India’s Tech Boom Hits Poor Women

BANGALORE, India – On remote heights of the Himalayas, awe-struck women from yak-herding tribes sit in front of computers – for the very first time. In a farming region, poor village women step into video e-mail booths to send messages to their husbands working in faraway cities.

India’s information technology boom is filtering down through little-known, less glamorous programs to far-flung areas – and transforming the lives of women, the country’s poorest and least educated citizens.

Although India’s information technology sector counts among the world’s most developed, the wealth generated in the new economy remains largely exclusive to the country’s educated elites in big cities, such as New Delhi and Bangalore, India’s information technology hub.

Slowly, however, technology is reaching the rural masses and helping women take charge of their lives and, in some cases, giving them a livelihood.

Rural women traditionally have little say in their own lives and their families in this poor country of 1 billion people. Centuries-old caste and religious traditions limit women to caring for their families, their husbands’ families, and working in the fields.

Most rural women have little contact with the world beyond their villages. Male-dominated village councils have for decades given women little access to employment programs.

”It’s very slow, but we are getting there. Traditional women are stepping out of their homes and doing new things which they never thought they would do,” said Rajesh Verma, joint director of the information technology department of the northeaster Himalayan state of Sikkim.

State authorities there have set up 40 community information centers in remote areas equipped with six computers each and a direct satellite link and are teaching women to use computers. Eventually, the villagers may be able to use computers to get government data, lodge complaints or vote.

Some of these centers are located 10,000 feet above sea level, where clients include nomadic herdsmen.

In the coastal state of Kerala, thousands of women are getting paid for typing government documents in English on computers in small offices, making 22 cents a page.

In the Dhar district of central Madhya Pradesh state, villagers can use the Internet to access crop prices and land and health records, and to register complaints with the government.

Elderly village women there inspect Hindu horoscopes online before choosing brides and grooms for their families. In much of India, marriage is allowed only if the horoscope of the man and woman match.

In Karnataka, where Bangalore is located, village women in many areas have done away with corrupt money lenders who fleece the illiterate. Women’s self-help groups now save money in banks and keep track of their savings on computers.

The Association of Women Entrepreneurs of Karnataka teaches village women to become entrepreneurs and set up businesses like small computer centers where customers can log on for a fee.

Even in urban India, the situation is still dismal for women in India’s information technology revolution, said Sudha Murthy, chairwoman of the Infosys Foundation, which seeks to take the gains of the information technology boom to larger sections of society.

”The process is slow. The percentage of women in the IT industry is not much,” Murthy said. She said women make up 20% of the information technology work force in India.

Murthy’s husband, N.R. Narayana Murthy, is the chairman of the $10 billion Infosys Technologies, the first Indian company listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange in New York.

India’s Tech Boom Hits Poor Women

By NEELESH MISRA  Associated Press Writer