Empowering Women through ICT




Microsoft Unlimited Potential Programme

Though the Indian Information Technology industry is expected to touch a figure of $87 billion in terms of its worth for the current fiscal year, a major part of the population in rural India is yet to be a part of the IT revolution.

The Microsoft Unlimited Potential program (MSUP) is a landmark initiative to bridge the gap in IT skills across rural India, particularly amongst the disadvantaged sections and women. Microsoft, in partnership with TARAhaat, Development Alternatives, began the Microsoft Unlimited Potential (MSUP) program in 2004. TARAhaat’s ICT-enabled network provides a scalable and sustainable vehicle to deliver this program to women in dispersed regions at affordable costs. The roll out of the programme in the TARAhaat network has clearly demonstrated its potential to create a dramatic and substantial difference in the lives of young women who were so far denied access to quality education and training. Their newfound confidence and self-reliance is a source of inspiration for many young women and girls in their local communities.

Various success stories of empowerment and local role models have emerged as a result of this program.

The ability to use ICT-based services has the potential to liberate women from their current state of constraints. They can apply this skill to access critical information, communicate with families and their support network and also equip themselves with skills that enable them to become gainfully employed. This will be a source of immense self-confidence and financial independence for women who have till date believed that their lives will never change. This new generation of women will be inspiring role models for other women, as informed parents for their own children and responsible members of their communities. The project operates in a social environment that imposes enormous socio-cultural barriers and constraints on women to become self-reliant. These beliefs have taken root over centuries and across generations of rural families and will only change over time.

The project has addressed these serious challenges and delivered some positive results:
1. More than 7000 female students have been trained/are being trained under the MSUP Program.
2. 140 Female Master Trainers have been recruited and trained to deliver MSUP courses.

Activities Under the MSUP Program

Training: The intensive instructor training program has been developed, refined and is being executed to train the Master Trainers so that they can deliver the best education to their students. The quality of curriculum delivery is being closely monitored and refresher trainings are being provided periodically to ensure that the Master Trainers are equipped to deliver the program. Master Trainers are also being trained to counsel women and young girls to ensure an impressive rate of program registrations.

Mobile Master Trainers: The highly innovative concept of Mobile Master Trainers (MMTs) has been developed and implemented in a large scale to extend the reach of the program to the disadvantaged girls and women who, for a variety of social and economic reasons, cannot travel to their nearest TARAkendras. Mobile Master Trainers deliver a short-term IT course with an efficient proportion of theory and practicals, which is available at the doorstep of the female students in villages.

Capacity Building of TARAhaat’s Team: TARAhaat is in a big expansion mode. It has spread its TARAkendra network in 8 states of northern India. Territory Offices have been set up and potential franchisee partners have already been identified. For the efficient rollout and execution of the MSUP program in new areas, intensive capacity building of TARAhaat’s local operations teams was required. Field teams have been trained extensively on program implementation. Their progress and effectiveness is being tracked and monitored regularly. The operations support team based in New Delhi ensures that the field teams, specifically the new ones, have the requisite support and capacity to meet the program deliverables.

Outreach and Marketing Initiatives: These measures are critical to the success of the program. A school contact programme in the form of a contest called ‘Disha’ was launched to create the awareness about the IT and its applications in life. It was run in more than 100 schools and generated a huge awareness about TARAhaat, which resulted in a large number of walk-ins at various TARAkendras.

TARAhaat also organises an IT Olympiad, a national level rural IT talent hunt programme every year. This programme intends to generate awareness and motivation among the rural youth to grasp IT education. Apart from these events, awareness about MSUP is being created through road shows, free demos, wall paintings, posters and leaflets containing a message targeting the rural youth, especially women. These outreach initiatives are innovative and interactive to ensure that the message reaches out to the intended target audience.

Identifying and Supporting the MSUP Spokespersons

Role models who can demonstrate the transformational power of IT training and are a key to breaking down the barriers faced by girls and women in the conservative society in rural India are being appointed as MSUP spokespersons in TARAkendras. They disseminate the benefits of IT training to large groups of girls and women. A spokesperson may be an ex-TARAkendra student or a woman from local community with a respectable image in the society.


