The Lady in Blue
When one thinks of a typical Bangladeshi village woman, the image of a shy, uneducated docile housewife instantly comes to mind. A woman draped in a sari, with a child on her hip cooking for her hard working husband. But if you happen to visit a village in Purbodhola upazilla, you might see something a little different. Amidst a typical village setting, amongst typical village folk, you might catch a glimpse of a woman wearing blue, riding on her bicycle, with her laptop bag hanging from her shoulder. At a glance, you might think she's a visitor from the city, but if you ask about her, you might be surprised to discover that she has grown up in this village, she is educated, knowledgeable, and she is a successful entrepreneur, well known and respected by her community.
Photos: Amirul Rajiv
This woman is known to everyone as a Tothokolyani or Info lady, who is an encyclopedia of useful information that she shares with her fellow villagers; and there isn't just one of her. In every village located within the Netrokona and Gaibandha districts, there resides one such woman, who is a valuable resource to the community. But how, you might ask, has this been possible?
In the year 2010, D.Net, a research organisation and a model building institute, came up with a model dedicated to empowering women in the rural areas of Bangladesh. They did this by creating for them an information and communication technology (ICT) based profession, which would help them spread knowledge and provide various necessary services to their local communities.
“Info Lady is a second generation model of an initiative to empower women in rural areas,” says Ananya Raihan, the Executive Director of D-Net. “The initial model established in 2007, was called Mobile Lady, and this involved an educated woman going door to door with a mobile phone, connecting the villagers to experts in Dhaka waiting at help desks to respond to their questions.”
This initial model that was developed in 2007 has now evolved into something far more substantial. An Info lady today, not only carries a mobile phone, she also has a laptop, a weighing scale, a digital camera, a video recorder, blood pressure measurement equipment among many other tools of information and most importantly, she is self-employed.
Info ladies are an encyclopedia of useful information for their communities.
When D.Net started to promote this model, positions were advertised far and wide and the response was extremely satisfactory. Many rural women showed interest in becoming financially independent and doing something worthwhile with their time and education. Very few of these women however knew how to operate most of the equipment they needed for this position.
“We take on the responsibility to train them ourselves,” says Mosharrof Hossain, the Deputy Director of D.Net. “We have a recruiting process and most women come to us through recommendations. Our application forms are available online. These women can either get someone to help them to fill these out at local Union Information and Service Centres (UISC) or if they go to the local bazaars there are places where they can access the internet, so they also apply that way. We also have Information Centres (hubs) where they can come and fill out the applications too. That way they get to know the place and people involved with the programme.”
Info ladies are required to have an HSC degree to qualify for the job, but this rule is relaxed for women who have skills/talent in various other areas outside of academia. “We train them at our hubs for a minimum of three months,” says Hossain. “This is called capacity building. It does not have to be three months at a stretch, they can come in for a week or two weeks at a time, but they must complete the training.”
These women have to undergo six types of mandatory training. An Info lady must have some general knowledge about certain things. They require technical training to use ICTs and communication training to be able to interact properly with all different kinds of people. They also need training in how to mobilise people and in health services (how to do blood tests, pregnancy tests, sugar tests, blood pressure measurement, weight measurement, pregnant women care, childbirth etc), which doctors are asked to conduct.
Info ladies form groups within their communities based on age, gender and profession etc and hold weekly sessions for them about various topics of concern and interest.
There are also different optional trainings. “We have identified around 85 services that the Info ladies can provide,” explains Hossain. “Not all of them offer the same services. In some areas, certain services are more in demand or are more feasible than others, so the Info ladies receive training in the services they can provide in their own areas.”
Other basic services include training them in income-generating techniques, for example, how to make farming compost materials with easily available supplies, candle-making, soap-making etc so they can teach them to the local people. They provide this service in two ways, one, they call group meetings in their areas and take classes and two, they go door to door to teach people individually. “People in villages usually have common needs/problems so it is sometimes easier to give them the information they need in a group,” says Hossain. “Therefore Info ladies may form groups profession wise (farmers, fishermen, tempo drivers, labourers, housewives) or age group wise (elderly, children, youth, pregnant mums) etc.”
D.Net and ARBAN team collaborate to run the local information centre for Info ladies.
