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Rural e-governance in India: For whom?

By lisac - Posted on 02 February 2010

In India’s rural e-governance initiative, 33% of local government seats are reserved for women. Rural village heads of Chhattisgarh State – one of India's poorest-- can now participate in the public process and in theory remotely communicate the needs of their villages through the use of a low-cost computer that does not require computer literacy. But women are not taking the active roles that were expected. Using GEM, APC's gender evaluation methodology, Dr. Anupama Saxena and her team are finding out why winning an electoral seat does not necessarily guarantee that your voice is heard within the governance system if you are a woman.


Rural e-governance in India: For whom?

In India, a highly rural country, Simputers, a type of low-cost, portable alternative to PCs that require limited computer literacy, have been introduced to give a voice to the marginalized through their locally elected leaders. In 1993, the Panchayati Raj (village self-government) system was introduced as a tool to improve rural communities. Described as revolutionary, one of the key features was that 33% of elected seats were reserved for women, a quota that has also recently been increased to 50% in the state of Chhattisgarh, one of the poorest states in the whole of India, and where GEM evaluator Dr. Anupama Saxena of Guru Ghasidas University conducted her study.

However, her findings show that even with their presence in local governance officially guaranteed, women sarpanchas (democratically-elected village heads) have not been able to participate on an equal footing to men in rural governance.

Women sarpanchas

Women sarpanchas

When ICTs were introduced in 2005 in select village Panchayats, everyone expected the entire rural governance process to change with sarpanchas—both male and female—as the main beneficiaries. However, while women sarpanchas are apparently happy, enthusiastic and optimistic about using the technology, so far there have been no visible or tangible changes in their participation. The GEM study helped uncover why: numerous technical problems related to the Simputers and ingrained inequalities, meaning that even designated female representatives remain voiceless—something that an evaluation that does not focus on gender-related inequalities may not have unveiled.

Representation alone does not mean participation

The unequal participation of women sarpanchas in rural e-governance is the result of prevailing social cultural discriminations against women.

Differences between male Simputer use and female use are substantial: one in three males who were given a Simputer transferred information to and from it. Of the women, less than one in a hundred used it (0.7%) to transfer data. So while supposedly 33% of all local government heads are women, they are not actively participating in the process, and using GEM helped uncover why.

Lack of education, reproductive and productive roles, lack of financial independence and deeply rooted cultural and religious taboos make it difficult for women to be heard in traditionally male-dominated spaces like politics, and the negligible presence of women sarpanchas in rural governance is obvious.

“One of the Sarpancha’s husbands actually denied us access to his wife,” Dr. Saxena recounts. “He repeatedly told us over the phone that there was no need to meet his wife since she just stayed at home, and that she lived far away from the Panchayata she was representing, and that she never visited it. Instead, it was he who performed all the sarpancha duties.” Such stories were common in different variations.

Male sarpancha being interviewed

Male sarpancha being interviewed

“When we asked who the village sarpancha was, in most of the cases it was the name of the husband that was told to us and only after asking a second time and insisting on the actual name of sarpancha, the villagers informed about the women sarpancha.” The situation over the phone was similar – the husbands often identified themselves as the sarpancha and insisted that the information should pass through them as their wives “did not know anything.”

The few women sarpanchas who did take—and were able to take—their role seriously, were not taken seriously in official meetings.

Simputer training for only a day

Just one in ten women sarpanchas attended the Simputer training independently. The other 90% were accompanied by either a male relative or a sachiv (secretary of the village government). This is because in rural India, women travelling alone and in public is not encouraged.

The trainers were also male, and the women interviewed said they did not feel at ease approaching them with questions. This was not the case for male sarpanchas, because many men had already been exposed to new technologies such as mobile phones or computers. Men can also learn with fellow men through informal circles, whereas women do not have any opportunities to discuss technology outside of the one-day training, which many women found insufficient. In fact 53% of female sarpanchas told Dr. Saxena that they had had problems with the training for a variety of reasons including travel difficulties, language, food while away, as well as a lack of interest. It is difficult to find something interesting if you do not understand it, and given the low levels of English and Hindi literacy levels, many women simply did not understand the content and especially could not perform sarpancha tasks in these languages.

Women face more illiteracy and linguistic challenges

Results from the survey reveal important gender differences, which made Simputers a less than ideal tool for women. The Simputer uses many English words. Only 29% of the women sarpanchas have a working knowledge of English versus 66% of the men. The working language of Simputers is Hindi. 83% of men were fluent in Hindi compared to 70% of the women. Only a very small percentage of male sarpanchas are illiterate whereas one in ten female sarpanchas are illiterate.

Broken Simputers and faraway technical support

Astonishingly, the survey found that only one in five Simputers used by the sarpanchas interviewed were in working condition. This number dwindled to just over one in ten for Simputers used by women representatives. Technical support was not usually available locally with the only option Sarpanchas had was to go to the Janpad Panchayata offices (head offices for the area) often over thirty kilometres away from some of the villages.

“The need to visit the Janpad Panchayat office could have provided the female sarpanchas with an opportunity to get out of their houses and villages and to feel a sense of power while meeting the concerned officers face to face in their offices,” recognised Saxena. “But most women explained to us that their male family members were in control of their official work and denied the women the little opportunity they had to leave their houses and villages. They actively prevented them from meeting others and learning from them.”

This lack of support was internalised by the women. “Many of the women we surveyed cannot appreciate the potential of technology to facilitate the work from their houses or from their villages,” Saxena observes.

GEM helps find solutions that will cater to women

Dr. Saxena and team

Dr. Saxena and team

At the Internet Governance Forum in Hyderabad in December 2008, Anupama Saxena was able to share her evaluation findings with the Minister of IT and to others who are engaged in formulating and implementing rural e-governance programmes for gender integration in rural e-governance. She was also the only presenter who spoke about rural e-governance from a gender perspective at the XIIth National Conference on E-governance on February 12 - 13 2009, held in Goa. This was the same conference where the Chief Secretary of the Chhattisgarh IT department and his staff received the gold award for the best implementation of another e-governance scheme in Chhattisgarh. Internationally, Anupama Saxena managed to present her evaluation findings at the workshop on “Human-Centered Computing in International Development” in Boston in March 2009. Despite her efforts, bringing about a change in attitude and the commitment of policy makers and state programme implementers has been slow. Dr. Saxena’s main focus has mainly been to look at ways to effectively salvage the programme. While she has acted as a critic of the e-gram suraj scheme, it has been with the intention of improving what is the only e-governance programme that puts ICTs directly into the hands of female local leaders, by analyzing how it could be better implemented by addressing these women sarpanchas’ needs, and in a more cost-effective way. “We have explicit proof that gender inequalities do exist and that there are workable solutions that can be tailored to the specific dynamics of this region, which will cater to the needs of Indian women sarpanchas in Chhattisgarh.” Incorporating a gender analysis has helped uncover how ICTs are being used in ways that change gender biases and roles, or whether they reproduce and exaggerate existing ones and “GEM” she says, “has given me the confidence to follow through with my advocacy.”


Female sarpancha gets Simputer training from APC on Vimeo.

Video: Female sarpancha learning to use a Simputer
Dr. Anupama Saxena is currently working as an Associate Professor of Political Science and Director in-charge of Women’s Studies and Development Centre of Guru Ghasidas University, Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh, India ( and has been associated with the GEM project since 2005.


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