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Women Entrepreneur

Manthan 2015 – churning the pot of gender disparity

Madanmohan Rao
8th Dec 2015
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Every year, the Manthan Award recognises and celebrates digital innovators who use ICTs for social empowerment across South Asia (see my writeup on the winners from 2015, 2014 and 2013).

The awards event this year also included an ‘unconference,’ where, instead of prepared presentations, the winners and finalists of the awards categories gathered together to share lessons, achievements, best practices, challenges and recommendations for the road ahead. Here are some takeaways from the brainstorming which I had the opportunity to facilitate, on women and digital empowerment. The winner of this category was FeminismInIndia.com, and special mentions went to UN Women and Project Sampark (Telenor India).

Session-participants

Achievements

FeminismInIndia.com has published 250 articles on women’s empowerment by 57 writers, and has 2,000 followers on Twitter as well as 15,000 on Facebook. “Many authors have been inspired and committed enough to write with their real names and not anonymously,” said founder Japleen Pasricha.

The United Nations has created a one-stop site for holistic information on women and empowerment. 11,000 users from 190 countries have registered, according to Anju Pande, Program Specialist at UN Women. Content is available in five languages, on topics ranging from workplace issues and entrepreneurship to policy formulation and statistics.

Mobile operator Telenor India has launched an initiative called Sampark, to support women’s access to mobile phones and accounts. “The initiative covers 89 villages, and has roped in over 40,000 new women subscribers,” according to Ashima Kukreja, Head of Social Responsibility at Telenor India.

Their call centre, called DIAL, employs 35 women. Forty women promoters offer handholding skills to bring more women on board the mobile network, via a programme of systematic socialisation. The initiative has been supported by industry lobby GSMA as well.

The discussion at Manthan 2015 included other women entrepreneurs such as Ritu Gorai, founder of Jamm’s, an online support group for mothers. Jamm’s has also offered haircuts for underprivileged children and bought canes for the blind, according to Gorai.

Challenges

These achievements have not been without their challenges, according to the award-winning women entrepreneurs. The foremost challenge includes the male mindset of bias against women’s rights, denying them the basic rights of ownership of mobile phones or access to telecom services. There are also women apologists for such male power, under the guise of protecting culture and tradition.

Women also need training in the use of the wide range of digital technologies, and more data is needed on the tech adoption, online communication and content creation activities of women. More representation of women is also needed in lofty initiatives such as Digital India.

From an implementation point of view, project practitioners cite that it takes a lot of effort and skill to identify the right kinds of change agents for community empowerment. There are also social media restrictions which hamper the use of imagery about violence against women.

Finally, social media is a double-edged sword, opening the door to empowerment as well as online harassment, stalking, bullying and cyber-crimes against women.

Best practices

The women activists also shared a range of best practices which work well towards digital empowerment. Social media campaigns via Tweetathons and Twitterchats can be very effective. Branding, effective imagery and the choice of champions (‘sheroes’) have helped amplify the messaging.

Offline techniques like street plays and other interventions have carried the cause to wider audiences. Involving men and boys have shown how they can also contribute to solutions. Communication campaigns have worked better when they are focused and not too broad, with specific outcomes and implications in mind. Partnership with other organisations, such as youth communities, has helped connect with other audiences.

Good examples of such empowerment initiatives include Graam Vaani (with programmes such as ‘Do you think Rani should go to school?’), Safety Pin (safety app for women) and Khabar Leheria (village news about women).

Recommendations

The brainstorming session ended with a specific set of recommendations for the development community, policymakers, corporates and aspiring social entrepreneurs. At the highest levels, all major corporate and national policies need to have gender sensitivity and inclusion embedded in them, and not tackled as an afterthought.

Regular monitoring, accounting and enforcing of gender inclusion in these initiatives need to be carried out in a systematic and transparent manner. Better data on women in tech needs to be gathered and disseminated.

At an industry level, more cooperation is called for between the hardware, software and telecom sectors. At a deeper level, more involvement and enrolment of women are needed in STEM education. At the rural level, more women need to be involved and trained as heads of community service centres.

Decision flows in urban and rural organisations and community networks should be clearly mapped, so that gender roles can be identified and allotted in an equitable manner. Women should be regarded not just as consumers or users of digital media but as content creators and tool developers as well.

Finally, such forums should extend beyond the usual ‘Delhi circuit’ to the far corners and remote areas of India, and the outcomes of such deliberations should be made available in local languages as well.

These recommendations were displayed and presented at the Manthan 2015 conference, and the winners were acknowledged and honoured at the awards ceremony. We look forward to the implementation of such recommendations on a priority basis, and to tracking the progress made by the next Manthan Awards in 2016!

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