Let me begin with some statistics. There is a wide gender disparity in the literacy rate in India: Effective literacy rates in 2011 were 82.14% for men and 65.46% for women. (Source: Wikipedia)
This low literacy level in women has had dramatic socio-economic impact in areas as diverse as family planning to economic status of the family. Girls frequently drop out of school, especially on attaining puberty, for various reasons including lack of basic sanitation, the risk of travelling to schools through empty fields and deserted areas, the need to take care of younger siblings at home, or just to lend a hand with the farming, cooking, and the other multitude of household chores. While we may scream patriarchy, these are very real ground truths that women face on a daily basis. Being economically dependent on their male family members takes away their ability to make or express their choices.
Against this backdrop, we have initiatives like the Sunhara Walmart project which is an agricultural development and empowerment initiative that works with 2,500 women farmers in Ghaziabad and Agra on overall socioeconomic empowerment. The project, implemented by Agribusiness Systems International (ASI) with funding from the Walmart Foundation, has implemented eLearning centers to counter constraints that women face, such as illiteracy, transportation difficulties, and low market prices. In another endeavor, the International Centre for Entrepreneurship and Career Development (ICECD) has been helping women develop an entrepreneurial inclination and has launched an eLearning module for training women in 2,000 villages across the state of Gujarat. The fact that eLearning is being seen as an alternate mode of making the necessary education and skills accessible to women brings a ray of hope and is the context for the rest of the article.
Before I launch into “futurespection,” let me counter some probable arguments head on. It’s true that there are many villages in India that lack the most basic of amenities like electricity, clean drinking water, and passable roads. Acknowledging these challenges, I’d still like to make a case for eLearning in re-skilling women, especially at this juncture where India is truly at an inflexion point. Only by envisioning a future that is different from the past or the present can we hope to attain it.
It’d be impractical to think that eLearning will penetrate remote villages immediately, or that women will take to it like ducks to water. However, India is at the cusp of a socio-technology revolution. Digital India is an initiative of the Government of India to ensure that government services are made available to citizens electronically by improving online infrastructure and by increasing Internet connectivity. The initiative includes plans to connect rural areas with high-speed Internet that includes an ambitious plan of broadband in 2.5 lakh (250,000) villages and universal phone connectivity. With focused thinking and concentrated effort, re-skilling of women through eLearning can ride this transformational wave, and make education accessible to lakhs (hundreds of thousands) of women across the country.
I will venture to lay down a few considerations in this context. To make re-skilling women a possibility, eLearning providers and learning designers will have to collaborate with the government and work at the grassroots levels to identify the necessary skills and delivery model. We often make the mistake of assuming in isolation that we know what will be needed. This would be a grave mistake. Women in India face a multitude of challenges when it comes to accessing education and other basic needs—these can be as disparate as the issues mentioned above and also reflect the impact of caste, patriarchy, economic condition, and so on. Design and dissemination of eLearning needs to be sensitive to the varied conditions and contexts of Indian women. The vast diversity of the country adds to its richness as well as complexity. Therefore, it would be naïve to imagine that a set of standard eLearning modules distributed across various rural areas of different states will solve the problems.
What is required is perhaps a localized model with a centralized support where states and regions can work with eLearning providers, educationists, government bodies, and financial supporters to design programs unique to the needs of that region. While the aim would be to educate women, such an initiative can take care of a multitude of other factors including a serious dearth of trained teachers (India faces a shortage of an estimated 1.4 million trained teachers with some states worse hit than others), lack of infrastructure that comprises something as important and basic as clean water and sanitation, unavailability of quality textbooks, and other social challenges.
Given this context, thoughtfully designed and targeted eLearning modules can be used as a base to educate both girls and boys and men and women around various aspects that are critical to the well-being of the community. These range from basic literacy to family planning, entrepreneurial skills, techniques of modern farming, etc., depending on the target audience. eLearning modules could be designed to also address deeper and more fundamental issues of caste and religion to sensitize and raise awareness—not to preach or moralize. The dissemination model needs to be thought through carefully as well, since a majority of rural households will lack access to computers. A community approach where women can congregate at a central point of convenience to all may be more likely to work. However, that day is still far away. The strategy, methodology, and the roadmap needs to be laid down with a clearly articulated implementation plan for the projects.
With the passage of the Companies Act, 2013, the mandate for corporate social responsibility (CSR) has been formally introduced to the dashboard of the Boards of Indian companies. This can be the necessary boost to initiatives around education that corporations willingly contribute to. One of the clauses therein states:
“With effect from April 1, 2014, every company, private limited or public limited, which either has a net worth of Rs. 500 crore or a turnover of Rs. 1,000 crore or net profit of Rs 5 crore, needs to spend at least 2% of its average net profit for the immediately preceding three financial years on corporate social responsibility activities.” (1 crore is equivalent to 10 million.)
I am no policy maker or government strategist. Nevertheless, as someone dedicated to the cause of learning and who professes to be a lifelong learner and also a woman, it’s but natural to think of ways and means by which women of this country can grow and flourish. At this juncture, quite a few things seem to be almost prophetically coming together. Namely, the revised Companies Act, the Digital India program, the involvement of the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) in CSR discussions to advocate for skill development in collaboration with various Sector Skills Councils, and a multitude of NGOs like Teach for India who work with communities at the grassroots. All can come together to co-create and define the roadmap and help lay down the much-needed strategy to educate and empower women in a manner that takes education to them, making it accessible and contextual, helping to delineate a life that has so far been elusive.
African proverb: If you educate a man you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate a family (nation).
Why they Drop Out: Reasons for Lower Literacy Among Girls by Veena KulkarniAn overview of CSR Rules under Companies Act, 2013