‘Aspirations, Access & Agency: Women transforming lives with technology', a compendium of stories of women in India who have embraced digital technologies to transform their communities, reveals important lessons replicable in the global south. The book was recently published by Reliance Foundation and Observer Research Foundation. Each of these stories is a journey to leadership which and explores how women they evolved as a digital enabler — banking the unbanked, connecting people to essential e-services, facilitating access to welfare schemes, promoting entrepreneurship, using tech to strengthen livelihoods, advocating for e-health, and much more.

The incredible women trigger 7 lessons on how women’s access to digital technology can be an enabler of development:

1. Promote digital financial literacy and the use of ICTs to access banking and financial services

Women like Tanushree Das from West Bengal, Anjali Vajre and Priya Ravindra Chamat from Maharashtra, who are featured in the book, are bringing financial services, mainly banking services, closer to rural communities by training them in operating bank accounts and use of digital payment systems. Supporting efforts of women spreading digital financial literacy helps communities’ realise their aspirations for convenient financial inclusion.

2. Leverage self-help groups to advocate for ICT use

Stories like those of Nirmala from Bihar and Sapna from Uttar Pradesh show how SHGs can help bring women closer to digital technologies. In Nirmala’s case, her use of an IVRS to receive essential information for her SHG’s work has led others in her community to use it. Sapna has successfully convinced many members of her community to pay their electric bills through their phones. These stories also show how women’s use of smartphones can help SHGs improve productivity and enhance their capacity to contribute to community development activities.

3. Upscale initiatives to connect communities with welfare schemes, benefits, and public services

With governance increasingly becoming reliant on digital technologies, facilitating communities’ access to such technologies takes welfare schemes and the government itself closer to people. Stories of Priya Prakash Mali in Maharashtra and Ramamani Sahoo in Odisha demonstrate systems based on digital tech that have quickly brought communities into the fold of governance and are easy to replicate or scale-up.

4. Use technology to spur entrepreneurship and generate livelihoods

The importance of digital technologies in financially empowering women is now well-established. Women like Singmila Kapai Langkan in Manipur and Nisha Ben in Uttarkhand have shown how digital technologies can allow microenterprises to grow and thrive in their native ecosystems. Encouraging such efforts and promoting digital tech in such contexts allows for development of highly contextual and regional or local models of women empowerment that can be emulated.

5. Integrate technology use into public healthcare systems

While healthcare, like any other service, is made more accessible through digital technologies, COVID-19 revealed just how much of a difference digital technologies can make in taking healthcare to the last mile. India’s vaccination campaign is a case in point. Healthcare workers like Archana Sen in Madhya Pradesh helped communities adopt COVID-19 appropriate behaviour to keep the virus’ spread under check. In addition to taking healthcare to the last mile, supporting efforts of women in health on digital platforms is a win for women empowerment.

6. Create cadres of community-based technology evangelists and ‘sororities of skilling’

The stories of all the women make a strong case for building capacity of people who can take digital technologies to the masses. Systems will need to be evolved, scaled-up or emulated to building such capacity at a national scale in order to accelerate access to digital tech. Encouraging women to be tech evangelists in such capacity building efforts directly contributes to closing the gender digital divide.

7. Change mindsets and counter stigmas around women’s use of ICTs

One of the hurdles to women’s uptake of digital technologies is the restriction emerging from social norms. As most women in the book have narrated, having their families and others rally around them helps in fully realising the impact of their work. Changing mindsets of communities towards women’s use of digital technologies is vital to realising shared development goals.

Aspirations, Access & Agency: Women transforming lives with technology demonstrates a symbiotic underpinning between community development and women’s digital empowerment - how bringing more women into the digital fold can help realise shared development goals and how a community’s desire for inclusive development can be tapped to empower women digitally and in other ways.

Taking ahead the vision of accelerating women’s access to technology, Reliance Foundation and USAID launched the WomenConnect Challenge India in 2020. Stories from some grantees of Round 1 of the Challenge, like Anudip Foundation, Development Alternatives, Solidaridad, Friends of Women’s World Banking and Centre for Youth and Social Development are also featured in this publication.

Reliance Foundation and USAID are accepting applications for Round 2 of the WomenConnect Challenge till November 14th, 2022. Click here to apply!