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Monday, April 15, 2002

Mom4mom for underprivileged Malaysian mothers
Frederick Noronha

FROM kitchens to keyboards. That's the transition that women in the home are making, thanks to the help they're getting from the new world of information and communication technologies (ICTs).

ICTs are giving a boost to hard-pressed women home-based workers, as an interesting experiment from Malaysia shows.

"We're working to show women how it's possible to do income-generating work from their home (using computers and modern technology) for themselves and their families," Ms. Chong Sheau Ching, founder of the Mothers For Mothers network says.

Called Mom4Mom (www.mom4mom.com) for short, this experiment believes that one of the most important lessons for women is the "value of self-reliance".

Work that can be generated ranges from making and selling cookies (using the Net to finding markets), to editing work, accounting, and taking care of somebody's children. Work generated can be freelance, piecework or running home-based businesses.

"If women have their home furniture and a telephone, that's their own capital to start with. Their children, who can help out, are another major resource," she says.

"Lots of women are in low-paid jobs. So they may end up having to take second jobs. People who need this the most are disabled women, single moms and those chronically ill," says this determined and articulate woman.


It was started in 1998, even as the economic crisis was hitting East Asian countries like Malaysia. Women were being thrown out of jobs or their husbands were losing their salaries, turning the heat on them either way.

"There are very interesting and viable options for women. We have volunteers all over Malaysia, but mostly in (the national capital) Kuala Lumpur," Chong Sheau Ching, a former World Health Organisation information planner who came back home says.

She points out that women have worked "for centuries" from home. Seldom paid for it, though. So, a cyber-platform could increase their reach.

"Because of IT, we can work from home and achieve a lot of things. From proposals to invoices, we can send these across as an attachment, without even meeting clients," she says. Once competently used, IT helps generate the "kind of enthusiasm that money cannot buy".

The Malaysian government's pro-IT policy really helps play a big part in taking the campaign forward. For instance, there are songs telecast, promoting the needs of harnessing IT. "Everybody seems to know the word IT here," she says.

Going back in time, rewind to 1999, when mom4mom.com launched its Website.

"At the beginning, we were just laughed at, because people thought homemakers couldn't go into IT. They thought IT was just for companies. Or that IT is for men and the young," adds Chong Sheau Ching.

She asserts that during the dot.com boom this venture felt very "left out". "We tried to get (IT) volunteers to help us, but they were paid so high that nobody wanted to help out. Not even women," she adds. So, they simply did it themselves and made mistakes along the way.

"We found we were actually doing the right thing". After the dot.com bust, it became clear that money had to be spent very, very carefully. Mom4mom, for instance, doesn't buy advertising space. It uses word-of-mouth promotion by those who benefitted.

In taking to ICTs, women found they had other problems to cope with.

It takes time for them to learn keyboarding skills. Often, at home, the husband and children get the 'right' to access the keyboard before women. In this rain-swept country, many modems got struck by lightening. Windows-virus attacks set the work of many back.

Often women find they can't locate the information they need on the Net. Most of the 'women' sites deal with fashion and cosmetics or movie stars. "Not options that provide economic self-reliance," Chong Sheau Ching avers.

Efforts are on to change this, in howsoever small a way.

Under the My Fair Lady Project, disadvantaged women will be trained and helped to try and get telecommuting jobs. Recently, after two years of research via e-mail, Mom4Mom came out with their book for home-workers.

One of the goals of Mom4Mom is to teach women simple networking skills. "Using the Net you can reach out to many others. Often, you don't even have to spend money for an advertisement in the papers," Chang Sheau Ching told this writer during a recent conference on ICT for development, organised in Kuala Lumpur by the UNDP/ Asia Pacific Development Information Programme.

"Services are easier to market. Goods sold have to reach safely. Being able to market services is still a big problem. It's difficult to convince a company that a woman's work is better than that done by another company's. They don't believe it just due to the prejudice. But if that same woman's work is re-sold through another company, it is seen as high quality work," she smiles.

"Our message is that it's right for women to make their own choice. Most of the time, it's their more skeptical father or husband who decides," she adds.

On first getting noticed publicly, people asked them who they were. "If we said home-makers, they thought it was funny, and called us housewives. Actually our core group is made up of professionals working out of home," Ching says. She told this writer that the Website currently has some 2000 members, while the core-group is made up of 25.

Why should ICTs and IT discriminate against women, she asks. "ICT is seen hardware based. But we don't talk about the content involved. Content is language, and women have been good at this for generations," she says.

It's not just hardware and software that's important. "In an ICT project, what is important is convincing women to build up on their own inner resources and motivating people," Ching says. "Hardware or software won't solve women's problems, unless their confidence levels are changed."