Sci-Tech

This Tiruchi academic is on a mission to create tech awareness among rural women

K Meena with women of Adavathur village near Tiruchi. Photo: Special Arrangement/THE HINDU  

K Meena remembers carting a boxy personal computer in the 1990s in a van to the villages near Tiruchi and the look on the faces of the people who would crowd around them immediately. “There was a lot of curiosity; like a circus had come to town,” she says. “Our team would explain the different parts of the machine, and allow children to play basic games on it.”

In 2021, with a much narrower urban-rural divide in technology, the story is being recast, with major changes. “Now I just take a laptop with me, and seek out women in rural areas to show them how the computer can be a tool of empowerment,” she says.

At the age of 59, Meena has had a long and distinguished career in higher education. She was the first woman vice-chancellor of Bharatidasan University (BU) from 2010 to 2013, and has served in both academic and administrative capacities in several educational institutions in Tiruchi for over two decades.

She has balanced this with a voluntary mission to educate rural women about technology, particularly the vocational skills that can help them with employment. “In the 1980s, Computer Science wasn’t very popular and there were few graduates in the subject, especially in Tamil Nadu. Nehru Memorial College in Puthanampatti (affiliated to BU), introduced the very first Bachelor’s course in Computer Science in India in 1983, following which students began to pursue it as a core subject,” says Meena.

K Meena, former vice-chancellor, Bharathidasan University. Photo: SRINATH.M/ THE HINDU

K Meena, former vice-chancellor, Bharathidasan University. Photo: SRINATH.M/ THE HINDU  

Education first

Encouraged by her family, Meena earned an ME in Computer Science Engineering in 1991 from Anna University under the cross-migration programme, where MSc Maths and Physics graduates could apply directly without having to do BE or BTech degrees. “My father-in-law K Santhanam, a noted educationist, was very particular that I should complete my higher education in Computer Science, because it was not very popular at the time. I also did my PhD in the subject in 1996. I wanted to use my technological expertise not only for research or teaching, but also for social service,” she says.

Meena has specialised in artificial neural networks, and has extensively researched its application in remote sensing and biomedical science. In 2007, she was given the National Award for the Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities by the Government of India, and the Woman Achiever’s Award by Confederation of NGOs of Rural India, New Delhi in the following year.

Empowering rural women

Having been part of several initiatives like the Internet Users Club and the Computer Society of India, Meena has seen the transformative power of technology at close quarters. “I have always believed that education, and employment or entrepreneurship are essential to make women economically independent. Even if women are heading self-help groups that make traditional products like handicrafts or pickles, they will definitely benefit from using computers to link up with customers or organise their own work schedule,” she says.

Meena has visited at least 24 villages in and around Tiruchi and Thanjavur during the pandemic months, addressing small groups of women, while following social distancing norms. “I have come across some highly-skilled women, with multiple college degrees, who have opted to stay at home after marriage. I advise these homemakers to try and use their education in a positive way. Sometimes, I feel sad that so many qualified women are thinking about utilising their talents only after we visit them,” she says.

Meena is also working on the ‘Tamilum Kaninium’ (Tamil and Computers) project, to create a new corps of rural women technology workers. “There are sectors like data entry, computer-aided design and Tamil desktop publishing where skilled staff are always in demand. IT companies should do more to employ women from the villages on a work-from-home basis,” she says, adding, “Even if women are not going for a job, they should be active outside the home sphere.”

Creating awareness

Meena often combines her computer lessons with awareness programmes on a wide variety of issues, including menstrual hygiene, environmental protection and waste management.

“To emphasise on basic health and hygiene during the pandemic, I have been handing out handmade kits. These are cloth pouches and masks stitched by rural women tailors, to which I add a small bar of soap. This keeps many women busy and is quite easy to put together,” she says.

According to her, what is required now is a training faculty for rural technology education, preferably drawn from within the community. “We may not make revolutionary changes, but we will definitely be able to create an impact on the lives of these women. I have also seen how quickly they act on my advice, such as setting up kitchen gardens or taking up handicraft production. Higher education for girls is my biggest passion; I believe it can really improve life for everyone,” she says.

K. Meena interacting with students of St. Joseph’s Higher Secondary School in Keeranur, Pudukottai district. Photo: Special Arrangement/THE HINDU

K. Meena interacting with students of St. Joseph’s Higher Secondary School in Keeranur, Pudukottai district. Photo: Special Arrangement/THE HINDU  


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Printable version | Jun 18, 2021 9:23:11 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/academic-k-meena-helps-rural-women-find-their-feet-with-computer-skills/article34516222.ece

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