On a chilly winter morning, Kalapana Verma, a 17-year-old girl from north India's Uttar Pradesh state starts her journey from a thatched hut in Bheera village. Traversing the paddy fields and muddy village road, she cycles for about 12 kilometers before reaching a computer learning institute in Raebareli, the nearest town. Over the last year this has become a routine for Kalpana, who hopes to achieve what is still a distant dream for most of her peers in the country: e-literacy. World Computer Literacy Day was observed on December 2, but in India the digital ambitions of rural girls remain plagued by social and economic barriers. While internet penetration is high – more than 20 percent of the population are users, according to data released last month by the Internet and Mobile Association of India – most are using their phones. The latest census, from 2011, revealed that only one in 10 households had computers, and only three percent of those had internet, thhe majority of them in urban areas. "These days learning computer is crucial for us [girls] to find a job and move beyond the constraints of village life," says Kalpana, who is a college student.
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In the computer institute where Kalpana studies, more than 80 percent of the students are girls from distant villages. They, like many others, are eager to achieve the type of computer skills that open up job prospects. However, it is far from easy for girls to begin such studies. "Even though my parents are very supportive, there are some people in society who are against girls using the internet and computers," says Kalpana. Just last month the Khap Panchayat, a caste council in western Uttar Pradesh, banned girls from accessing the internet saying they will increase the numbers of love marriages and should be considered part of 'Western culture'. And even as computer literacy programs have been around for decades within India’s government-run schools, several states such as Uttar Pradesh simply do not teach computer skills in school. This leaves students like Kalpana at the mercy of private institutes that charge around 1,500-2,000 rupees (US$24-$32) for a basic computer course. Even if families can overcome the social barriers to seeing their daughters educated in computer skills, the cost often puts the classes out of reach of many rural students. Asha, a college student from Ranakapurva village in Uttar Pradesh, says her experience with computers has been limited to seeing a relative using the Google web browser. "I wish it was taught in government schools," says Asha, who wants to take typing lessons but can’t afford them. Asha, a college student from a socio-economically backward village, says that her experience with computer so far is limited to seeing a relative using the 'Google browser' (photo by Shawn Sebastian)
The situation in rural India stands in stark contrast to the cities, where there are more tech workers than anywhere in the world. Within private schools, primary students are taught computer literacy at an early age and receive an education that is deeply dependent on the internet. Apart from the cost and the social stigma, rural parents have to cope with the safety issues of sending young girls to distant schools. "If there was a computer center in the village, I would have definitely sent my daughters to study there," says Arnima, the mother of an 18-year-old who wishes to learn computer skills. But because of concerns for her daughter’s safety, Armina is reluctant to allow the teenager to travel 15 kilometers to the nearest center. "We are helpless, as the growing insecurity bothers us all the time while our daughters are away," she says. Rural Uttar Pradesh has seen a spate of violence targeted at women over the past few years. In May, two sisters who were believed to have been gang-raped and lynched, sparking outrage across the country that redoubled when police last month deemed it suicide. More than a thousand rapes of minors are reported each year and the state records more child murders than any other in India. But in spite of the risks, parents are sending their daughters for training in record numbers, say local computer teachers. Mahtab Alam, a tutor at the Rajiv Gandhi Computer Shiksha Kendra, a private center in Raebareli, says villagers are realizing the opportunities presented by computer knowledge. "Some of the villagers accompany their children to the institute and ask me whether the course will bring them jobs and money," says Alam, under whose tutelage more than 500 students, mostly girls, have received certificates. Alam says a basic computer course certificate has helped his students get employment with government banks, post offices and a range of private organizations. "I have noticed the sincerity and dedication among girl students, whereas for boys it is mostly a leisure activity," he added. Several private institutes like the Rajiv Gandhi Computer Shikha Kendra run computer centers in the state with substantial financial aid from the government. Meanwhile, the federal government under the new prime minister, Narendra Modi, has major plans to create a digitally empowered society. Modi recently unveiled an ambitious umbrella program with an initial investment of over $17 billion and dubbed 'Digital India', aimed at bridging the digital divide existing in the country. Among other things, the scheme will boost e-governance in several state services, which the government claims will cut delivery costs as well as increase transparency. India's telecom minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, said last month that the government is looking to spread broadband connectivity across all local government bodies by 2017 to reach out to underprivileged masses and bring them into the mainstream of society. The federal government has also envisioned the 'National Digital Literacy Mission', which is expected to educate over 1 million people by 2019. In an effort to improve the education sector, some 250,000 government schools are expected to get broadband and free WiFi under the ‘Digital India’ program by 2019. Last month the All India Council of Technical Education opened an online portal named ‘Know Your College Portal’ that seeks to increase awareness and transparency in higher education. A significant effort in having an inclusive digital literacy program for youths is considered important because all the major colleges and universities are making their admission procedures online. There is a fear that rural aspirants will be left out from the entire admission process. Osama Manzar, the founder and director of the Digital Empowerment Foundation, an organization trying to curb the urban-rural digital divide, says that "infrastructure and access to it is the key to address the issue". “In this era, it is important to make rural India digitally literate as the medium of instruction is becoming more and more digital,” he says. “Otherwise digital progress will only benefit urban India,” he says. According to Manzar, digital empowerment is crucial for women as it is an opportunity for them to change the traditional learning opportunities that have been favorable to men in a patriarchal society. “If a woman is digitally literate, then the entire family will follow her,” he added. It is yet to be seen, however, whether the recent initiatives of the federal government can help millions of young women like Kalpana fulfill their aspirations. After the day’s computer lessons, as Kalpana pedals her way home, she says she’s pleased to be inching closer to a career. "My ambition is to become a chartered accountant and make my parents proud," she says.