March 14, 2021

Breaking The Digital Divide for Marginalized Women in SHOUHARDO III’s Remote Areas

Posted By Sairana Ahsan,Reporting and Documentation Manager of SHOUHARDO III, CARE Bangladesh.


Strengthening Household Ability to Respond to Development Opportunities (SHOUHARDO) III has been working in the northern part of Bangladesh since 2016 to improve the livelihood, and resilience of people in terms of farming, income, employment, health, nutrition, WASH, governance, women empowerment, and youth development. SHOUHARDO III is a program that has women and girls at the heart of its programming. Among many initiatives to improve income, SHOUHARDO III has planned to train 22,000 participants from deep haor and remote char (DHRC) areas by March 2021, of which 11,000 were trained by January 2021. On the other hand, many in-house assessments and monitoring (such as Recurrent Monitoring Survey) found that women and girls from these 22,000 families have the least access to information, digital platforms and services to utilize and improve their livelihood and income. Although the family may have a phone or a smartphone (in rare cases), they belonged to the male members of the family, which in turn are keeping the women and girls at bay from the digital world. The COVID-19 has taught us to be more dependent on online services more than ever before; even in Bangladesh, many have mandatory online presence as imposed by government and many have established their online presences, for instance online classes for students, online corona related information and databank, telemedicine services, online business boomed,, delivery system at door step increased, agricultural app, livestock app and many more. To support this digital dependency even for the remote population, SHOUHARDO III planned a pilot program to distribute smartphone to 100 women and girls in seven districts (Sunamganj, Habiganj, Kishoreganj, Netrokona, Sirajganj, Kurigram and Gaibandha) as lessons from COVID-19 suggested that digital inclusion of girls and women will be one of the important factors in the program’s implementation in 2021-2022 fiscal year. The Recurrent Monitoring Survey conducted in June-October 2020 revealed that only 20% of women respondents had access to a phone, which supports the pilot initiative of empowering the women and girls through ownership of a smartphone. The goal of this pilot is to break the digital barriers for women and girls from the Poor and Extreme Poor households and enhance their access to information and services pertinent to their livelihood and health.

Smartphone recipients in Gaibandha Photo: Ruhul Amin, CARE Bangladesh
The pilot is currently ongoing from 15 February – 31 March 2021. All of the 100 smartphones were distributed to 100 adolescent girls, young bride and new mothers (75 New Bride and Young Mother and 25 adolescent girls) aged 16 to 25 within the 3rd week of February as they are deemed as the most vulnerable in terms of access and ownership of phones within the Poor and Extreme Poor households. These 100 participants (56 in Char, 44 in Haor) were also part of the larger 22,000 DHRC trainees who developed a business plan (involving livestock and poultry rearing, gardening, harvesting, tailoring, handicraft etc.); they will receive their input support in the form of cash and smartphone. The piloting participants who would receive the smartphone would also receive the cash support of around BDT 5,000 (USD 58) along with other participants who have completed their business plan. The smartphone was a locally sourced company named Symphony, who had the basic smartphones in reasonable prices. The smartphone distribution were completed in two phases- through a community entry meeting and later a door-to-door demonstration. The community entry meetings took place in villages that was targeted in the seven districts which comprised of the smartphone recipients, recipients’ families, community locals, local elites, religious leaders, union parishad chairperson or member, local government officials, NGO representatives, VDC members, CARE staff, and a community youth representative who already own a smartphone. Each meeting lasted for about an hour or a half. The community entry meetings discussed the goal and objective of this initiative, importance of digitalized world, scope of online services and how the smartphones can revolutionize livelihoods. These meetings also took in consideration of the community perspective of distributing the smartphone to the women and girls and if they have any social or religious implications in the community. The community entry meetings turned out to be an important part of the sensitization of ownership of phones for women and girls, as there was a possibility of this initiative being denoted as a waste of time for women and girls as they might spend more time on phone and not finish domestic chores. The local elites, influential people and religious leaders discussed the importance of digitization of business plans, livelihood and health services and praised SHOUHARDO III for such a timely initiative for women and girls in their area. A religious leader from Chiksha, Tahirpur, Sunamganj expressed, “A smartphone contains the whole world inside of it, if we know how to properly use it. To improve our lives and rightly use the devices, we need to educate ourselves too. The recipients need to ensure the effective use of these smartphones. You can find all the right information through this smartphones, such as on farming, livestock, anti-drug messages, child marriage prevention, health related messages and so on. I hope that the recipients will strongly benefit with these smartphones as well as help others with information.”

Community entry meeting in Netrokona. Photo: Sabina Akter, POPI
The next step was to visit the smartphone recipients at home to demonstrate the operation of the phones and to sign a contract that depicted that the smartphones cannot be sold or transferred to anyone, the expenditure related to the phones will be borne by the recipient and some other useful information regarding nearby repair services, bkash agent address and other available apps. All the phones have preinstalled apps (Krishoker Janala, Livestock Diary, Fosholi and Maya Apa) to seek information and services for themselves and help their neighbours. The observation and experience of the recipients will be noted two times remotely through phones and one time in-person by March 2021, which will generate an analysis report by 15 April 2021. This report will help the scaling up of smartphone pilot program in future by SHOUHARDO III. Migration, age bracket and the new marital status were a few challenges during the selection process that were overcome by capping the original recipient number from 500 to 100. The smartphone recipients were asked to keep a track of their use of smartphones, for instance, they need to write down what apps or services they accessed or used and what helped their neighbours on a piece of paper until March 2021. This is part of the manual monitoring process apart from the phone calls and in-person interviews. This may be challenging for participants as they might simply forget to write down what services they accessed or used, or will not consider writing down to be an important factor.
Door-to-door smartphone operation demonstration and contract signing in Sunamganj. Photo: Aniqa Bushra, CARE Bangladesh
Women and girls in Bangladesh face many challenges in their lives; the digital divide contributes to their suffering even more due to some unfavorable social norms that depicts that girls get precarious by flirting with boys or women waste time if given any device or phones and not finish domestic chores. The digital dependency has increased multifold in past one year due to the pandemic, hence investing in women and girls’ access and ownership to digital device and platforms is one of the strongest way to empower them in terms of education, business, income, employment, health and many other opportunities. SHOUHARDO III is heading the right way to complement the digital Bangladesh agenda of Government as well. One of the smartphone recipient from Gaibandha, Shirin Akter (22, young mother), shared, “The phone and the apps will be very useful to us. We will be able to solve many of our business-related problems through the apps on the phone. There is a health app too, which is great. I will also be able to help my neighbours.” Another recipient Yasmin (18, new bride) from Gaibandha shared, “I am very excited to receive this phone, I can now help myself and other with information from this smartphone…I can get information on goat rearing and diseases, we can get the names of medicine to buy for the goats. I am very pleased.”