Once we realise that the ICTs need to be analysed and harnessed in ways that account for the historical, social and humanistic aspects of their growth, our understanding of how ICTs, gender, education, and social capital can work in tandem will be facilitated.
This article is particularly interested in the intersection of Information and communication Tecnologies (ICTs), gender, education, and social capital. It suggests ways in which information and communication technologies may be used to create much-needed massive momentum to advance basic education, especially for girls, and to foreground (in the context of working with ICTs), social and gendered human capabilities and agency. A bedrock of this enterprise is a breakdown or de-mystification of the hierarchy of knowledge, and of the over-valuation of technocracy and corporate power that is currently dominant.
In the introduction to a recent volume on the history of ICTs in India, co-edited by the present author, we have taken a stance critical of the dominant-hegemonic way of identifying and conceptualising social processes and social knowledge, in which information is seen as processed data, communication is seen as mechanical transmission of information, and technology is seen as a machinists assemblage of some specific artefacts, devices, tools, necessarily produced by mechanicalscientific knowledge systems (thereby suppressing the fact that technology existed even in the pre-mechanical era) (Bagchi, Sinha, and Bagchi, 2005: 10). Once we realise that the ICTs need to be analysed and harnessed in ways that account for the historical, social and humanistic aspects of their growth, our understanding of how ICTs, gender, education, and social capital can work in tandem will be facilitated.
Let us go back to 1916, when Lyda Judson Hanifan put forward the notion of social capital, in his analysis of rural school community centres (Hanifan 1916, 1920), he used the term to describe those tangible substances [that] count for most in the daily lives of people (1916: 130). Hanifan focused on ways of cultivating good will, fellowship, sympathy and social intercourse among those that make up a social unit. When we attempt to recover the history of women as agents of social change, or changemakers, as recent parlance terms it, Hanifans pioneering analysis of community-based social capital manifested in the school, a site of education, acquires a particularly valuable edge.
We propose that with a humanist, feminist, humancapability- centred perspective, furtherance of basic education, recovery of womens creativity and history, and furtherance of research in the humanities, including feminist research, can together harness ICTs productively and innovatively. We also propose that there is an urgent need to break down any false opposition posited between higher and basic education (Chanana 2004). For this purpose, we presuppose women to be change agents, who simultaneously advance their own lifelong learning, and also work to further basic education for others, with special sensitivity to marginalised and socially excluded groups. In this paradigm, ICTs become a major tool for social change. Barnita Bagchi is currently with the Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata, India
The Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells has been one of the most extraordinary chroniclers (Castells, 1996; Castells, 1997; Castells, 1998) of the second industrial revolution, also considered by many to be an information revolution. His claim has been that the information age does indeed put a premium on knowledge processing as integral to productivity: a concept better known as informatisation. It links more people than ever through a plethora of networks, but, paradoxically, breeds a strong sense of disparate, discrete identities, which may range from fundamentalist to left-wing to feminist. He sees the chilling urban Japanese Aum Shiriko cult, which was responsible for the gassing of innocent Japanese in the subways by highly sophisticated, Internet savvy Japanese doomsday cult members, as an offshoot of the Network Society. Another of his brilliant case studies is that of the womens liberation movement in Taiwan in the 1980s, which also harnessed the power of the Net.
The narratives of womens self-development transmitted through the ICTs, have significant roles to play in demystifying the overspecialised arena of technocracy and the undervaluing of womens history, creativity, and basic education.
An online project, http://www.spiderwebhelp.com, lends support to this premise. This web page records the voices of a group of girls who are being imparted computer science and Internet skills in the Calcutta Social Project in Kolkata, under the aegis of a Swedish philanthropic project and Calcutta Social Project, an organisation which has build homes, schools and training schemes for women and adolescent girls in the Manoharpukur area of south Kolkata. In these web-pages, we encounter the fresh, excited, learning voices of a group of girls and women who have created the web-pages themselves. Some describe their parents and parental homes, others their husbands, while all describe the work they do and how their computer skills might help them in their life and work.
