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Bridging the Digital Divide: Empowering Indigenous Women in Odisha

In today’s digital era, women across the globe are leveraging the power of technology to explore new horizons and lead empowered lives. Access to digital platforms has revolutionized the way women connect, learn, and participate in economic activities. From online entrepreneurship to accessing vital information, digital accessibility has become a game-changer. However, this transformative wave seems to have bypassed the tribal women in Odisha’s remote regions.

Despite the exponential growth of mobile phones and internet connectivity, the tribal belts of Odisha, encompassing districts like Koraput, Kalahandi, Rayagada, and other indigenous populated areas, continue to face challenges in providing digital access to their women. Unlike women in urban parts of Odisha, who easily embrace the digital world, indigenous women encounter unique obstacles hindering their digital journey. Limited access to resources, financial constraints, and a lack of digital literacy among tribal communities have contributed to this stark disparity. As a result, these women remain disconnected from the myriad benefits that digital accessibility offers, such as market expansion, financial inclusion, and access to information and educational resources.

Archana Pradhan, a determined broom and turmeric farmer from the Kondh tribe from the remote village of Phulbani in Kandhamal district, stands as a symbol of the challenges faced by countless tribal women in Odisha. “I have never handled a phone. Moreover, I do want to have one, but in our village, we don’t have a network,” she shares with a hint of resignation.

According to the National Family Health Survey data for 2019-21, the usage of mobile phones among women in Odisha varies significantly between urban and rural areas. In urban areas, approximately 58.8 per cent of women have access to mobile phones, while in rural areas, the percentage is relatively lower at 48.0 per cent. However, the survey also revealed that 68.3 per cent of women in Odisha can read messages on their mobile phones, indicating a reasonable level of digital literacy among mobile phone users. Nevertheless, only 24.9 per cent of women in Odisha have ever used the internet, signalling limited internet access and usage among women in the state. This data reflects the challenges faced by women in tribal belts when it comes to digital access.

Image Credit – CYSD

Nevertheless, amidst this digital darkness, there are glimmers of hope, as trailblazers like Pramila Krishna emerge to bridge the gap. Pramila, a resident of Dangrapali village in Koraput, has emerged as a Digital Champion, working tirelessly to empower women’s collectives and help them expand their businesses. As a member of Marium Self-Help Group (SHG), she shares her journey, “Most women in our area don’t have mobile phones so they don’t know about the various benefits of the device. We are 12 members SHG, while only two members have mobile phones.”

The 12-member Marium SHG collects tamarind from forests and deseeds them before selling them in packages. The members recently got training to utilise online platforms to market their produce.

Through the use of digital platforms and her smartphone, Pramila facilitated market linkages for her SHG, enabling them to sell their goods within their village and beyond. “Earlier, we used to sell our products in local markets or at state-level exhibitions. However, after learning to use digital platforms, we started marketing our produce online and in Banashree App. We are getting good prices for our products and we are earning a profit,” shared Pramila.

Image Credit- CYSD

Echoing the words of Pramila, Sonali Rout, a member of Rameshwar SHG in Gupteswar, Koraput, shared her experience, “Out of 100, only 10 per cent of tribal women use mobile phones in Koraput region. Most women feel they don’t need them. They even are not willing to adapt to digital devices for financial transactions.” Rameshwar SHG makes various products from millet like millet chocolate, millet ladoo, millet cake and other products. The 10-member group regularly participates in various exhibitions across Odisha to sell their products. Sonali and her group members are trying to adapt to modern technology.

However, the context of digital transactions poses another hurdle for women, particularly those in rural areas where the majority of tribal communities reside. The National Family Health Survey 2019-21 in Odisha reported that only 17.3 percent of women use mobile phones for financial transactions. As banks emphasize digital transactions, it is crucial to address the barriers and challenges that hinder women in rural and tribal areas from embracing mobile-based financial services.

Savita Pradhan, from the Kondh tribe of Kandhamal district, has never used a mobile phone, while her husband uses one. Savita is a successful turmeric farmer and earns a good amount by selling her produce. However, despite her entrepreneurial success, all the money goes into her husband’s bank account as she has never opened an account in her name.

Savita’s situation reflects a common scenario among many tribal women in Odisha, where patriarchal norms and limited access to financial services often hinder their financial independence and control over their earnings. As digital technologies play an increasingly crucial role in facilitating financial transactions and economic empowerment, efforts to enhance digital literacy and promote financial inclusion become all the more essential for women like Savita.

Being a woman, from the Durua tribe, brought several obstacles into the paths of Bhagabati Durua. But she decided to go of her own accord. Bhagabati says, “Gender digital divide is the major issue among the indigenous communities, which has restricted the penetration of development into the Durua communities. Access to digital assets and connectivity is limited and is even worse among women.”

“There are several gendered notions attached to access and use of digital services, as the exposure of women to this vast world of information and opportunities hampers the patriarchal control over resources. Also, the preference for men when it comes to newer technologies impacts the overall access for women,” she added.

The Centre for Youth and Social Development (CYSD) has been driving change and empowering tribal women. Basanta Nayak, Program Director at CYSD, emphasized the significance of addressing the gender digital divide in tribal belts. “Digital accessibility of women in tribal belts is 80 per cent less. Most of the tribal women are busy with agricultural work or collecting forest produce, so they don’t use mobile phones.”

To bridge this digital divide, CYSD actively identifies and trains digital champions. “By sensitizing male family members and advocating for the importance of digital tools, CYSD aims to break down barriers and uplift tribal women, unlocking their potential and paving the way for a brighter, inclusive future,” informed Nayak.

Despite the challenges, there are encouraging initiatives to provide access to modern technology to young girls from indigenous communities in government schools. The Odisha government has transformed government schools under the 5T initiative, installing smartboards in high schools. This move allows students to learn about the internet and how to search for content, providing them with valuable digital skills.

Amid this digital revolution, tribal women are gradually adapting to the wonders of technology. Efforts to improve digital literacy, provide reliable internet connectivity, and promote awareness about the benefits of digital transactions could play a pivotal role in empowering women in Odisha and narrowing the gender digital divide.

Note: The author is a Laadli Media Fellow. The opinions and views expressed
are those of the author. Laadli and UNFPA do not necessarily endorse the views.

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