IT in India: Social Revolution or Approaching Implosion?

Article excerpt

JAGORI (which means "wake up, woman") was started by a group of seven feminists (six women and one man!) in 1984, and is a women's resource, communication and documentation centre. Our mandate is to meet the information needs of Indian women's movements, and help rural women and their organisations to link up with larger debates and issues at the national level. In the last twenty years of our work, we have been able to build a network of feminist activists (or activist feminists), particularly in the rural areas in the North Indian states where patriarchy operates in a strongly feudal context and where gender oppression and women's subjugation take brutal and very material forms that are not very different from those prevailing in colonial times.

Our primary constituency is rural poor women. These are women surviving on the edge of India, constantly falling off the edge of the 'development' map delineated by policy-makers and politicians, struggling to retain a precarious foothold on work and survival. In trying to become an information bridge for grassroots women, our major challenge is the huge numbers we have to reach, and our very limited resources. We have to work with forms and technologies of communication that will be accessible to women for whom even the basic technology of reading and writing is out of reach.

Over the last twenty years, we have used a variety of media. We started with songs--a very successful vehicle for mobilisation. We have produced several music cassettes. We have also produced posters, pamphlets, newsletters, booklets, TV spots, video documentaries, as well as community theatre. In the process, we have also honed our skills in making documentation a political activity.

The act of putting something down in writing is an intensely political act--it can bring a woman's life and mind out from her private silences, into the public domain where it cannot be ignored by others. Our work has helped to smash the silence around forbidden issues such as violence, child sexual abuse, sexuality and mental illness. Most recently, we have also had to confront the painful issue of sexual harassment and exploitation within NGOs. Throughout, we have used documentation as an act of giving women a voice, of recognising and affirming agency, of enabling them to speak the violation and name the violator.

The Politics of Information

Today, India is one of the global nodes of the 'IT Revolution' and a large number of well-meaning agencies are frantically trying to bridge the "Digital Divide", or the gap that keeps women from accessing information and information technologies. But for the women JAGORI works with, this is not a new situation--the situation of drowning in information that is of no use to them is a familiar element of their reality. In fact, information is central to the maintenance of the 'natural order' in patriarchal societies. Information and knowledge have always been used as tools of domination and subjugation, as means of consolidating and strengthening feudal oppression, caste discrimination and women's subjugation. Half the women in India do not have access to even the most basic of information technologies--reading and writing. Thus, much of the information that is vital to women's lives is coded in ways that make it inaccessible to them--that make it impossible for them to identify and challenge the roots of their subordination. This is the "information gap" that women have always had to contend with.

The situation of women in the Information Age is therefore no more than an update of an old story. While this statement may sound unnecessarily cynical at first glance, it is borne out by many of the documentations of "best practice" in taking IT to the grassroots in India, which once again represent women as objects and passive targets of development. The most successful experiments--and there is no denying that these are genuinely impressive--are those where Electronic Information Centres have been set up at the village level in some of India's most remote and deprived areas. …