08 March 2010
In Jessore, Bangladesh, 25-year-old Asma Begum is a little worried about the state of her cabbages. “The moths attack them, eating into the core of the vegetable and destroying the crop. They leave a stinking smell,” she says.
For rural women like Asma vegetable patches provide a vital source of nutrition and income, and a bit of agricultural know-how can mean the difference between a failed and a healthy crop. Fortunately, help is at hand – in the form of Nargis and Alimun, the local “laptop ladies”.
Every week, as part of a DIFD-backed scheme, the pair drop by to offer advice about a range of issues. Asma knows that they have plenty of information about crop diseases, including practical facts on how to fight them.
“We go from village to village and usually cover 10 to 15 households every day,” says Nargis. Currently they serve around 1,000 households, answering the questions mainly of impoverished women.
Knowledge is power
Most of the questions Nargis and Alimun receive are about health. “Rural women often don’t get the chance to get out of their household duties to go to a doctor,” says Alimun.
The answers to their queries can usually be found in the laptops' sizeable information banks. In addition to advice on everyday health issues and agriculture, the laptops cover topics such as education, law, disaster management and rural employment.
Nasma and Alimun provide computer training too, to local women and children. “Already a large number of them can dabble with the mouse and basic commands,” says Nargis.
Nargis believes that such skills-training could pave the way for a digital Bangladesh – a computer-literate society able to compete in the knowledge economy of the 21st century.
However, as Nargis admits, a digital Bangladesh is still some way off. Yet she and Alimun have already delivered some very significant benefits through their work. In rural Bangladesh, where traditions are often rigid, the arrival of technology has transformed gender relations. With huge amounts of information at their fingertips, women are able to play a more decisive role in their communities and are more confident about their personal abilities. As the two "laptop ladies" like to remind the women they help: "Knowledge is power".
Facts and stats
- The laptop project is run by the Union Information Centre , which is part of a joint initiative of the social research organisations D.Net, Gono Gobeshona Unnayan Foundation and the Union Information Service Centre of the Bangladesh government.
- UKaid for this project is channelled through the Rights and Governance Challenge Fund, which is managed by the human rights and governance organisation, Manusher Jonno Foundation.
- DFID has committed £20 million to the Challenge Fund between 2008 and 2013.