Cooperative of Tribal Women in Gujarat Use Technology to Create Awareness About COVID-19

Lead: A SEWA Federation collective of tribal women farmers is using Whatsapp to spread awareness about COVID-19.

As the disease began to spread, the first need was to spread awareness about the COVID pandemic among all the members of Megha Mandli. In ‘normal’ times, the cooperative would have organized a number of group trainings on the subject. However, due to the lockdown and the need for social distancing, this was not possible. To counter this constraint, the Health programme at the Self-employed Women’s Association (SEWA) developed a training programme for members to be delivered over mobile phones. The training has been designed so that it can be delivered through a conference call. The trainer connects with four to five women in a conference call and delivers the training in four sessions over four days. At the end of each training session (which is done over the phone), graphics related to each topic are sent to the trainees via WhatsApp – these graphics reinforce the oral training that is given. The training was first given to 20 Master Trainers, who in turn are each training 140 community leaders and members. 

For the first time, the master trainers in the cooperative received training, not in a face-to-face setting but over the mobile phone. “Until now, we had always given and received training in face-to-face sessions. We never realized that mobile phones could also be used for training purposes. For us, mobile phones were only meant to make a phone call to one person. It was a little difficult in the beginning – we had to learn how to add several women and make it a conference call, and to train a group of people without actually sitting in the same room.” – Lataben, President, Megha Mandli. 

While many women have mobile phones, hardly any of them Android phones and have rarely used WhatsApp or other social media. The privilege of having an android phone has been restricted to the men in the family. For this training, the cooperative identified the members who had access to an android phone and could also act as master trainers. “There is always at least one Android phone in each home, and it has Whatsapp on it. It is either with the husband or the adult son. We borrowed the phone from them for the purpose of this training,” explains Lataben. For many members, this is the first time that they have actually received and forwarded Whatsapp messages.

While the government of Gujarat does regularly show messages about COVID -19, including prevention and treatment etc. the messages become more effective when they come from community leaders who are known to the women. “The women feel they can connect with us and even ask us questions about COVID-19 if required. Also, though the government messages are in Gujarati, they use some English words like quarantine and COVID-19 that the women don’t understand. We speak to them in Gamit (the local language used by the tribal communities) and this way they feel more comfortable about the information that they receive,” added Lataben.

The fact that the cooperative members are able to connect with their leaders over the phone and can reach them at any time has been very reassuring for the members. For instance, one part of the training consisted of the symptoms of COVID-19 that members need to look out for. There have been cases where members have felt that they have a cough or some other issue and have immediately called up the trainers or other cooperative leaders to share this information and find out if they need to visit a doctor. This ability to reach out to the trainer or leader for their health concerns is greatly valued by the members.

Megha Mandli is not just concerned with economic activities. It has always shown concern for its members with regard to a whole range of issues and always kept us informed about things that we need to know about. In the time of this pandemic, the cooperative makes sure that all its members are informed about the current health crisis and the precautions we need to take. If any member has any doubts or questions, the cooperative leaders are always available to help us.”  – Kantaben, member, Megha Mandli. 

The members’ comfort with mobile phone technology has increased significantly, and recently the cooperative leaders decided that in the situation of a lockdown they should have Megha Mandli’s Board Meeting over the phone. The meeting, held in early May 2020, was attended by 14 Board members and 6 staff persons of the cooperative, each sitting in their respective homes in various villages of Tapi district and Ahmedabad city. It was eye-opening for the Board members to realize that they could actually conduct this meeting without leaving their homes. 

The cooperative has thus used technology to overcome the limitations imposed by the lockdown with multiple impacts. At one level, this use of technology has empowered the cooperative members, who have begun to appreciate the enhanced capabilities of mobile phones and use them to carry out their roles as community leaders. They have learnt new techniques such as making conference calls and using Whatsapp. The technology has also been extremely valuable in spreading awareness about a crucial health issue facing every member in the community today. 

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