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A Just Transition for Women: Working Toward Digital Literacy in India

March 8 is International Women’s Day, a global day celebrating the achievements of women and pushing for action to accelerate gender parity. According to the United Nations, this year’s theme is “innovation and technology for gender equality.” Below, read about how researchers at the Columbia Climate School’s Center for Sustainable Development and the non-profit organization Mahashakti Seva Kendra are helping to teach digital skills to women in India. 

Let us begin with where we need to go.

According to the International Labour Organization, a just transition means “greening the economy in a way that is as fair and inclusive as possible to everyone concerned, creating decent work opportunities and leaving no one behind.” Unfortunately, women are losing the battle to acquire green skills and the green jobs of the future. The transition we are discussing is already dropping the word “just.”

Why are women losing the battle for getting skilled? Let us take a deeper look. The labor statistics in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa show that more women are joining the informal employment sector. In South Asia, 95% of women in the labor force are in informal employment. The percentage for sub-Saharan Africa is 89%.  These large populations joining the informal sector are alarming because much of the activities performed could be unpaid and exploitative.

map shows that in India, women make up 19% of the workforce, while men make up 70%

Further, women are at a disadvantage in the job market due to the digital divide. The digitization of economies is expanding, but the skilling of women in STEM and digital literacy  are limited. A UNICEF literature review sheds light on the lack of digital access and usage specifically for women and girls, due to social norms, low levels of infrastructure, and costs. The report points out that 50% of the world’s women are offline. In South Asia, women are 23% less likely than men to own a mobile phone. This is a serious disadvantage with over 90% of jobs worldwide having a digital component.

In the case for India, there is a significant gender gap in the formal employment sector employment. Women are dropping out. Our organizations — the Columbia Climate School’s Center for Sustainable Development and the non-profit Mahashakti Seva Kendra — are working together to reverse this trend.

Mahashakti Seva Kendra (MSK) is a non-profit working on providing green skills and livelihoods to women in Bhopal, India. MSK currently offers green jobs for around 50 women who reside in nearby re-settlement colonies or slums in the Dwarka Nagar part of Bhopal. Throughout the organization’s history, many women have received trainings to learn skills. The organization has been promoting a “no more chemicals” message in reaction to the 1984 Bhopal Gas Tragedy, where an accident in a pesticide plant released toxic gas across the city. Among the 800,000 residents of the city, it is estimated that around 2,000 died instantaneously, with over 300,000 physically injured and up to 20,000 people dying in the aftermath.

The Center for Sustainable Development (CSD) worked with MSK to develop a digital literacy curriculum that it first implemented in Mahbubnagar, Telangana. The curriculum helped to bridge the digital gender divide by equipping marginalized young to middle-aged women artisans with 1) technical digital skills to help them grow their businesses and expand their networks, and 2) life skills to help them transform their own gender biases and perceived barriers. After a quick success at Telangana — under the supervision of Srinivas Akula of The Energy and Resources Institute (one of our collaborators) — the model was tried in Madhya Pradesh State with MSK with the help of the Municipal Corporation of Bhopal city.

The curricular framework was developed by Haein Shin and Tara Stafford Ocansey at CSD, and was based on work by CSD economist Nirupam Bajpai. Dr. Bajpai has been working on an economic development model that leverages information, communication and technology (ICT) to catapult social reforms, especially in health and education.

Learning sessions took place in the MSK-run center, which is only for women, and timings were designed to fit into their schedules to maximize access. The women-only format is based on findings that women in India are more comfortable speaking freely, experimenting with devices, or attending public spaces without men present. Women in India who do not have access to computers at home shy away from using men-dominated cyber cafes; thus, this ICT Center provides a safe place.

The curriculum included specially curated audio-visual aids that will help the participants relate to and understand the larger social ecosystem and inform their thinking about biased societal norms. The content inspires discussions about how to collaboratively develop the confidence to fight against injustices in their own lives. CSD developed frameworks, facilitator guides, and materials to broach sensitive topics using interactive group activities.

The ICT Center has been operating since 2018 with MSK’s Shivani Batham, a teacher-facilitator who has expanded the lesson plans to include Bollywood film screenings to discuss gender topics. The course runs every three months; by now, more than 100 women have graduated from the center.

women in saris hold a certificate
A graduation ceremony for the most recent batch of students. Photo: Pooja Iyengar

According to Shivani, getting ICT skills is an essential requirement for women to work in government service jobs, which many aspire to in India. However, due to a lack of access to computers in their schools and homes, girls get left out of gaining access to digital skills and employment opportunities. Shivani also received a lot of demand for learning how to use accounting software.

It’s easy for her students to grasp digital skills, Shivani says, but she must work hard to boost their confidence. She conducted many confidence-building activities and gender sensitization icebreakers for the women to be open to learning computer skills. Health information, homework help for kids, and oral English language competency skills are other popular topics that have been added to the curriculum.

The MSK program avoids some of the pitfalls and challenges that women face in trying to enroll in the Indian government’s certified technical vocational education and training programs. A study based on interviews with women at MSK’s ICT Center noted that women needed permission from their family members, especially men, to join those government educational opportunities. The study also revealed that housework and looking after the children was considered primarily the women’s job — therefore, attending a government program with strict hours that require them to be in the classroom during busy household work hours would be difficult. Literacy was also a barrier; while the MSK women knew the basic Hindi language, some were unable to read the complex text required for the government program. Therefore, it was easier for them to learn on the job and practice while also earning some money from it, which is what the MSK program does.

women pose for a picture outside the school
An alumni meetup recently organized by MSK’s Shivani Batham. Photo: Pooja Iyengar

The study revealed that women are still restricted by many patriarchal rules and societal obligations. As a result, women who would like to get digitally skilled and contribute towards the green economy need a whole ecosystem of support to access educational opportunities. For a truly just transition, we need to open many doors for women right now, in order to secure  a fairer future.

Radhika Iyengar is director of education at the Columbia Climate School’s Center for Sustainable Development.

Pooja Iyengar is chairperson at Mahashakti Seva Kendra.

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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