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Taking technology to the grass roots

Rendering social service the hi-tech way

Gulf News

While last week’s Off the Cuff bemoaned the use of social media for what I regard as trivial purposes, I read with interest an article on a Bangladesh project which helps thousands of people living in impoverished villages access government services or even communicate with a loved one far away.

Now this is a use I can understand and appreciate. Here we have a group of ‘info ladies’ who pedal their way from one place to another, using laptops to bring government services to the doorstep of the villager.

The Info Ladies project was created in 2008. It recruits its workers — who are usually undergraduates from middle class rural families — and trains them for three months. So, these women can identify with the ones they set out to help. They are not city-slick dwellers who might intimidate simple village folk. They talk their language, dress like them, and their humble mode of transport, the bicycle, immediately makes them one of their own.

Reward enough

The smile on the face of a woman as she is introduced to the wonders of Skype and is able to see her husband’s face in a far away land is reward enough. This is so much better than waiting for an occasional phone call or the even rarer letter. The immediacy of contact far surpasses anything she has ever known.

(On a lighter note, among my group of friends there are many who keep in touch via Skype. The time difference between the continents they live in means that while some can be viewed in all their coiffed splendour, others, for whom it might be way past midnight, keep drawing attention to their state of dishabille and end up almost sounding resentful that they are not at their sartorial best. Hair standing on end and a ratty nighty aren’t the best fashion statements.)

There are young girls who look forward to the info lady’s visit as they can use her laptop to chat with friends on Facebook and exchange notes. This is a golden opportunity for them to use technology that they are well aware of but cannot afford to own.

These ladies provide a slew of social services. They talk to the village women on primary health care and subjects generally considered taboo such as contraception, HIV and menstruation.

They help people write letters of complaint in an effort to get grievances redressed. They inform them about the Right to Information Act. All this helps raise awareness about the options available and that there are solutions to most problems.

Audio-visual aids

They also offer advice to men on the correct use of fertilisers and insecticides and help students fill in college application forms.

We all know the impact of audio-visual aids and have witnessed their effectiveness in our academic lives. So, seeing a short documentary on the importance of hygiene or how to administer first aid is sure to get the message across in the shortest possible time. They say a picture speaks a thousand words and this is especially true here. The lessons learnt using such cues embed themselves more firmly in memory.

It is important, however, that these schemes are run by women as they can reach out to mothers and daughters in the remotest villages and help them understand how they can make a difference. Most of these women are unaware of the pivotal role they play and that it is they who are the warp and weft that binds the family together. If she doesn’t play her part, everything is likely to unravel.

There is nothing more satisfying than making a woman realise that she is a major driving force in society and her contribution is invaluable, whether it is her role as parent or caretaker of the family.