28/10/2016 2:53 PM IST | Updated 01/12/2016 11:33 PM IST

Meet The Rural Indian Women Who Are Teaching Their Villages About The Internet

Opening the window to the World Wide Web.

Google India
(From left to right) Internet Saathis P Bujji, Kiran Devi, Sunita, Seema Devi Prajapat and Indumati Mahato.

Seema Devi Prajapat starts work at 10.30 every morning, stepping outside her home with a smartphone and tablet to teach the women in her village of Baroda Meo in Rajasthan's Alwar district about the internet. The job is tougher than it sounds. It involves convincing family members who ask her why their female relatives need to learn about the internet and trying to explain the workings of the web to illiterate women who are encountering a smartphone for the first time in their lives.

Until a few months ago, Prajapat was in their boat. "I didn't know what the internet was either. I couldn't have imagined that I would ever use a smartphone in this life. My brother-in-law had a smartphone but he never let me use it," she told HuffPost India. "You will spoil it, he would say."

This changed ten months ago, when the 24-year-old was selected for Google's Internet Saathi programme which trains rural Indian women to become internet tutors and introduce other women in their villages to the uses and charms of the World Wide Web. But first, she had to convince her husband's family.

"My in-laws were unhappy when I wanted to join the project. Some elders said that they shouldn't allow it as I'd have to go to other's people houses. 'How will she maintain the family's honour?'" Prajapat recalled. "But my husband supported me. My younger sister backed me as well, promising to take care of my two sons, aged five and six." She was selected for the programme because she had earlier worked with the local self-help group called Ibtada, teaching the Hindi alphabet to unlettered women in her village.

Seema Prajapat
Seema Prajapat teaches a group of women in her village in Rajasthan.

Since becoming an Internet Saathi, Prajapat has introduced over 650 women in her village to the online world. She spends four to six hours on the project everyday, visiting an average of five to six houses. Since last month, she has started catching a bus to work in the neighbouring village of Kherala.

Initially, Prajapat faced a lot of resistance from men. "Kuch log bolte hain, 'mahilaon ko bigaad dogi, kya sikha rahi ho?' (Some people say, what are you teaching the women? You'll spoil them)," she recalled.

"Some people say, what are you teaching the women? You'll spoil them."

By way of a response, Prajapat would demonstrate how the internet could be used to access useful information, such as finding the right feed for their cattle. For instance, she told them that ajola, a waterborne grass, would be especially beneficial in increasing milk production. "Once a pregnant woman asked me about her diet," she said. "I told her that milk, curd and green vegetables would be good for her, but her family did not agree." At other times, elder women have asked her to show them pictures of famous sites and temples such as the Taj Mahal and the Karni Mata Temple. On seeing the image of a holy site, the women would fold their hands in devotion.

As a rule, photographs and videos are great ice-breakers. For first-time users, a session typically begins with lessons on switching the phone on and off, the benefits of the Google Voice search, which apps to use, how to take photos and use the calendar. Often, women are unable to learn in a single day and ask for her to come back.

Now, word about Prajapat's work has spread around the village. "People speak to their neighbours and tell them, that so and so's daughter-in-law comes with a smartphone, and do you know she even has a camera that takes photos and videos?" Prajapat says, giggling.

The Internet Saathi Project

Prajapat is part of a team of Internet Saathis, rural women who have been trained to teach their community about the benefits of the internet in their daily lives. The Internet Saathi Project was launched in July 2015, as a result of a partnership between Google India and Tata Trusts. While Google provides the technology and the tools to enable the learning process, Tata Trusts focuses on the education by partnering with NGOs.

The program started in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Jharkhand, and has expanded in scope since, involving 12,000 Saathis who have trained one million women across 25,000 villages in ten states. In the next few years, it aims to cover 300,000 villages, or half of the total number of villages in India, and train 30,000 women to become Internet Saathis.

"We thought about how we could leverage trained Internet Saathis for further advancement of others," Prabhat Pani, who heads the digital initiatives section for Tata Trusts, said. "We wanted to include them in our other initiatives."

The women selected for the programme have to be literate and have a basic understanding of the English alphabet. Most of them are in their 20s, and are chosen through partner self-help groups. This means that they already play a proactive role in their community.

"The use cases that are coming out of the villages are very much need-based. 'How can I improve my agricultural yield or learn more about prevention of diseases?' We started building a lot more relevance into the content. We have gone back to basics," Neha Barjatya, Project Head at Google's Helping Women Get Online initiative said. "You know, the postman used to be the window to the world for a lot of villages. That's what the Saathis are becoming more and more."

The women go through a two-day training, which ends with a test to check their level of proficiency. At the end, they are given an internet-enabled Android smartphone and tablet to help them stay connected and a training manual for reference. Some also get a specially-designed bicycle cart, although several Saathis say it is easier to walk instead. They get a stipend of ₹2,000 a month and attend regular follow-up meetings.

For many women, it is their first encounter with smartphones, so training starts with basic lessons such as how to switch a phone on and off, as well as how to swipe and tap on the touchscreen, and then moves on to lessons in watching videos, taking photos, accessing information and operating in local language and the benefits of the internet for women like them.

"When we were first given the device, I was afraid that I might break it, but the people who were working with us were very helpful," Manjulaben Naranbhai Gamar, an Internet Saathi from the Mahudi village in Gujarat said. "We learned how to search on the internet and they showed us a lot of videos. Now I've learnt how to make different kinds of purses and sewing designs through YouTube."

