Joana met with Neha Barjatya, Head of Business Marketing & Digitizing India initiatives | Google India and asked her about the story behind Project Saathi.
What is Project Saathi? Where did the idea come from?
We started focussing on women’s digital literacy in 2013. At the time only 30% of internet users in India were women. We identified three main barriers: knowledge, awareness and access. Our focus was on urban women. Most women said they had no idea how to use the internet. They didn’t know how it could be useful to them and also lacked the means to get online.
They told us: “my husband uses the internet for work. My children grow up online. But when I ask either of them to teach me, they simply laughed me off and tell me it’s a waste of my time.“
As part of our campaigns we built a website with very simple learning modules, teaching women how to turn on a computer and other basic skills. We also created and curated content useful for women.
How did you tackle the gender divide in rural areas?
By 2015 we started to see a very positive shift in the country. In urban areas the growth rate of women surpassed those of men
Our focus shifted to the rural areas. Here the situation is much more difficult as access is a much larger issue. Many see the internet as a bad influence or do not know how it can be useful to them.
Rural India has a very communal lifestyle. We started handing out devices to a few selected women, teaching them how to use the internet. These women, the “internet saathis“ (saathi being the Hindi word for „companion“) then teach others in the community.
We had to change the training content drastically. Rural women have very basic needs. We identified useful areas such as cooking, farming, health and government benefits. Many other use cases really surprised us. I was in a village 45 minutes away from Agra, where the Taj Mahal is. A woman said: „I have never seen the Taj Mahal. “ She went online and saw it for the first time. It was magical.
With time the women realized the internet is not such a bad thing. They now enjoy looking at sacred places on google and use the internet to save a lot of money: they can fill out a government form online and sent it off, instead of taking the long, costly trip to the city.
The internet saathi is becoming the go-to person for information. They are raising the general awareness. The internet saathi might point out that there is a minimum daily wage and that they are not getting paid enough.
How many villages have you reached already and what is your goal?
So far, we have reached 60.000 villages and 2.6 Million women. But we want to reach 300.000, that is half of all Indian villages. Our partner, Tata Trust, is well established in rural India and they identify the right partners on the ground. We conduct the training, hand out 2 tablets or smartphones to the women and cover their data costs.
We see so many benefits. Not only for the women, but the whole community. Women are passing their knowledge on to husbands and kids. Many women have found jobs for their husbands online.
What is your relationship to the Indian government?
Whenever it makes sense to work with the government, we do so. There is a lot of collaboration going on at the state level. Digital inclusion is very important to the current government. With the recent demonetization, the government reached out to us and we started a financial literacy training for women.
The internet empowers the people who have access to it. Women are particularly affected by the digital divide, worldwide they are 12 per cent less likely to be connected than men. That needs to be changed! But how? Our study Bridiging the Digital Gender Gap describes reasons for the barriers and provides solutions to overcome them.