Info Ladies put Bangladesh on information highway
AMINA Begum had never seen a computer until a few years ago, but now she talks online to her husband regularly. A woman on a bicycle brings the internet to her.
Dozens of Info Ladies bike into remote Bangladeshi villages with laptops and internet connections, helping tens of thousands of people – especially women – get everything from government services to chats with distant loved ones. It is proving a vital service in a country where only five million of 152 million people have internet access.
The Info Ladies project, created in 2008 by development group DNet and other community groups, is modelled after a programme that helped make mobile phones widespread in the country. It intends to enlist thousands more in the next few years with start-up funds from the South Asian country’s central bank and expatriates.
DNet recruits the women and trains them for three months to use a computer, the Internet, a printer and a camera. It arranges bank loans for the women to buy bicycles and equipment.
“This way we are providing jobs to jobless women and at the same time empowering villagers with critical information,” said Ananya Raihan, DNet’s executive director.
The women – usually undergraduates from middle-class rural families – are not charity workers, though. Mrs Begum pays 200 takas (£1.50) for an hour of Skype time with her husband, who works in Saudi Arabia.
She smiles when her husband’s face pops up. With earphones in place, she tells him she received the money he sent last month. He asks her to buy farm land. Even Mrs Begum’s mother-in-law now uses Skype to talk with her son.
“We prefer using Skype to mobile phones because this way we can see him on the screen,” Mrs Begum said from her tiny farming village in Gaibandha district, 120 miles north of the capital, Dhaka.
In the neighbouring village of Saghata, an Info Lady is 16-year-old Tamanna Islam Dipa’s connection to social media.
“I don’t have any computer, but when the Info Lady comes I use her laptop to chat with my Facebook friends,” she said. “We exchange our class notes and sometimes discuss social issues, such as bad effects of child marriage, dowry and sexual abuse of girls.”
The Info Ladies also provide a slew of social services. They sit with teenage girls where they talk about primary healthcare and taboo subjects like menstrual hygiene, contraception and HIV. They help villagers seeking government services write complaints to authorities under the country’s newly-enacted right to information act.
They talk to farmers about the correct use of fertiliser and insecticides. For 10 takas (7p) they help students fill college application forms online. They are even trained to test blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
Mr Raihan borrowed the idea from Bangladeshi Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, who in 2004 introduced mobile phones to rural women who had no access to telephones of any kind, by training and sending out scores of “mobile ladies” into the countryside.
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