What soap operas won't tell you: Self-efficacy, technology use, and Indian women

If you watch Indian television, you will find that a massive amount of screen time is dedicated to soap operas on large, messy, and dramatic Indian families. Many of these shows have pan-Indian fan followings with millions of viewers from across the country. However, despite their claims that they depict the day to day eccentricities of family life, these shows rarely provide a more intimate and realistic view of their primary and most faithful viewers---housewives.

Many of my interactions while conducting fieldwork in India were with lower-middle-class married women. These women handled the high expectations of their husbands, children, and in-laws, and juggled multiple household tasks daily with ease. Despite this, many of them had a crippling sense of self-worth. A vast majority of these women had a limited understanding of English, even if they could read and write the script. Many of them had also stopped their formal schooling in 8th, 10th, or 12th grade. It did not matter how good their Hindi or Urdu was (the native tongues of the women I spoke to), I often found these women calling themselves "gawar" which loosely translates to "uneducated" and "uncouth", simply because of their poor English. It was said with a smile and matter-of-factly, and sometimes rather jokingly. But always with a sense of disempowerment.

When it came to the use of technology, I found that women fell into two major camps. One group (generally younger women who were more familiar with English) embraced technology, the other shied away from it. The latter's poor sense of self-efficacy was immediately evident. One interaction during my fieldwork, in particular, made a lasting impression on me and motivates the work I hope to do in the future. I share this story below:

I was working with some community health workers (CHWs) who I had recruited for data collection using mobile phones. There were five CHWs, the oldest one, Saima, was uncomfortable using mobile phones while all the others were tech-savvy. After some tea and a conversation about their work, all the CHWs had left for home except Saima. She hung back and we ended up talking about her work and life. We were discussing her role at the primary healthcare center and she shared:

"I am the most informed of the ASHAs and the ANM likes me best. She told me that I was great in all ways...except in my poor digital abilities. Because I am not very well educated and do not understand English, I am not comfortable with using mobile phones. The other ASHAs know better English. I never know how to spell stuff."

What was most surprising to me, as an outsider, was that in reality, (1) the data collection app used little to no English and (2) the other ASHAs made spelling mistakes all the time! When I explained that to Saima, she was initially skeptical. I showed her the app and we went through it together and she practiced entering values for all the data fields. Convinced that she could use it, she then turned to me and said, "Hmm...I could improve my English and mobile skills over time by using the app." I left with a promise from her that she would practice and try collecting data without the support of another CHW. 

What startled me about the interaction was that Saima had convinced herself that she could not use the mobile phone, even when her peers were using it. Her association of mobile phones with English had resulted in her in viewing herself as someone who the mobile phone was not built for. This is a structural problem, one that her society has been guilty of enforcing directly and indirectly. What was holding her back was not inability, but poor self-efficacy, a lack of belief in her own abilities. If Saima, a woman who was wonderful at her job and well-respected and popular among the CHWs was uncomfortable using mobile phones, how many other women were in the same situation? While this is not a "problem" per se, in today's world, digital literacy affords opportunities to connect with family, be employed, and educate oneself. But most importantly, it can help instill a sense of confidence, one that seems to have been snatched away from many Indian women.