My Experience as a Civil Servant & Digitally Empowering Rural Women in India

A Satisfying Journey Despite Challenges

I have worked in the telecom/digital sector for over 32 years and have been an Indian Civil Services Officer for 31 years before I decided to retire voluntarily. I have enjoyed every moment of my journey working in senior positions in government, heading offices, advising brilliant bosses, mentoring colleagues and receiving valuable mentoring in turn. I have also worked in the private sector and am now actively involved in teaching technology & competition policy and law. While I cannot say that I have never experienced gender stereotyping or prejudice, I’ve never let them get in my way or cowed down to such behaviour. I am always happy to encourage other women to work in and with Technology.

While I have had many incredible male bosses and colleagues, I owe special thanks to the strong women I have encountered in my family and professional life. In the Civil Services, these great women leaders have inspired and pushed me to do some of my best work. With them and female colleagues, I discovered the meaning of the easy camaraderie that men have enjoyed at work for such a long time.

As a teacher, I take special care to encourage my female students to be confident, speak up and shine. As successful women, we must help and inspire others.

A Special Project: Digital Access, Inclusion, & Empowerment for Women

One of the most fulfilling experiences in my long career as an Indian Civil Services officer was designing and implementing Sanchar Shakti, a Universal Service Fund project to provide rural women access to mobile communications, digital literacy, and helpful information relevant to their lives and livelihoods. In Hindi, Sanchar means communications, and Shakti is power. It was a proud moment when the then President of India, Ms Pratibha Patil, launched this scheme on International Women’s Day.

An Achievement to Remember

The project was a great learning experience as the scheme was unprecedented in its design, and I had to convince decision-makers that it merited subsidy and support. Further, it involved bringing together disparate stakeholders, including telecom operators, device manufacturers, mobile value-added services (m-VAS) providers, non-government organisations (NGOs), and UN Women. We all worked together to help the beneficiaries who were members of rural women’s Self-Help Groups that carried out activities such as beekeeping, agriculture, handicrafts, etc., contributing to their livelihoods. We had to customise not just the VAS content to their specific activities and contexts but also the timing and medium of delivery (audio/text) depending on their literacy and skill levels. Most of these women had never used phones, and even now, mobile phone ownership is much lower among Indian women, especially rural women.

Gratifying Impact

The outcomes of this project were highly gratifying. The women were incredibly proud to own mobile phones for the first time, learned how to use the devices, and improved their livelihoods through the information they received. Thanks to the ensuing empowerment, they went on to command greater respect within their families and communities. One of the best and unexpected results was that though many of these women had forgotten how to read and write post their limited years of schooling, thanks to this project, they could revive their basic literacy skills apart from acquiring digital literacy.

Through interacting with these women several times during the project rollout, I saw the immense benefits of universal digital connectivity.

Final Thoughts

In a world moving from digital to virtual, let us not leave half the world’s population behind. Inclusion lies at the foundation of digital transformation. Techno-savvy women and women in Technology are necessary if Technology and Technological empowerment are to be inclusive by design and serve women and men alike. Universal digital skills are essential to ensure that we all remain safe online and make informed choices on the applications and uses of ever-evolving technologies.

 

Dr. Archana G. Gulati

Ex. Civil Servant, Professor of Practice, and Expert in Digital Policy and Law

A telecom and competition policy expert with more than 30 years of experience,  Dr. Gulati is an ex. Civil Servant, Professor of Practice, and expert in Digital Policy and Law. She has served as Senior Deputy Director-General with the Department of Telecommunications and as Advisor and Head of the Combination (M&A) Division of the Competition Commission of India.

Her educational qualifications include B.A. Honours in Economics, LLM (Telecom & IT law), MBA, MPhil (Public Administration), and a Ph.D. from the Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi.

She has served as an ITU expert and as Co-Rapporteur of ITU D, Q6/1 on Consumer information, protection, and rights: Laws, regulation, economic bases, consumer networks (2018-21 study cycle).