Vacha, a collective run by a distinguished Gujarati creative writer and critic Sonal Shukla in Mumbai offers another example. The organisation operates in the multi-ethnic environment of a school run by Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. Vacha regularly conducts workshops for the students on themes like creativity and gender awareness. They also run a rich library which is accessible to both academicians and non-academicians. Vacha is very much a part of an activist womens movement, and participates in protests and meetings regularly and is also involved in the recovery of womens voices, from that of forgotten freedom-fighters to those of Jewish women in India. Vacha thus recovers womens creativity, history, and agency, works to further basic education for girls and boys while furthering gender equity, and works in a wider womens movementall the while harnessing the power of ICTs.
Vachas partnership with government is heartening and exemplary. This is particularly so given that currently in India, in the separate domains of basic education as well as innovative feminist research, we are watching the fissuring and fragmentation of knowledge and development into thousands of small, private projects and efforts, each being asked to generate its own funding, while the state becomes relatively inactive in capacity-building, encouragement, and resource allocation.
Such a situation is particularly unacceptable in a country where elementary education is in a sorry state. In our country the official literacy rate, defined as the bare ability to sign ones name, is 65 per cent among men and women, and only 54 per cent among women. At least 65 million girls are not enrolled in school. The majority of those who do go to school do not complete even five years of schooling.
In such a scenario, the present writer is critical of the current mindset of certain sections of Indian policy-makers and academia that consider ICTs a panacea for all development concerns. Arguably, such presumptions are quite simplistic as there is no assurance of the benefits of IT actually trickling down to the most marginalised sections, unless conscious attempts are made to do so.
In early 2004, I was travelling across districts of Jalna and Nandurbar in Maharashtra, which are low in human development indicators, as part of a follow-up research study to the Maharashtra Human Development Report. We visited a number of Ashram Schools, which are residential schools for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Some of these schools are only for
girls, and had articulate, competent women teachers. They also had computers, which were however lying unused in a corner. The minimum required computer training had not been imparted to the teachers and even the basic infrastructure was found to be lacking. The computers could not be run adequately with the available levels of electrification.
In these schools, ICTs had been provided only as a mechanical add-on; the technology remained alienated from the user. Predictably, the end result was ultimately a waste of resources, both human and technological. Judging by the field experience of this writer, in most of India, the introduction of computers into primary schools, at current levels of social and physical infrastructure, would suffer the same fate. Travelling across five low-female literacy districts in West Bengal this year, one found much to commend and even celebrate in women teachers commitment to their primary school students. But with most schools either non-electrified, or housed in overcrowded, kuchcha buildings, the integration of ICTs into normal school curriculum posed severe challenges.
Yet, here too, if one gave priority to the human actors, much could be achieved. In the Mahila Samakhya programme (a government of India programme started with Dutch assistance), for example, where female students are actively encouraged to verbalise and write down their aspirations and experiences, a rudimentary computer emerged as a tool for empowering students self-expression. The same was the case with the Pratishrishti programme, which used computers in Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation Schools, under the aegis of a Government-NGO partnership. The stupendously creative Hole in the Wall innovative programme, developed by Sugata Mitra of NIIT, also saw illiterate children become ICT-savvy: and the key to this was that they were given freedom and the power to experiment. Vachas balkishori or adolescent and pre-adolescent girl students enthusiastically keep dream books in which they record their nightmares and cherished visions. It is through such creative freedom that genuine social capital is harnessed in engendering ICTs .
Note: This article draws on the authors essay in Webs of History: Information, Communication, and Technology from Early to Post-Colonial India, ed. Amiya K . Bagchi, Dipankar Sinha and Barnita Bagchi (New Delhi: Manohar, 2005)
Bagchi, B. Gender, History, and the Recovery of Knowledge through Information and Communication Technology: Reconfiguring the Future of Our Past. In Bagchi, A.K., D. Sinha, and B. Bagchi ed. Webs of History:
Information, Communication, and Technology from Early to Post-Colonial India, New Delhi, Manohar, 2005
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Author: Barnita Bagchi is currently with the Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata, India.