Afia Begum is a housewife at Parua village in Companyganj. She does not have a mobile phone. Her husband Idris Ali works in a stone quarry. Afia said, "I can barely manage my family expenses on my husband's earnings, so how can I afford a mobile phone? Besides, I do not need one."
Another housewife, Shifa Begum, a resident of Jakiganj, has heard about the internet and Facebook. But she has never used it. She said, "I have heard that one can watch movies on the internet. But how can I use the internet when I don't have a mobile phone?"
Samia Akter, 35, is a housewife of an affluent family. Her husband is a businessman. Even though she has a mobile phone, she does not use the internet. She does not have a Facebook account. Samia said, "My family does not like using the internet. Besides, I do not have time to browse the internet."
While 71.4 percent women in Bangladesh use mobile phones, in Sylhet it is only 58.2 percent, according to an unpublished survey titled 'Multiple Indicator Cluster' held by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) and Unicef this year.
The survey found that proportionally fewer women use mobiles phones in Sylhet than in other divisions of the country.
The survey also shows that females of Sylhet division lag behind those in other regions of the country in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) skills. In Bangladesh, 2.3 percent females are skilled in ICT. But in Sylhet division, it is only 1.1 percent.
Females comprise almost half of Sylhet's population. The total population of the district is 35,67,138 out of which 17,73,280 are female, according to the district administration and Sylhet City Corporation. Sylhet city has a population of 4,85,138 out of which 2,24,482 are female.
Against the backdrop of such low ICT literacy, the district administration has taken various initiatives to turn Sylhet into a digital division. Sylhet is going to be the first digital city in the country. A project named Digital Sylhet City was inaugurated this year. Under this project, free wi-fi zones will be set-up in some areas of the city. Residents of Sylhet will be able to pay various utility bills online from home.
On November 20, Sylhet Divisional Commissioner Mostafijur Rahman at a view-exchange meeting said marginalised people will get services related to land and agriculture online.
Now, one can well ask that if half the population of Sylhet lacks basic ICT skills, how will it be made into a digital division? If the common people are not groomed in using digital facilities, how will the vision of digital Sylhet come true?
Sushashoner Jonno Nagorik (Sujan) is a civil society platform for good governance. The president of Sujan's Sylhet unit, Faruk Mahmud Chowdhury, said, "A locality cannot be digitalised simply by opening some websites and giving some information on the internet. It requires ICT literate people. If the people of the locality are not ICT literate, who will enjoy the benefits of digitalisation?"
Dr Abul Fateh Fattah, former principal of Sylhet Government Madan Mohon College, said, "Making Sylhet into a digital division is a good initiative. But for that, the people of the region need to be skilled in ICT. Otherwise, only a few people will benefit from this digitalisation."
However, Mostafijur told The Business Standard, "Various initiatives have been taken to digitalise Sylhet. It is true that the women of the region are lagging behind other parts of the country in ICT literacy and using mobile phones, but that is due to conservative views and lack of education. We are trying to develop their ICT skills. Students have been trained in ICT through Sheikh Russel digital labs in the schools and colleges of the division. Sylhet Mohila Technical Training Centre provides ICT training to women. We are also trying to enhance ICT skills at the grass-roots level through union digital centres."
Farmis Akter, a woman entrepreneur of Sylhet city, said, "Nobody can advance nowadays without ICT skills. We need to work at the grass-roots level to develop women's skills on it. If the activities are confined within the union digital centres, the condition will not improve."
Sharmin Sultana, additional deputy commissioner (education and ICT) of Sylhet, said, "The main reason for most women in this region being ICT illiterate is lack of education. We have taken various initiatives to raise awareness about the importance of ICT literacy. They are also being trained in it."