Aspirations, Access Agency : Women transforming lives with technology, a book by the Reliance Foundation and Observer Research Foundation, tells the stories of Indian women leaders from across the nation who have emerged as agents of technological change and socio-economic inclusion and are using information and communication technologies (ICTs) to help their communities build pathways to better futures. Written by Mona, this excerpt shares the story of Nirmala Kumari.The night before her Class 10 exams in 1992-93, Nirmala Kumaris father gave her an ultimatum. 'If you can pass the exams with your own effort and merit, only then should you go for it. Otherwise you will just add to my hassle of finding an Intermediate-pass boy for you,' he had said. Disheartened with her fathers comment, but committed to her studies, Nirmala appeared for the exam and passed it with a second division. 'I had come so far along with my dream of being educated that I could not just let it go. I went to the exam centre on my own, but I missed the first division only by a few marks,' she remembers. Although her exemplary performance in school did not lead to any immediate change for her or at home, she remembers the incident as the first breakthrough in her lifelong journey of learning.Nirmala, now 45, was born in Khapura village in Bihars Nagar Nausa block, where she grew up with four sisters and two brothers. After contracting polio when she was only a year old, she was left with a disability in her left leg. Given her familys modest means, Nirmala and her siblings attended a local government school, but she was married soon after finishing her Class 10 examinations at the age of 16. This was not unusual or uncommon for her community. As the National Family Health Survey shows, the median age of first marriage for girls in Bihar is still 17 years.Her husbands family was from the Ariyama village in the same block. Nirmala describes the village as being 'so backward, that no woman was ever allowed to read, work or go out'. But her husband, now a veterinary practitioner, was a kind and understanding man, she says. He was aware of her aspirations to pursue higher education and was keen to support her. He gave her a mobile phone in 2018, and it was he who urged her to teach girls in the village by enrolling her to work as an Anudeshikab with a Kishori Kendra (adolescent centre). The centre sought to reintegrate girls aged six and above who had quit back into the schooling system.At the centre, she taught about 50 girls, enabling 30 to reenrol in upper-primary and secondary school. This was her first taste of success in community education and awareness campaigns. 'Two of my girls have met with success and built careers for themselves,' Nirmala says proudly. One of the girls works as auxiliary nurse/midwife and the other as an anganwadi sevika (childcare centre helper). Although Nirmala did not find a permanent teaching role in this capacity, the endeavour renewed her faith in higher education, and she went on to complete her high school education and an undergraduate degree in arts. Several factors, such as a higher number of schooling years and earning capacity, have been known to influence the adoption of mobile phones across IndiaGetting an undergraduate degree opened several doors for Nirmala. She worked as a Job Resource Person with the Bihar government's JEEViKA programme, where she was responsible for youth skilling and employment until 2018. JEEViKA, was back then running a Mobile Vaani programme focused on womens health, ante-natal, pregnancy and neonatal care, which got Nirmala very interested. Inspired by the range of issues covered by Mobile Vaani's several platforms such as social protection schemes, womens health, civic rights, useful product information and self-expression, Nirmala decided to join the movement.3 In 2019, she joined its Meri Awaaz Meri Phehchand (MAMP, or My Voice, My Identity) platform and shifted her focus to enhancing mobile literacy among rural women while simultaneously inculcating a sense of ownership and responsibility toward using a phone.Fostering and catalysing community development, she travelled to villages across the Chandi and Nagar Nausa blocks, interacting with self-help groups (SHGs), anganwadi sevikas, health workers, and women from village organisations to urge them to listen to the free service, which provides insights on local issues. Nirmala has conducted many demonstrations and sessions with women's groups to show them how to send and receive money, access online banking services, check their savings balance, update passbooks, engage in safe banking practices, apply for microcredit loans, use convenient digital repositories like DigiLocker, and bust myths about online financial transactions. 'Now the women of my village no longer have to go to the local bank to check their account balance or transfer money. If they need to register for a competitive government exam they use DigiLocker. Younger women have routinely begun to buy things on Amazon themselves. We use our phones to accomplish almost everything we need to do. This is a great advantage for us,' she asserts.Describing her conversations with the women in the villages, Nirmala portrays a picture of sisterhood where they share informative yet personal stories of transformation. Once the relationships solidified, it was easier to bring more women into the collectives. Nirmalas approach towards convincing women who are initially reluctant towards technology stems from her own experience of discovering empowerment. For instance, she previously only used the mobile phone to make and receive calls, but after being trained as a community reporter, she now uses mobile apps to pay electricity bills, book LPG cylinders, and send money to her son in college. 'In the process of teaching and learning from each other, we have become self-reliant. Nowadays, if we feel that any woman in our village or community needs help, we readily give them our mobile numbers and ask them to call us if they encounter any difficulty at all,' she says.She recalls helping a distraught woman named Kanchan and her infant son escape from her violent husband by using information she had recently learnt from a MAMP episode. Nirmala led her peer volunteers in calling the women's helpline number (1091), and was able to secure immediate police intervention. The collective of these Mobile Vaani volunteers also stepped up to help discuss the adverse impact of domestic abuse before the Panchayat, thus encouraging the entire community to assist Kanchan to lead a dignified, abuse-free life.Nirmalas willingness to help has gone a long way. As a result of her mobilisation, women now account for nearly one-third of attendance in the gram sabha. She has popularised the uptake of public social protection schemes, such as widow allowance, Janani Suraksha Yojana (safe motherhood), Nal Jal Yojana (access to clean tap water), Matru Vandana Yojana (to reduce maternal and neonatal mortality), Swachh Bharat Mission (hygiene and sanitation), and the receipt of rations. 'Thanks to the information we find online and receive through Mobile Vaani, all the women of our village have opened bank accounts,' she says. Today, Nirmala has a ration card (to purchase subsidised foodgrains) and her family is a beneficiary of the Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojana (monetary support for small and marginal farmers) and Vridhajan Pension Yojana (old age pension), for which she credits her mobile phone and the MAMP programmes she listens to regularly.When her 20-year-old daughter recently became the first person in the family ever to hold a salaried government job, Nirmala saw it as her own victory. Growing up, she never saw women as empowered beings. But now, Nirmala can lead and enable hundreds of women with her persistence, all of which she owes to her education. Along with peer volunteers, she has reached about 15,000 women in Nagar Nausa and Chandi blocks, training and empowering them with her mobile. A rural woman with a physical disability and a mother of three, Nirmala never imagined she could become the change she wanted to see. The work she has done through the years has brought her immense respect, but it is the satisfaction and joy she feelswhen children in every village she visits identify her and shout, 'Mobile vaani wali didi aa gayi' (the elder sister from Mobile Vaani is here), that keeps her going.To read the inspiring stories of these women revolutionising ICT use across the length and breadth of India, click here.