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Rural women go digital to manage the pandemic’s disruptions

Women weavers in Gujarat, India, feared the worst for their livelihood when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and work practically ground to a halt. However, thanks to their proficiency with online tools, they have been able to thrive through this difficult period.

The weavers had taken part in an initiative managed by the World Bank, the Leelavati Project, which is improving the digital and financial literacy of around half a million women across six Indian states.

As well as being able to promote and sell via Instagram and Facebook, they can carry out online transactions, avoiding the need for face-to-face cash sales. These kinds of skills were becoming important for Indian workers in the informal economy before the pandemic: today they are indispensable.         

Luckily, Muskanben and her group had just been trained in digital skills by the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a membership-based organization that seeks to improve the lives and livelihoods of women who work in the informal sector, including seamstresses, artisans, vendors, and small and marginal farmers.

What’s more, by linking its members through videoconferences, SEWA has been better able to understand the problems at the grassroots. For instance, when rural families found it difficult to access basic groceries, SEWA coordinated with an agro-produce supply chain to provide them with essentials at fair prices. 

Even today, SEWA’s grassroots leaders and coordinators meet virtually every week, joining in from households, from fields, or even while they are out and about in their villages.

Mitali Prajapati, whose father runs a utensil shop in Ahmedabad district, remembers the difficulties they faced in the early days of the pandemic. “Our business stalled as my father could no longer travel to other villages to pay his suppliers,” she recalled. “The training helped me overcome my fear of losing money and now I make these payments digitally for him.” Through this program, SEWA’s effort has been to open up new livelihood opportunities for poor rural women, promote women-led entrepreneurship and accelerate a national shift towards the greater inclusion of women in the workforce

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