“Go ahead, press that button to turn on the laptop,” I said.
“Nahi, didi. Kuch kharaab ho gaya toh?! (No, sister. What if I break it!?” she replied, pulling her hands to her shoulder, surrendering even before she had started.
Finding the courage to press the power button on a laptop didn’t take too long, but finding her way through a QWERTY keyboard was harder. She could not read or write English.
Gauri was 15 years old and lived with her parents and grandmother in a small village in Barabanki district of Uttar Pradesh. Between the 6 of them in the family, only two had a mobile phone. The men in the household.
I was working at the time with a Delhi-based organisation called Digital Empowerment Foundation. And it was through experiences like these that we realised that most digital literacy courses relied on the assumption that a laptop or computer wasn’t an unfamiliar device, neither was the understanding of English language. And so it was time to build a curriculum that would gamify learning computers for people who had never owned a phone, were hesitant to touch devices and were not familiar with English.
We took an unconventional approach to this learning-teaching. We had young boys and girls draw parts of a computer on chart papers, cut the outline and assemble them together as a group. This not only familiarised them with different parts of the computer without actually touching them initially but also created a peer learning community for them. We used the old school offline flip-card memory game to help them learn about different icons on the computer and their functions. We asked them to design offline campaign posters for causes of their choice and them helped them understand how it could be broken down into a photo, a tagline and a call to action on a Facebook post.
Two years later, when I met Gauri again, she was sitting with a group of young women, huddled around one of the laptops in the community digital centre, proudly creating intricate patterns on a salwar-kameez she had designed on a free open-source fashion design software she had downloaded. On another computer, another young woman named Rashmi was looking up henna designs on YouTube.
It is when you don’t have a mobile phone in your hand or access to internet on the go when you realise how much we take connectivity for granted and how much we rely today on simple search engines for almost just about anything.
Over the years, encounters like these have only proven to me that I’m in the right career.. My entry into this field wasn’t a planned move. I had studied journalism and was working with the India Today group. While I enjoyed my work and the atmosphere of newsroom immensely, I was pondering a shift to the development sector for greater fulfilment.. At the time, in 2015, I barely knew anything about the development sector, but I was interested in strengthening the reach of non-governmental organisations. A job posting about an organisation that brings Internet to rural and marginalised communities caught my attention, and I applied. I worked with them for over five years, starting as a content writer but soon transitioning towards documentation, action research, advocacy and behavioural change campaigns — all with the focus of improving access to the Internet among rural and marginalised communities. Soon enough, I was diving more and more into public policy and ecosystem building — two strong bases for impact at scale — knowing the crucial role they could play in supporting digital literacy among women, particularly in developing countries where access to technology and digital skills is limited.
I’ve been in the field almost a decade now, and I rely immensely on my learnings and experiences from working with non-government organisations at the grassroots level to bring value to my work with international development agencies, where I work towards strengthening digital ecosystems, addressing policy and raising awareness to create an enabling environment where all communities, irrespective of their gender, race, geography and level of income can access the Internet and the opportunities that it offers.
Ecosystem Expert & DIP Coordinator, International Telecommunication Union (ITU)
Udita Chaturvedi is a former journalist and is at present working with the International Telecommunication Union, where she supports projects and initiatives that aim to holistically strengthen the digital innovation ecosystems for sustainable growth.