmer whose earnings are very limited. Somehow he managed my education and also got me trained for ANM (Auxiliary Nurse Midwife) course. The responsibility of my marriage and people’s demand for dowry was bothering my father a lot. Incidentally, in the village itself, there is a lady who told my parents about Naresh, a fellow villager, as a prospect for me. She also said to my parents that he won’t be interested in a dowry, which none of us believed. Yet, I took the mobile number of Naresh from the lady whom we call Mausi. When I talked to Naresh, I just could not believe that his thinking and belief were so refreshing. He never talked of dowry, and we both found a friend in each other and started talking to each other on the mobile everyday. In fact, our love and relationship developed and matured on the mobile and we finally got married. We now have a baby and we give credit to our life partnership to the mobile." That was Rabina, narrating her story in a bright yellow dress with her face covered.

Manisha took the first prize ( 25,000), and Rabina got the second prize ( 15,000). Both are under 25. They both spoke for the first time on a stage before a big audience, but if they are the faces of the future of women in our villages, I am quite perplexed: how many villages and their elders are going to be comfortable with this kind of confidence among their girls and women? Do we need every panchayat to emulate Sunil Jaglan and do we make every panchayat digitally enabled? The answer lies in leadership and common sense.

Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan and mBillionth awards. He is also a member of working group for IT for the masses at the ministry of communication & IT. Tweet him @osamamanzar

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