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Press 1 for corruption

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FOR WOMEN, BY WOMEN: Female tech experts teach college girls and social workers the use of video cameras and web design software

A poor, unlettered woman from Mirzapur district in Uttar Pradesh is asked to fork out Rs 800 after her delivery at a government-run district hospital. She protests. She is not required to pay anything and is, in fact, eligible to receive Rs 1, 400 under a government scheme to promote institutional deliveries, she tells the staff nurse. The nurse shrugs and says everyone pays for mithai, warning her that they will not give her the discharge papers if she makes a noise.

The woman scrambles through her tattered bag for a brochure and dials the toll free number printed on it. A man's voice greets her in crisp Bhojpuri and reels off various options to help her report the "bhrashtachar" (corruption). Press 1 if you were asked for a bribe for admission, 2 if asked to pay for delivery, and so on. She presses 2. Nearly 350 km away at a computer in the Lucknow office of women's rights organisation Sahayog, a red light starts flashing at the GPS location of the hospital on a map. There are many such red dots littered across the screen.

Sahayog is mapping corruption in the public health system as part of its campaign 'Mera swasthya, meri awaaz' (My health, My voice) to safeguard women's health rights. The NGO is assessing the implementation of the centre's Janani Shishu Suraksha Yojna which aims to lower the maternal and infant mortality rate by providing various incentives to women to deliver at hospitals. Moreover, Sahayog also tries to intervene when women are at risk due to medical negligence. If a woman presses 0 - it signals that she is in a situation which might result in her death or her child's death and no action is being taken by the medical staff - the interactive voice response system connects her to a designated local social worker. He or she then alerts the district health authorities, who ensure the woman is attended to.

Considering there are 48 public health centres and around 35 lakh women in Mirzapur and Azamgarh - two backward districts where the pilot phase is underway - it would have been too mammoth an exercise to undertake were it not for technology.
A women's empowerment group fittingly called FAT (Feminist Approach to Technology), has made the technical linkup possible. "Many women's organisations are unable to use technology to further their cause, " says Gayatri Buragohain, an electronics engineer who founded FAT in 2007. "We hope to change that and act as a catalyst in steering the feminist movements in India towards a new technological era. "

The Delhi-based organisation has supported around 15 NGOs - many working at the grassroots in rural India, backward states like Chhattisgarh, the North East as well as a few in Africa - to develop websites using social media and other tech tools for their work. They do so by either taking over the technical work or training the NGO's staff.

FAT regularly holds workshops to "demystify technology" and teach website design and filmmaking to women and social workers. "For ages, the world has told us and we have been telling ourselves we can't handle technology. This had led to a fear of technology among women, which is mostly baseless. We need to address it, " says Buragohain.

While FAT charges for some technical work outsourced to it by NGOs, it often does pro bono work if the organisation does not have funds. The money raised is used to run a Tech Centre at Lajpat Nagar where girls - many of them dropouts - from the Jal Vihar slum are trained in computer use, photography and filmmaking. "There is an undeniable link between social privilege and the opportunity to work with technology. These girls would not be able to afford regular computer classes, nor are there parents willing to let them step out, " says Buragohain, adding that the girls are also counselled and made aware of their rights.

Sahayog, which has been working with women in Uttar Pradesh for a decade, had come across several cases where women are asked for "informal fees" and not provided a vehicle pickup, free drugs, food and other privileges that they are entitled to under the government welfare scheme. "We had a lot of anecdotal evidence but not solid data, " says the programme manager Sadhya YK. "We wanted to create a mechanism for women to complain and collect evidence in a systematic manner so we have the power of numbers when confronting the government authorities. "

She points out that although health facilities were monitored earlier, it was feasible only in limited areas as it required too much time and manpower. "With technology, we are able to do the project on a much larger scale, " says Sandhya.

FAT developed the website of the North East Network, an organisation working to promote gender equality in the region. "We wanted our website to be better and showcase our work. FAT did it for us and will also train one of our staffers to manage the website, " says Monisha Behal, who heads the network.

Ichwant Bana, an IT consultant who has attended FAT's workshops and used the training to promote the 'We Can end all violence against women' through social networking sites, points out that NGOs pay huge amounts for website development and other tech-related work. "One doesn't need major technical expertise. With basic training, the staff can easily use the web for their work, " she says.

Reader's opinion (1)

Ved Prakash SharmaMar 3rd, 2012 at 16:59 PM

This is an excellent eye opening article and will show way to all those who want to do something for social improvement.

 
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