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Monday, December 1, 2003
Feature

Web bridges gulf in Kerala
With hubbies abroad, wives learn Net to e-mail hello
Sreedevi Jacob

Twenty-year-old Sameera, a resident of Malappuram district, coastal Kerala, was in awe of a computer over a long period. "It was something I looked at with reverence and fear because I didnít know how it worked. But now I explain to my five-year-old son how it functions," she says. Sameera is not alone. Seven hundred thousand people out of a population of 3.6 million are expected to become computer-literate in Malappuram, by the time this is published. To be precise, every house in Malappuram will have at least one member capable of sending e-mails, chatting on the Internet and working on Windows.

Malappuramís female literacy rate is almost 80 per cent, but girls are often forced to quit school by 14, to be married off. According to a Rapid Household Survey conducted by the Union Health Ministry in 1999, while only 9.1 per cent of girls in Kerala marry before they are 18, in Malappuram (consisting of five municipalities and 100 village councils or panchayats), 36 per cent are married before they reach 18.

Initiated by the Kerala State Information Technology Mission (KSITM), the e-literacy programme, called Akshaya, aims at bridging the digital divide between the information-haves and have-nots. In May 2003, Malappuram was the first district in the state to embark on the project. Out of 100 panchayats (village councils) in the district, six have already become computer-literate and many more are in the process of doing so. Besides computer literacy, the programme aims to encourage entrepreneurship in the IT sector and increase associated job opportunities.

Computer education, in Malayalam, is imparted at the Akshaya facility centre, which could be a house, shop, mosque or madrasa. Each of the 620 Akshaya centres has a minimum of three trainers, thereby generating nearly 2000 jobs. Each centre educates 1,000 families and has a minimum of five computers, a camera and a printer.

Although the project is aimed at people between 15 and 55 years of age, some 90-year-olds have also enrolled in the programme. Says M S Vinod, assistant mission coordinator: "The emphasis of the programme is on the use of technology and not on technology. We wanted the decision-maker of the family to be computer-literate. Nearly 70 per cent of our learners are women who dropped out of school long ago."

The Akshaya team considered the needs of the people while designing the literacy programme. Malappuram has about 3,50,000 people working in the Gulf - mostly men. Psychiatrists in the area say the long years of separation from spouses have led to a rise in cases of depression among married young girls. Akshaya decided that the Internet would offer most women a cheaper and accessible form of communication.

The training sessions are simple, and within 10 classes, a person learns to work on a computer independently. Each computer class is 90-minutes long. The entire training course is offered at Rs 120 ó the learner pays Rs 20, the village panchayat deposits Rs 80 and the block panchayat deposits Rs 20 at the district treasury office.

"We told people that if they knew how to handle the Internet they no longer had to wait in a queue to buy an application form for a government job or buy a newspaper to see examination results," says Vinod.

E-learning has made less literate women more confident. Zainaba Abdulkarim, a 38-year-old housewife, who dropped out of school very early, canít hide her joy. "My sons are grown-up and often talk about computers. Before I went to the Akshaya centre, I didnít know what a computer was. But now I understand what my sons are learning and I can also e-mail my husband in the Gulf."

The computer classes have brought the women out of their homes and connected them to the world full of opportunities. If a Muslim family, for instance, objects to a woman going alone to the centre, she is encouraged to come with her children. Some women have also convinced their husbands in the Gulf to buy them a personal computer.

Says Abdulkarim, "We left school much before we knew what learning meant. Though late, this learning has indeed opened our eyes and enhanced our self-esteem." ó WFS