In conversation with FAT- a Delhi-based organisation that aims to empower young women with technology and choices.
When did we decide that girls and technology don’t go together?
Was it when our mothers asked our fathers for help in programming the television channel? Or when a Math teacher first said our numeracy was good “for a girl”? Was it because all our aunts studied English Literature while our uncles went to Engineering colleges? Or was it because the heroines in our favourite romances were always nurses to the heros’ doctor or secretary to the heros’ engineers?
FAT (Feminist Approach to Technology), founded by Gayatri Buragohain, attempts to change the conversation around the way young girls use, access and create technology, and uses technology as a medium of empowerment for women across the country.
We were lucky to speak with Deepa Ranganathan, the Communications and Outreach Associate of FAT, earlier this month to find out more about how they achieve these goals. Here’s what she had to say.
Deepa, thanks for talking to us. Could you tell us a little bit about what FAT does?
The mission of FAT is to empower women by enhancing their awareness, interest and participation in technology. We do this primarily through three key initiatives:
First of all there is the Tech Center, a women friendly space we have been operating since 2010 from our basement. The Tech Center primarily works with adolescent girls, usually aged between 14 and 22, who come from urban poor settlements around Lajpat Nagar area in South Delhi. The girls use this space to learn technical skills- basic computers, photography and film-making. We also use this opportunity to engage with them on other socially relevant issues like gender, sexuality & sexual health, feminism and women’s rights. The idea is not just to make the girls literate in technology but to use technology as a medium to empower them and to engage with them. This past year, some of the girls used these skills to create the documentary Apna Haq on the issue of access and availability to clean toilets in their community.
Secondly, we run a School Intervention Program to find out what discourages girls of economically marginalized communities from engaging with STEM fields. We are now working on an Innovations Lab (Tech Center 2.0), which will help school girls from disadvantaged communities explore and experiment with science and technology. Also called Jugaad Lab, we are currently in the pilot phase of this project and can’t wait to roll it out to more schools.
Lastly, we engage in a lot of Advocacy Initiatives, collaborating with like-minded groups and using the material our research generates. Our objective through these initiatives is to create a country-wide consensus on the need to increase women’s participation in technology-making, equal access to technology use and contribute to the larger women’s movement in India around women and technology.
In your opinion, why is it that girls drop out of STEM fields at such an early age?
Well, there are multiple reasons for it, and you can find more details in our report here. But what we discovered was that girls and boys don’t differ much in their interest or even their fear of STEM subjects, rather it is the belief that a STEM education leads to careers in Engineering and Medicine- which are both more time consuming and more suitable for the primary breadwinner. Since patriarchy dictates that men be the primary breadwinners, and women (and even young girls) help out at home along with their education, they gradually distance themselves from STEM fields.
Secondly, there is the absence of suitable role models, even the images of scientists are gendered (Editors note: That’s unfortunately true. We asked five adults to envision a scientist and they all pictured Albert Einstein, or a non-specific white male with a shock of white hair). Without access to women role models who have careers and higher education in Science and Mathematics, it is difficult for these girls to envision themselves in those roles.
Does FAT also help women find roles in technology companies?
We get asked this question a lot- especially about the alumni of our Tech Center Program. Do we help find them jobs? No. FAT doesn’t focus on livelihoods. Our emphasis is on empowering women with the choices and freedom that technology brings. How they choose to use this knowledge is up to them. Some of these women have gone on to work in tech-related fields, others have found Governmental jobs while yet others are happily married stay at home mothers. But technology has provided them with better choices in whatever areas they have chosen to pursue independently.
There’s more to technology than just computing. Even something as simple as access to the home telephone or mobile is monitored in some of the households we work in. Our aim is to provide women with access to the technology they need to make their lives better so that they emerge as young feminist leaders and make informed choices about their lives in the future.
Finally, what are some of the challenges you face? And if someone wants to help FAT, what can they do?
Technology is expensive and one of the challenges of being an identifiably feminist organization is that it becomes more difficult to raise funds because of the politics/connotations of the term “feminist”. Luckily, we haven’t faced too many such hurdles so far, but we are always looking for:
Financial Help: We are currently raising funds through Global Giving to help our students make a documentary film about the perils of early marriage.
Volunteers and Mentors, especially for our Tech Center Program
To find out more about FAT, do visit their website which is a treasure trove of insights. We will also be republishing some more of their research and experiences in the coming weeks for you.
Infographic and Video courtesy Feminist Approach to Technology