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How can we encourage women in rural India to access maternal health information through their mobile phones? Lessons from JEEViKA Mobile Vaani

by Vani Viswanathan

“What do I need a phone for? If I ever need to talk to someone, I ask my son and he helps me…”

This woman from Chandi block is a member of one of the 10,000 women Self Help Groups (SHGs) that we are working with as part of our JEEViKA Mobile Vaani project in Bihar’s Nalanda district. JEEViKA MV is an IVRS based information sharing platform developed in partnership with Project Concern International and the Bihar Rural Livelihood Promotion Society (popularly known as JEEViKA) and supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

JEEViKA Mobile Vaani provides rural women information on maternal dietary diversity and complementary feeding practices. It reinforces messages on nutrition that these women hear in their SHGs and seeks to create more conversations in the household on this topic to hasten the adoption of these healthy practices.

As we began our formative studies to inform our content and engagement strategy, we knew the singular biggest challenge that this project would face: ownership of phones among women is low; most share their phones with family members. Older women, like the one quoted above from Chandi block, aren’t interested in using a phone, as they do not see any use for it except for conversations with family members. How, then, were we going to reach women and their families with information crucial to improving maternal health and child health?

The digital gender divide across India

In our decade-long experience of providing technology-led solutions for development issues, the digital gender divide is a constant factor to address to ensure that the benefits of these solutions reach a wider and more inclusive audience. Indeed, India’s gaping digital gender divide is the subject of much news and research; one of the latest is from LIRNEAsia, which found that only 43 percent of Indian women owned mobile phones as compared to 80 percent of the men, with the gap increasing in rural areas.

Why is it that women’s ownership – and use – of mobile phones is so much lower than men’s? Many factors play a role, most of which can be traced back to the patriarchal nature of Indian societies. In the short history of mobile phones, their usage by women has been held ‘responsible’ for many things, ranging from sexual violence to claims that it ‘encourages’ promiscuity. In many villages across the country, local (unofficial) councils ban women from using mobile phones for these very reasons. In a typical rural household, women do have access to phones but these are shared with other family members, and often they don’t know how to use the phone for anything except to receive calls from relatives. The common refrain is why women need phones and who she needs to talk to when much of her work is within the house.

How JEEViKA Mobile Vaani brought more female listeners in

We leveraged the strong network of SHGs that are part of JEEViKA to test some unique steps to bring this information to more women and to generate intra-household conversation on these “women’s” topics. Our interventions have demonstrated reasonable success: today, JEEViKA MV has over 30,000 registered female users, with nearly a third of them engaging with it regularly.

  • A woman wears a bright orange saree and holds up a poster with the JEEViKA number on it. She has a mobile phone placed near her. A group of women, one with a child, are listening to her as she explains how to use JEEViKA Vaani

    A Community Mobiliser training a group of women on the JEEViKA Vaani platform

    Mobile literacy modules at SHGs: Most women attending the SHG meetings would not bother bringing their mobile phones to these meetings. Many of these women were over 40 years old, and with age the disinclination to learn to use the phone became stronger. Our field teams trained the Community Mobilisers who lead the SHGs to explain to the SHG members how to use the mobile phone, including basics such as dialling numbers, saving them, etc. Through constant encouragement, more and more women started bringing their phones to the SHG meetings: from 20-30% of members when we started the project, to 50-60% now, in a space of 15 months.

Why does this matter? For one, it helps women claim ownership over the mobile phones, which until then they only passively used, for receiving calls. For another, many of these women, aged over 40, are mothers-in-law, who traditionally hold much control over their sons’ and daughters-in-law’s lives on a range of issues such as family planning, diet during pregnancy, breastfeeding practices, etc. Getting these women to listen to JEEViKA MV is a way of increasing household conversations on these topics and to encourage faster adoption of healthier reproductive and maternal practices in the household.

  • Diversifying content: Surveys on the platform usage after the first six months indicated some self-selection: users who did not have a pregnancy or an infant in the house were dropping out, saying they were busy with household chores. However, the goal of the platform is to create a broad user base even among families without pregnant women or infants, as this would lead to greater household involvement and conversations around maternal and infant nutrition.

Therefore, we decided to diversify the content on the platform to reach more women, and asked them through surveys what topics they wanted to hear more on. Women answered that they were most interested in information about children’s education, local news and agriculture. In the subsequent months, we began generating content on these topics as well, which were not part of the original plan for the project. One such programme, Guru Mantra, is a ‘superhit’ among women as it gives useful tips to help children study and retain information better. Such diversified content helped increase the usage by 50%, and also led to a greater consumption of the core health and nutrition content.

  • Bringing the men in: Diversifying content on the platform also led to increased usage of the platform among other household members, especially men. Men now have a channel to get local news, advice on agriculture, suggestions related to children’s education, etc. This has led to wider listenership and built trust on the platform, reducing the questions they would raise earlier to their wives and daughters accessing this platform over the phone. We also received several anecdotes about the men hearing content on nutrition for their children and sanitation for their families and taking positive steps towards behaviour change. 

A feature that the JEEViKA Mobile Vaani platform enables, as do all of Mobile Vaani platforms, is that of inspiring other listeners – building their online agency. The discussions on the platform add context to the content we create (for example, drama series on the importance of maternal dietary diversity) when the listeners share stories from their lives and neighbourhoods. The listeners’ experiences also add new elements to the topics being discussed, ensuring holistic coverage of the issue in the local setting. This combination of context and completeness makes the platform more relatable to listeners and encourages them to reflect on the behaviours or attitudes being discussed. On JEEViKA MV, we hear numerous stories about how countless women are inspired when they listen to stories of change from other women or hear instances of steps towards gender equality within the household and in the community.

These steps, coupled with our focus on content creation that is contextual and packaged to incite listeners’ participation, has helped with our outcomes: through quizzes on the platform and through FGDs, we have been able to note an increase in listeners’ awareness on maternal dietary diversity, complementary feeding practices and diarrhoea management.

Bridging the digital gender divide is a long, slow process as it builds on existing, deep-entrenched forms of discrimination by gender, caste and class. However, at Gram Vaani, our theory of change (below) demonstrates our commitment we are committed to understanding these divides and constantly work on ways to bridge them. To know more about JEEViKA Mobile Vaani or other projects we’ve done on gender across India, please write to contact@gramvaani.org.