These group meetings are like classes, and the Info ladies decide how many sessions they need with each group, which can range from three to thirty. These ladies do extensive research to prepare for each session. They review the content given to them by D.Net, (this also includes video and audio content), decide what information to give people and look for materials online that are useful. Each day, they hold two learning sessions. They meet at least once a week with each group. They take one day off per week so they have a total of 12 sessions weekly. For this service, they charge a registration fee, which can be a small amount like Tk 10, and then the sessions themselves are free. What they get in return is advertisement, as the recipients of these services promote them through word of mouth. Children especially like Info ladies because they can watch cartoons on their laptops and different learning content, and their parents provide a fee for this.
“Info ladies will sometimes make videos of a local shalish in session just to document it in case anyone disputes the results,” says Mosharrof Hossain. “They also provide small useful services such as laminating their client's important documents such as property papers and birth certificates etc so they don't get destroyed by rain or other mishaps. These services are very popular.”
"I believe if the Info Lady programme is implemented properly and widely in Bangladesh the socio-economic structure of the grassroot-level women is definitely going to change,” says Sheikh Mohsin, the Head and Director of Social Enterprise, D.Net. “In my studies, I have found that on several occasions these women are earning between a range of Tk12,000 to Tk 56,000 per month, making them completely independent, and as I said, entrepreneurially very strong.”
According to Mohsin, the initial funds for this programme came as grants from local foundations, including grants from donors, local institutions and resource support from government institutions.
When D.Net first started its information centres, it established four different types under different ownership, one of which was located in Netrokona and was owned and run by D.Net. “The Netrokona centre was not running well and D. Net found it difficult to run it from Dhaka,” says Mosharrof Hossain. “There was plenty of malpractice. When D. Net finally decided to close this down, the branch director of the NGO ARBAN (Association for Realisation of Basic Needs), Arifuz Zaman, who approved of our work, decided to offer us assistance in 2007. They shifted the centre to Purbodhola and took over the responsibility of running it.
In February 2009, D.Net spent all its donation money, and again, ARBAN came to the rescue and from then till 2010, they ran this centre with their own money. “In 2010 we started the Info Lady Programme,” says Hossain. “We have expanded to the Netrokona Shadar and Jamalpur so far with ARBAN's help.”
"It has been over two years since I joined the Info Lady programme,” says Ranu Begum. “When I graduated from my intermediate exam, I started going to the ARBAN information centre to learn how to use computers. There, I found out about the Info Lady profession, and after I read their leaflets and spoke to the staff at their hub, I applied. At the time, I didn't know how to ride a bicycle, but my brother taught me how to do this. The rest of the training, in using computers, and using all the equipment needed for the job, I received from the hub. I cater to six groups of people now, and go door to door offering various services. I have no desire to do a government job, I love what I am doing now and I want to do this for as long as I can. I also want to take a loan and buy a few desktop computers and open a computer training centre in my own home, with the help of the hub.”
Although it took time, the villagers now accept and respect the Info Lady's profession.
For Najma, who has been an Info lady since 2010, the journey has not been easy. “I first found out about this programme from my brother in 2010,” she recalls. “I had just graduated from my Intermediate course and I wanted to learn how to use computers. Initially, I faced a lot of trouble with my work because I used to wear a borkha (veil). I could not interact with people easily and was highly uncomfortable the first few months. I was almost ready to give up, but slowly I gained confidence as I talked to people more and I started to enjoy my independence and that is when my work started to improve.” Najma's duties involve group sessions on various topics, selling consumer goods such as soaps and shampoos, condoms and other products the clients want. “I also do pressure tests, diabetes tests, measure weight, and provide other first aid services. I also take photographs of them for CVs or other documents, I take videos of weddings and other functions.”
Najma earns between Tk 13,000 to Tk 14,000 per month. “I want to continue with this profession but I also want to study more. I am also a teacher at a school that I started myself and I want to continue to do that,” she says.
Runu and Hajira Begum, both housewives and clients of Najma, are extremely enthusiastic about their sessions with her. “We have been coming here for three months,” says Runu. “We have been here since the beginning and we learned about seeds, agriculture, HIV and pregnancy and found the information very helpful,” shares Hajira Begum.
