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The recent diktat by a village panchayat in Uttar Pradesh's Baghpat, to ban women below 40 years from using mobile phones turns the spotlight on cellphones and their role, if any, in fostering women's development.
The popular consensus is that such diktats deal a blow to women's liberation coming as they have at a time when development agencies across the world have been promoting the use of mobile technology to empower women. From farmers in Gujarat to homemakers in Egypt, women from poor communities have been wielding mobile phones to educate themselves, draw linkages to markets and report violence.
Last year, a khap panchayat in UP's Muzaffarnagar had similarly banned young girls from using mobiles on the pretext that the devices were encouraging elopements and same-gotra marriages. So, are cellphones then the latest tipping point in the struggle for gender equality?
There is growing evidence that women themselves perceive cellphones as a tool of empowerment. Nearly nine out of ten women admitted to feeling safer, and more than eight in ten more independent, according to a study by the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women titled 'Women and Mobile: A Global Opportunity'. Over 2, 000 women from India, Egypt, Bolivia and Kenya were interviewed and the study found that 41 per cent of them believed that they had boosted their income or professional opportunities thanks to the gadget.
Take the example of the 1. 35 million-strong Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA), a trade union of informal women workers in India which has leveraged cellphones to financially benefit women farmers in Gujarat by networking them into SMS groups. Daily SMSes regarding spot and future commodity prices help the women determine the best price for their produce. The organisation has also created 'mobile entrepreneurs' among women owning phones by allowing others access to phone calls at an added cost.
The experience is similar to that of the Women of Uganda Network which constituted groups of women farmers in the East African country, giving one representative a cellphone to access market information. That individual would then disseminate price information or new agricultural practices to the group in local languages.
"We are living in the era of real-time communication and even conservative societies around the world are promoting cellphones among their women to boost micro-enterprises and economies, " believes economist Vibhuti Patel, pointing out that India is moving backward by isolating its women and imposing such restrictive controls, even if in just a few regions.
Indeed, many mobile-driven initiatives are silently transforming a woman's day-to-day life and nudging her out of isolated cocoons. There are of course limitations of infrastructure as well as literacy, but agencies are getting around.
In neighbouring Pakistan for instance, UNESCO along with a local telecom service provider piloted a project using SMSes to boost the literacy of rural teenaged girls who lacked access to reading material. The project handed out cellphones to 250 adolescents, enabling them to receive SMSes from teachers belonging to local NGO Bunyad on varied subjects. They were encouraged to read and write the messages and respond to their teachers. In another initiative in Mexico, agencies have used cellphones to anonymously network women living with HIV/AIDS into support groups. Called Project Zumbido, the initiative reaches out to stigmatised women and encourages them to open up, exchange their concerns and access counselling and medicine.
A UN report, 'Mobile technologies and Empowerment', also underlines how mobiles are being used to fight human rights violations. In Nigeria for instance, the Civil Liberties Organisation allows citizens to report torture by directly SMSing police. In Egypt too, an IT provider helps women collect photos and videos of harassment on mobiles to report violence.
As Akhila Sivadas, of the Delhi-based Centre for Advocacy and Research pointed out, any tool that allows women the power of communication and expression is a means of liberation. She likened the resistance to mobiles in villages to similar protests against women watching TV in the 1990s, and attributed both to a deeply set patriarchal culture that denies a woman her rights and looks to put her back into "a customary framework. "
It is time to re-examine our approach towards these newer manifestations of patriarchal control. While such views are clearly out of place in modern India, they can't be tackled by merely wishing them away. Even as they go about addressing basic caste and gender biases, it is essential for government agencies to help enable IEC (information, education and communication ) to go beyond mere tokenism. Instilling faith in its benefits is the only way of integrating people into processes of technological change and progress. After all, no technology can lead to emancipation unless it is backed by an enabling environment.
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