The digital way of life has become all-encompassing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The internet and all its paraphernalia has been the biggest support to humankind during these distressing times. Remote working is the new norm, conversations are only happening digitally, and most importantly, it is the internet which is keeping us abreast of the latest developments in the fight against Coronavirus.
However, in India, where internet penetration is yet to reach a saturation point, many rural communities have been cut-off from the rest of the world. To bridge the gap, Megha Mandali, a cooperative of 1,000 tribal women farmers in Tapi district in southern Gujarat and a member of the SEWA Cooperative Foundation, has been spreading awareness about COVID– 19 among tribal women who are first time mobile users, through WhatsApp. Megha Mandali works in the agricultural sector and provides training in organic farming and methods of sustainable agriculture.
Since conducting group trainings amongst the members of Megha Mandali to impart knowledge about Coronavirus was impossible, the team developed a training programme that could be delivered through mobile phones via conference calls. To kickstart the project, initially 20 master trainers were trained, and each of them are training 140 community leaders and members. A trainer conducts four sessions over four days with 4-5 women through conference calls. At the end of each session, graphics pertaining to the topics discussed are also sent to the women through WhatsApp.
Lataben, president of Megha Mandali, says, “We had only received face-to-face training sessions until now. We never realized that mobile phones could also be used for training purposes. (We have only used mobile phones to make calls.) It was a little difficult in the beginning - we had to learn how to add several women and hold a conference call, and train a group of people without actually sitting in the same room.”
Although Gujarat government has also been sending messages about the prevention and treatment of COVID–19, messages sent by community leaders have been more effective in allaying the fears of these women. The women can contact the leaders any time for assistance in matters related to health.
Lataben explains, “Even though the government sends messages in Gujarati, they use a few English words like ‘quarantine,’ which the women cannot understand. We speak to them in Gamit which is the local language of the tribals and they can also connect with us and send questions which makes them feel more comfortable.”
Another positive outcome of the training sessions is that many women got the chance to familiarize themselves with digital tools like WhatsApp and conference calls. Although the women of these tribal communities have owned mobile phones, very few of them have Android phones, which are mostly in possession of the men in the family. Lataben says, “We identified members who had access to Android phones and could act as master trainers. There is at least one Android phone in each home which has WhatsApp on it and it is either with the husband or the elder son. We borrowed Android phones from them for training purposes.”
Not only is the initiative helping the members in taking precautions, it is also a significant step towards digital inclusion.
(Edited by Athira Nair)