Mosammath Monwara Khatun has recently completed two years in this profession and has no intention of leaving it any time soon. “I used to work in a school, where bulletins were posted advertising the Info Lady programme,” she shares with us. “The other professors encouraged me to join the programme saying I will earn more and live a better life. My husband taught me how to ride a cycle. I have a child too and my in-laws and husband have been very encouraging and supportive and helpful when I started working.”
Monwara had trouble at first convincing people to avail her services. “They did not understand my work and wanted to know if the organisation I belonged to was lending money,” she says. “I explained that I had content on many different things like diseases, pregnancy, delivery, cleanliness, how to dress, agriculture etc, and they slowly began to understand and depend on me and trust me. Everyone knows and respects me now. The local school headmasters are also friendly with me and ask my opinion on many things. I myself have learned a lot in this process and have become an independent woman.” Monwara dreams of opening her own beauty parlour some day.
Info ladies serve pregnant mothers by offering them advice and
information on pre-natal and post-natal care.
Babli Aktar, who is a member of a youth group served by Ranu says, “I wanted to join this class myself and my parents encouraged me saying I would learn many useful things here to help me make a living eventually. So far I've learned about different diseases young women are affected by and how to take care of ourselves when that happens. I have also learned how to make soap and candles and honey.”
Babli's friend and fellow service receiver Shahana Aktar says, “I am enrolled in an Intermediate Programme (IA). My parents asked me to join this class after our local Info lady, Ranu, spoke to them about the advantages of it. After I graduate from college, I want to become an Info lady just like Ranu apa and earn my own living,” she smiles.
“I have been an Info lady since 2010,” says Monjura Aktar. “When I was in college, I saw the advertisements and leaflets and wanted to join. “I worked at the ARBAN hub as an information provider for a while but what I really wanted was to become an independent Info lady. Arifuz Zaman, at the hub promised he would give me the opportunity as soon as something opened up, and when one of the Info ladies in Purbotola got married I asked to take her place. I like this profession because of the financial independence I have gained as well as the fact that this is my own business. I also like interacting with people and this is the perfect place for me to do so.”
Most of Monjura's money comes from taking photos (passport/stamp size) of people, “But I provide a variety of other services,” she says proudly. “Each time I make a video of an event, I earn about Tk 4,000. When I help a client talk on Skype with family members, I get Tk 100 each time. My family helps me a lot with my work, every time I need to go somewhere far away either my husband or one of his brothers accompany me to ensure my safety. My mother-in-aw helps with the cooking, housekeeping and my mother helps me look after my children.” When Monjura has saved up enough, she would like to start a computer lab of her own.
Since Info ladies are self-employed, D.Net only provides them with content (information) for their clients, they are responsible for purchasing all their equipment on their own. “In the past, we would give them a subsidy to buy their equipment,” says Mosharrof Hossain, “We would collect money from donors who would have an agenda for donating, for example Manusher Jonno believes in promoting good governance and women's rights. It believes that with their funds these women will be empowered and they will give people useful information such as knowledge about the RTI (Right to Information Act) etc.”
Sometimes, the Info lady wants to arrange to purchase her own equipment because she does not want to be obligated to her donor. Unfortunately, most cannot afford to do this. “For these women, we persuaded banks to provide loans that have low interest rates, which women entrepreneurs are entitled to,” explains Hossain. “Bangladesh Bank now recognises the Info lady business to be a profession. National Bank Ltd (NBL) was the first to come forward to help; they established a loan called the NBL Info lady loan which enables these women to purchase their own equipment.”
D.Net aims to have Info ladies all over Bangladesh be recognised as a brand. They want them to use the same equipment from the same company. “The supplier of these equipments is a major share holder at D-Net, a business entity known as Fair Price International Private Ltd,” says Arifuz Zaman. “This is convenient for the Info ladies because they don't have to go from place to place and waste time and energy on finding good quality equipment at an affordable price.”
Fair Price International sells these women everything they need in the form of a package deal; on top of that, they provide a warrantee for all these products and should anything happen to them, provide replacements immediately so that the Info lady's clients are not de-motivated and her work is not affected. This service is not provided by other vendors. Fair Price is also doing research on new technology so they can reduce the price of their products in the future.
Info ladies also have their own system for pricing their services.