Over the course of the last year, the program has been modified and adapted to suit local needs. For instance, many women who can't read, prefer to use Google Voice Search in local languages, thus transcending literacy and linguistic barriers. Their questions range from which crops to grow, which insecticides to use, to the right animal feed and questions on cooking, new sewing designs, tips for kids. There are also questions on government welfare schemes, higher education in schools and colleges, and the nearest hospitals one could go to for medical treatment.

"We had to change our entire model from classroom to individual training, we had to rebuild our curriculum from scratch as what worked in urban areas, didn't really deliver any value in rural India," Barjatya said. The course was translated into local languages, with a toll-free call centre helpline offering support for queries from the Saathis. The women also meet once or twice a month to discuss their problems and give feedback. They also maintain comprehensive records of the women they were training and the training module level that they had reached.

The gender gap in internet access

The project was started with the aim of addressing the gender divide in internet access in India. According to the Internet and Mobile Association of India, only 12 percent of internet users in rural India are women, as compared to 29 percent in cities. On the world's largest social network, Facebook, 76 percent of the users in India are men and just 24 percent women, a disparity that is the worst in the Asia-Pacific region after Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The gender divide extends to ownership of mobile phones as well. According to mobile industry monitor GSM Association, Indian men were 62 percent more likely to be internet users than women and were 25 percent more likely to own a SIM card. Indian women who do own mobile phones, tended to own less expensive and more basic phones than men.

Only 12 percent of internet users in rural India are women, as compared to 29 percent in cities.

"Only 1 in 10 internet users in Rural India is a woman. Working along with our partners, we aim to create an enabling environment that empowers women in rural India," Sapna Chadha, Head of Marketing, Google India, wrote in a blog earlier this year. India is also an important market for Google, since only a third of its 1.2 billion people have access to the internet. This is going to change as the country is the world's fastest-growing smartphone market, which means more potential users for Google.

Google India

Breaking social barriers

In August, Prajapati made her first visit to Delhi, to visit the Google headquarters and interact with other Saathis, and to give feedback to those working on the project. Over the next few weeks, Prajapati sends me pictures of different groups of women she is teaching, hunched around a smartphone over WhatsApp.

It is here that she meets 28-year-old P. Bujji, an Internet Saathi who lives over 1,700 km away from Prajapat's village in Rajasthan. A resident of the Somavaram village near Vijaywada in Andhra Pradesh, she began working as an Internet Saathi six months ago. "I didn't know anything about the internet," Bujji said. "I thought it's what big companies and offices had. I never knew that it is even possible to get the internet in villages."

"I thought it was only big companies and offices that had internet. I never knew that it is even possible to get it in villages."

Married at the age of 16, Bujji became a widow at 23 and stayed at home with her parents who were initially against her joining the project. Yet she was keen to earn some money to raise her children. "When I told my family about the internet, they asked me why do you want to do it? It is a salesman's job. You need to take phones in a bag and keep going to a households in a cycle. Just sit at home, do your household work, why do you want to do all this?"

Google India
Bujji teaches a group of women in her village in Andhra Pradesh.

Today, Bujji manages two gram panchayats as a Saathi, sometimes even travelling at night on her bicycle. She uses WhatsApp, Chrome and YouTube, and recently even ordered a TV from Flipkart, adding that other villagers now also enquire about shopping for clothes and bags online. She says her teachings have helped enhance the skills and increase the income of several people. In her village, women often use the internet to learn about new recipes, stitching designs, mehendi and hairstyles, while students use it to check their exam results and look for new colleges. Other villagers look for information about MNREGA, land and survey records, bus timings, ticket bookings, and internet banking. Naturally, photos and videos are very popular.

Just as in Prajapat's experience, it takes a lot of convincing to allow families to let the women in the house learn from Bujji. While it is the men who mostly control smartphone usage, things are changing now. "Women are challenging the men in their family that they also know how to use the internet, especially WhatsApp and Facebook," Bujji said. In turn, a lot of the women in her village have now saved and bought smartphones.

Beyond the opportunities that they bring to people in their villagers, the biggest change in the lives of the Internet Saathis is their newfound sense of self-respect and confidence in themselves. "They have become the go-to person for anything related to the internet in their villages," Google's Barjatya said. Becoming an Internet Saathi is a way to break social barriers and a step towards independence.

"Now, people welcome me in their house, give me a chair to sit and even offer me a cold drink. So I got money, as well as respect."

Born in the Dalit Mala/Madiga caste, Bujji often faced discrimination and restriction on entering houses. "After becoming a Saathi, everyone welcomes me in the house, gives me a chair to sit and even offers me a cold drink. So I got money, as well as respect. That's why I want to do this job."

Prajapat has a similar story tell. "There was a kind of awakening in my village," she says. "They were all ignorant, but have now become aware of what the internet can do." Her voice cracks with emotion each time she talks about her work and her desire to learn more about the internet, especially filling forms and online shopping.

During our last phone conversation, she reveals that her studies had been interrupted after she got married. She is now preparing to give her 12th class examinations at the end of the year, and often uses her phone to check her exam papers and study. "I really enjoy my work," she says. "I always wanted to study more and move ahead so that my family and the entire village could be proud of me."

(With inputs from Ivan Mehta)