Moving Ahead
Sheilly, Zira, Punjab

The last six months have brought a lot of changes in Sheilly. Her life style, attire, new found self-esteem, all reveal this transformation. Born in a small town, Zira of Ferozpur district in Punjab, Sheilly was not a good student in her school days, which finally drove her to pursue her schooling from the open school. Among her friends, she was not considered a very bright student. She never talked much and suffered from a feeling of frustration.

Sheilly does not belong to a well to do family. Her father runs a shop. One day, her uncle informed Sheilly about TARAhaat, located near her house, offering computer courses especially for women, young and adult. Though she was interested in computers right from childhood and also well familiar with its importance and usage for different purposes, because of her educational background, Sheilly was a little hesitant. Her uncle’s perseverance led her to join the course. She was now determined to do something on her own after completing the course. She says, ‘I wanted to show to my friends that I can do something on my own’.

Sheilly owes a lot to her uncle, who stood behind her and gave the much-needed encouragement and support throughout the training period. Her father too wanted Sheilly to learn and willingly paid her fees. At the centre, Sheilly found the CTC staffs and trainer very cooperative. Initially, she did find the training a bit tough but gradually she was able to grasp the subject. She has full praise for her trainer, who always encouraged her to ask questions and always treated her like a sister. She says, ‘Karamjeet didi ne kafi support kiya. Unone kabhi begano jaisa feel nehin hone diya’.

After the completion of the course, a newfound enthusiasm appeared in Sheilly’s face and soon she found a job in the Hutch outlet located in the town. She worked in the shop as a coordinator, which gave her the needed opportunity to apply the computer skills she had learned during the training. The job profile too was to her liking as she was in charge of handling stocks, accounts and sending emails, etc. Apart from the job satisfaction, Sheilly is earning a modest amount of Rs 2000 per month.

Now Sheilly is a much happier person, honing her computer skills while working at the Hutch shop. For her, this is not the end. She aims for a higher job in the computer field. For all this, she thanks the MSUP project, through which she got an opportunity to learn and stand on her own feet.


Hurdles and Challenges

TARAhaat has recently expanded its network of TARAkendras in some of the 100 poorest districts situated in Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, eastern and central Uttar Pradesh. These districts rank among the lowest in the country in terms of socio-economic indicators, especially female literacy and gender ratio. In fact, the official female literacy rates in most of these districts prevail around 40% or even lower. Furthermore, the gender-biased traditional beliefs in the society do not allow girls at many places to go out of their homes and/or visit a TARAkendra.

At most of the new places, especially in Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and eastern Uttar Pradesh, where TARAhaat is setting up its CTLCs, there has been no IT intervention of any kind so far. Youth, more specifically girls and women, do not have any access to IT training. This, coupled with the low literacy rates that exist in these areas, makes it a big challenge to get participants and qualified women Master Trainers.

TARAhaat’s experiences from the onset of the implementation of the project indicate a high rate of turnover amongst women Master Trainers as compared to male trainers.

Given the fact that the MSUP program imparts basic IT skills, establishing a strong linkage with job opportunities has been a challenge .However, TARAhaat has designed high end job-oriented courses to be clubbed with MSUP program to address this issue.

MSUP: A Way Ahead

The program’s vision is ambitious and must be backed by a commitment to support it consistently over time. In a social environment that imposes restrictions and constraints on women to become self reliant, the MSUP program has taken its first steps. The results of the MSUP program at TARAhaat till date have demonstrated that while focused marketing and outreach programmes can attract women in a large scale to avail the benefits of IT training, the conservative social environment in rural areas requires a sustained and long-term approach to contribute towards a widespread benefit to rural women. This project is based on developing a long-term approach, which over time, will become self sustaining and contribute positively to the development of this much neglected and hard to reach segment of the rural population. q


Kunal Tyagi


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