By FARID HOSSAIN, Associated Press
JHARABARSHA, Bangladesh (AP) — Amina Begum had never seen a computer until a few years ago, but now she's on Skype regularly with her husband. A woman on a bicycle brings the Internet to her.
Dozens of "Info Ladies" bike into remote Bangladeshi villages with laptops and Internet connections, helping tens of thousands of people — especially women — get everything from government services to chats with distant loved ones. It's a vital service in a country where only 5 million of 152 million people have Internet access.
The Info Ladies project, created in 2008 by local development group D.Net and other community organizations, is modeled after a program that helped make cellphones widespread in Bangladesh. It intends to enlist thousands more workers in the next few years with startup funds from the South Asian country's central bank and expatriates working around the world.
D.Net recruits the women and trains them for three months to use a computer, the Internet, a printer and a camera. It arranges bank loans for the women to buy bicycles and equipment.
"This way we are providing jobs to jobless women and at the same time empowering villagers with critical information," said Ananya Raihan, D.Net's executive director.
The women — usually undergraduates from middle-class rural families — aren't doling out charity. Begum pays 200 takas ($2.40) for an hour of Skype time with her husband, who works in Saudi Arabia.
Begum smiles shyly when her husband's cheerful face pops up. With earphones in place, she excitedly tells him she received the money he sent last month. He asks her to buy farm land.
Even Begum's elderly mother-in-law now uses Skype to talk with her son.
"We prefer using Skype to mobile phones because this way we can see him on the screen," Begum said, beaming happily from her tiny farming village in Gaibandha district, 120 miles (192 kilometers) north of the capital, Dhaka.
In the neighboring village of Saghata, an Info Lady is 16-year-old Tamanna Islam Dipa's connection to social media.
"I don't have any computer, but when the Info Lady comes I use her laptop to chat with my Facebook friends," she said. "We exchange our class notes and sometimes discuss social issues, such as bad effects of child marriage, dowry and sexual abuse of girls."
The Info Ladies also provide a slew of social services — some for a fee and others for free.
They sit with teenage girls where they talk about primary health care and taboo subjects like menstrual hygiene, contraception and HIV. They help villagers seeking government services write complaints to authorities under the country's newly-enacted Right to Information Act.
They talk to farmers about the correct use of fertilizer and insecticides. For 10 takas (12 cents) they help students fill college application forms online. They're even trained to test blood pressure and blood sugar levels.