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Monday, June 30, 2003

Cellphone in pouch, confidence in heart
Malvika Kaul

A woman vegetable vendor recently used a cellphone and called Indian President A P J Abdul Kalam on his mobile. The President was only a few feet away from her and the cellphone she used was borrowed.

But it was a special day for her and thousands like her: the launch of the Thaili (pouch) Phone Programme of Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA).

SEWA members - vegetable vendors, tobacco workers, gum collectors and village artisans - will now keep their cellphones in these beautifully handcrafted cloth pouches hanging from the wrist or tucked into their sari-clad waist.

For the vegetable vendor, this was the first brush not only with the country’s President, but also with technology. At SEWA’s headquarters in Ahmedabad, President Kalam also inaugurated the Computer Learning Centre called Vignan SEWA. The programme aims to train over 12,000 women in the next three years in ICT (Information Communication Technology). Already, several slum and village women in Gujarat are learning to communicate through satellite conferences and video filming.

Computers, cellphones, teleconferences via satellite stations? Do women who barely manage to get two square meals need information technology? Can illiterate women even use technology? Jebunissa, a Muslim farmer in Gujarat’s Rawanpura village, sells her exquisitely embroidered pieces through SEWA. She says: "Two years ago when I saw a computer for the first time, it was magic. I saw how you could make designs and save them on the computer and send them for approval on e-mail. The computer is like a window to the world. I told my husband I would learn how to use a computer."

While liberalisation and globalisation have fetched huge profits for some, women who earn 25 per cent of the national income have been kept out of the long chain of global markets. The Indian embroidered dress at the New York store, which sells for $100, only pays Rs 10 to the woman artisan for her craft. Globalisation has only increased women workers’ vulnerabilities in an already exploitative market. — WFS