By Junu Thapa, Manager, Microsoft Innovation Center (MIC) Nepal
There is a suitcase that my team treasures dearly. It follows us from village to village in Nepal, when we travel to our digital literacy trainings. Over the last three years, it has visited dozens of rural communities, from the eastern district of Lahan to the western Dailekh District.
It may seem that it only carries 40 tablets, but to us, it contains answers to dreams. Dreams of understanding what has been going on in the global community, and seeing the face of a loved one halfway across the world.
The Microsoft Surface tablets have passed through the hands of not less than 8,000 people who, by the end of each training, would know how to use productivity tools and access the Internet for information, communication and entertainment. We met a school teacher, Ram Bahadur Thapa, who joined us simply because he was curious about computers, only to discover that Excel is a panacea for calculating students’ results easily.
It is important for us that the trainings are as much a means as they are ends in themselves. Our programming design seeks to enhance inclusivity and works toward equalising outcomes, or at least, opportunities, such as with women’s rights.
Confronted with numerous challenges, including poor access to rights and resources, women are among the most-excluded groups in Nepal. To encourage the participation of women in our trainings, we conduct women-only workshops where they would feel comfortable and supported in learning and speaking up.
In Bhaktapur, I met Annapurna Jonchhen who, in her 60s, was the oldest participant inthe women’s workshop. She had badly wanted to learn how to make video calls with her only daughter, now in the United States. But mortified by the idea of being too slow and holding up the class, she refused to join the mixed youth classes. Then, she got wind of the workshops for mature women. I remember her smiling and saying, “Although I could not pick up everything, I did learn a lot! Now, I can turn on the computer, and use Skype to chat with my dear daughter.”
The mastery of a new skill helps women like Annapurna build their self-esteem and change their perception of themselves—and most importantly, of other women as well. Another woman told me, “I used to think that women could only do household work, but now I know we are capable of much more.”
Can all this training be done even better? That’s for sure. For one, we will be holding sessions for public school teachers on using ICT in education, as well as cyber-safety classes for youth. In addition, in partnership with United Mission to Nepal (UMN) and Technology Alleviating Poverty (TAP), we are setting up 50 rural schools with state-of-the-art computer labs.
And maybe it’s finally time to restore that piece of battered luggage, so our work can continue unhindered.