On the outskirts of Delhi, near the Badarpur border with Haryana, lies Tajpur Pahari, a labyrinthine slum whose houses are made of rusted iron sheets, discarded clothing, and leftover wood from construction sites. The majority of the people here are daily-wage earners, and children do odd jobs instead of going to school. It stands in stark contrast to the towering buildings that dot the skyline of Jasola nearby. The disparity is not just economic and social, it is also digital: unlike upcoming suburban areas like Jasola, Tajpur Pahari does not even have proper power supply let alone Internet connectivity. The digital divide is wider for women, limiting their access to information, education, and job opportunities.
Hemlata, 18, was lucky to break the glass ceiling. Sitting inside her shanty, she uses her smartphone to post podcasts on gender inequality, a subject she is familiar with. An undergraduate student at Indira Gandhi National Open University, she dreams of a career in mass communication after a master’s degree.
The window to a wider world opened for Hemlata in 2019 after her fortuitous meeting with Free/Dem, an initiative of Ideosync Media which works on issues of media access and democratisation, and freedom of expression. Free/Dem offers 16 weeks of training in Digital Media and Information Literacy (DMIL) to individuals from disadvantaged sections of society. The trainees have to make a podcast, a video, or a photo story to prove their skills in what they have learnt. Based on the quality of the production, they are accepted as Free/Dem fellows.
“I was in Class 9 and had no real understanding of how to use a smartphone. The only phone in the family was with Papa, which he took with him to work. In the little time we had, we watched YouTube, played games, or took selfies,” said Hemlata, recalling the situation before Free/Dem helped her cross the digital divide.
Free/Dem offers two fellowships. The first one is for three months with a stipend of Rs.2,000. During this period, the fellows have to produce two podcasts or one video story. On completion they join the Free/Dem community fellowship under which roles and responsibilities increase. They get a stipend of Rs.5,000 every month upon completion of the assigned tasks. Free/Dem also lends smartphones to its fellows.
According to a report in Free/Dem’s website, Mohalle Ki Baatein (loosely translated as “conversations from the locality”) is one of six shows produced as part of the Free/Dem Community Podcasts, which provide a platform for marginalised communities, especially women and migrants, to share their lived realities using audio and video content. The shows are generally about gender equity, love, freedom of expression, human rights, and justice.
Hemlata’s podcasts named “Jeans aur Badtimizzi” (Jeans and rudeness), “Women and lack of privacy”, “Tajpur Pahari ki mahila” (Women of Tajpur Pahari), and “How to use Instagram safely” are available on the Free/Dem Community Podcast channel, which has had some 2,000 visitors so far.
Hemlata has a personal reason for making podcasts on women’s empowerment: she grew up facing gender inequality in her family and physical abuse from her father. She no longer has any communication with her father and lives in a crammed room with her grandmother.
The teenager made the bulk of her podcasts during COVID time, but she has not looked back since. She now earns a living and the Free/Dem fellowship helps pay her tuition fees.
But there was a time in her life when having a good phone itself was a luxury. “In our society, most girls don’t have phones and don’t know how to use them. Boys can get a smartphone easily,” said Hemlata, who started out with a second-hand phone her father bought for her.
- The digital divide between Indian men and women is still pronounced despite the government’s vigorous push for a digital revolution through the Digital India project. The digital divide is wider for women, limiting their access to information, education, and job opportunities.
- Free/Dem, an entity whose mission is to “connect marginalised voices to the mainstream”. Free/Dem offers 16 weeks of training in Digital Media and Information Literacy (DMIL) to individuals from disadvantaged sections of society.
- Hemlata and Lajwanti are two women who are now using technology to empower themselves and other women in the community. Hemlata makes podcasts on gender inequality. Lajwanti uses her skills learned by watching YouTube to earn money.
The digital divide between Indian men and women is still pronounced despite the government’s vigorous push for a digital revolution through the Digital India project. According to Oxfam’s “India Inequality Report 2022: Digital Divide”, fewer than 32 per cent of Indian women own a cell phone compared with 60 per cent of men.
The study further says that “women use digital services less often and less intensively, and they access the Internet less frequently, for fewer reasons”. They typically use phone calls or text messages to access digital services, and their handsets are less expensive and less sophisticated than those used by males. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-5 data also say that only one in three women in India has ever used the Internet, compared with more than half of the men.
It is here that organisations like Free/Dem chip in with their resources and strategies. More than bridging the digital divide, it helps empower women like Hemlata.
Hemlata believes that her limited knowledge of English is no more an obstacle in using smartphones. “You can set the setting to Hindi and give it directions and it’d do most of the work. Earlier, we were dependent on cyber cafes for even minor tasks. I couldn’t even fill out my college application forms as they were in English. But now, with guidance, I can do all these things easily,” said Hemlata.
Like her, Lawant’s digital journey started with Free/Dem. Every time she saw her children use their mobile phones to watch videos or play games, she yearned to do the same. She dreamed of having her own mobile phone, but her husband and children laughed at her. She refused to give up. Her life changed the day she bought herself a mobile phone during the pandemic.
“I came in touch with Free/Dem when it was holding a ‘choupal’ [a community meeting] in my lane. Slowly, I learned about concepts like networking and smartphones. I began to use smartphones for messages, as well as mobile apps and Facebook. My favourite app is YouTube, which helped me learn new skills like stitching saree blouses, cooking, and making masks during the lockdown,” Lajwanti told Frontline.
She has been using her skills in the past one year to earn money. As money started trickling in, the rest of Lajwanti’s family also joined the technology bandwagon. Now her husband, sons, and daughters have learned skills like painting, making leather accessories, and beautician and fashion designing work. “My daughter runs a parlour and even provides home services to her customers,” she said.
Apart from her family, Lajwanti has also used her tech skills to solve the problems of her slum. She runs Nari Shakti Sangathan, an organisation that aims to raise awareness on issues such as poor drainage, roads, and infrastructure in the locality. “I post videos of garbage in our area on YouTube and social media and tag the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. When there was a long power outage we would post about it on social media,” she said.
Lajwanti’s story is a remarkable example of how determination and resilience can help break down barriers. Despite getting married at the age of 13 and facing economic hardships, she was able to adapt to the changing times. “I had to fight with my children to teach me what they knew about technology and buying things online,” she said.
Like Hemlata, she uses Hindi on her smartphone. “I have taught the women of my area to call 100 for police and 112 for an ambulance. Every woman should know how to handle an emergency,” she said.
Lajwanti is outspoken against domestic violence and harassment of women. “Once a man beat up his wife and threw boiling water on her. She called me and I dialled the police,” said Lajwanti.
She also helps girls who are forced to marry against their will by their families. “It’s not a sin to marry a person of your own choice,” she said.
It is inspiring to see how women like Hemlata and Lajwanti are using technology to empower themselves and other women in the community. However, as studies show, there is still a long way to go in terms of ensuring that women can effectively use digital tools for their empowerment.
An NFHS study says that very few of even the women who possess a smartphone are able to use it effectively. Another study, by Evidence for Policy Design (Harvard Kennedy School), finds that the main reasons for this are cultural.
There is a perception that technology will “spoil” women, bring risk to family reputation, divert them from caregiving responsibilities, and make them revolt against patriarchal authority. However, in Taj Pahari, women like Hemlata and Lajwanti prove that power lies in having access to information at their fingertips.