Smartphones give rural women a lifeline

Anajana Lalaji Bise's precious last photograph of her husband is one he sent to her on WhatsApp a few days before he died from Covid-19 in a hospital in Maharashtra.

Ms Bise, a 42-year-old mother of two, had to quarantine at home after her husband, a farmer, was hospitalised last month, but she was able to stay in touch with him using a smartphone given to her by a local non-profit organisation to help her small snack business operate during the pandemic.

India's Covid-19 crisis has exposed a wide digital divide, prompting many grassroots groups to focus on connecting poorer women without Internet access to healthcare and financial support or simply to help them keep in contact with loved ones.

"I didn't know about WhatsApp or video calling before," Ms Bise said from her home in Nimbhore village in Maharashtra, one of the states worst-affected by India's second Covid wave. "If not for this mobile, I wouldn't have been able to see my husband."

The deadly second wave, which peaked in April and May, left the health service on its knees. In desperation, many turned to social media to track down hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and medication, while others used coding skills to grab rare vaccine slots on registration websites.

India has one of the world's widest digital gender gaps, with only a third of women owning a mobile phone compared to two-thirds of men, according to a 2018 Harvard University study.

But the divide is far greater for poor rural women, who are also much less likely to have digital literacy skills, according to Ms Chetna Sinha, founder of Mann Deshi, an organisation which works to empower rural women.

Grassroots campaigners say smartphones can be instrumental in helping women - giving them greater autonomy and access to services and information and helping them survive financially during the pandemic.

After receiving her phone, Ms Jyoti Devkar, 25, quickly learnt how to create a Facebook page for her computer parts shop in Banpuri village, post photos of her products and accept online payments.

When she was hospitalised with Covid-19 some 15km from her home, Ms Devkar was able to keep her business going while recovering.

"I stayed in touch with my family back home on video calls," she said. "But staying in a ward full of patients was distressing, so I continued working. It kept me sane."

While most men isolating with the virus can easily keep in touch with family, Ms Sinha said the lack of a phone left many quarantining women completely cut off.

"We initially provided smartphones to help rural women keep their businesses going during the pandemic, but we then realised how important a phone was to help them connect with their families during lockdown and quarantine," she said.

Across the country, many social enterprises like Mann Deshi - companies, non-profits and community groups that aim to make the world a better place - have rapidly pivoted their operations to plug gaps in the national response.

Other social enterprises have set up hotlines to help marginalised communities in areas where the nearest health centre may be far away.

Thomson Reuters Foundation

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