While D.Net helps them decide how much to charge for each service, they consider quite a few things before price fixing and don't always charge the market rate. They take into consideration what the community they are serving can afford and the actual cost of the service. “Sometimes, if they are charging Tk 100 at the bazaar for something, our Info ladies may charge only Tk 20 because they have taken these matters into account,” says Hossain. “Sometimes, other entrepreneurs providing similar services dislike this price difference as it affects their business. They are sometimes either forced to lower their prices or to request the Info ladies to increase theirs. The Info ladies have an added advantage as they provide door-to-door services which others don't.”
Info ladies don't charge for all the services they offer. Sometimes certain resources they need to provide a service, is given to them free-of-cost by D.Net so they don't charge for these services. “There is some content/information that we get through donors and give to them, such as material on reproductive health (pre-natal, post-natal care) or government services etc,” Rowshan Ara Khatun, a former Info lady, who is now the manager at the local hub in Purbodhola. “These contents are designed for regular people, an average number of whom cannot read or write. For them, we have visual information (photos) and cartoons or videos.”
The Info lady profession was not easy to establish and there were quite a few bumps along the road. The villagers were all skeptical about their work at first, and it took them quite some time to accept and understand their profession and make use of them. One major cause of concern was the personal safety of these women and their equipment.
Young women from the village come to their local Info lady to learn about a variety of things such as healthcare and income-generating techniques.
“When I first joined the Info lady programme the main problem I faced was with eve-teasing,” says Rowshan Ara Khatun. “Whenever this happened I requested the men doing this to come to our centres and learn about what we do, and some did, and eventually stopped harassing us. Now they are used to seeing Info ladies at work, so that problem has lessened a lot.”
Ranu had different troubles, “I was never eve-teased, but during my first few months, people disapproved of me coming home late from work and going to so many places alone, but when they realised what kind of work I am doing and obtained some of these services themselves, they became more tolerant and understanding.”
“I have never faced any problems regarding safety but my brother and neighbours initially disapproved of my overnight trainings but they are used to my work now and even approve of it,” says Najma.
“To protect these women, we ensure their political support,” says Hossain. “For example, those who host our hubs in the central point of each upazilla, are branches of renowned NGO's or renowned business entities, so before an Info lady begins her work, they arrange a local workshop for people to build rapport and inform them about the Info lady's work. We also work with law enforcement agencies, so that they promptly respond to any complaint they receive from these women.”
The local Union Council Chairman and other influential members of the community also know these women well and the Directors of the NGO's act as their guardians and they insist on social and political support for these women. “In the past two years we had one instance of theft and this was a house robbery, other than that we have not had any issues. The Info lady's network is strong so she can get compensated for any mishap, her equipment will be replaced,” says Hossain. “As for her personal safety, Info ladies are empowered women who are not easily intimidated.”
An Info lady is the image of an empowered, independent woman, leading a new revolution.
The Info Lady Model, if successfully implemented all over the country, will change the paradigm of women's empowerment in this country.
“I think what is extremely important is that these Info ladies can be seen as role models, in society,” says Shaheen Anam, Executive Director of Manusher Jonno Foundation. “They have been able to break the stereotype that girls are supposed to be docile, stay at home and do only certain kinds of activities and people are now seeing these young women going around on bicycles, carrying computers and going door-to-door. For the women it is an empowering process because it builds their self-confidence, and builds their own sense of dignity and worth, and for people who see them, they get a different idea of what women can do. So this is a kind of self-employment that can help women to earn and lead productive lives, and become self-reliant. It is a very big step in ensuring women's empowerment and increasing their mobility.”
The government has also taken a keen interest in this model. Anir Chowdhury, Policy Advisor, Access to PM's office says, “We are looking at the Info Lady model as the potential for introduction into the 4,500 Union Parishads of the country where information centres have been set up. So we are actually looking at this as a successful model from a po licy angle, for replication across the country. What I would recommend for the non-resident Bangladeshis when they come to Bangladesh for visits to take some time out and go see these ladies, how they work and how they are becoming catalysts for change and contribute to this programme.”
D.Net has taken the first step towards a new revolution. With enough contribution and help, this model may be replicated all over Bangladesh, spreading knowledge and information like wildfire, improving the quality of life and granting women their rightful place in society.