Today eLIT operates centers in West Philadelphia; Hyderabad, India; and Mansehra and Karachi, Pakistan. The facilities are typically modest: In Karachi, for example, classes are offered to children by day and to neighborhood women by night in a one-room computer lab at a small girls’ school.

Using these sites keeps down costs, Rizvi explains. For about $4,500 to $5,000, eLIT can run a center serving 200 to 300 women and children for an entire year.

David Babu, who directs the eLIT center in a working-class district on the outskirts of Hyderabad, describes the unique niche it fills: “There is no such computer-training center in this vicinity. But the people have the desire to learn basic computer skills, as they are very much needed in the society in order to secure jobs. At the other training centers, they charge them quite a bit of money, which these women and children can’t afford to pay due to their financial constraints.”

“We have some remarkable success stories,” says Rizvi. In Hyderabad, one eLIT graduate got a data-entry job at a local newspaper archive. “Her salary is now roughly $60 a month, or 3,000 rupees, and her family economics has completely changed because of the job she has.” She told a visitor to the center that she can have a “better Holi,” referring to a Hindu festival for which people buy colorful powders to smear on each other, new clothes for their families to wear, and special food. “When she was poor she couldn’t afford such things.”

M. Lakshmi, another graduate who now teaches at the center while pursuing a college degree in the sciences, wrote that, “I had little knowledge of computers before I came to eLIT.” Now she’s fluent in the language of Microsoft. “I have learnt to use the PowerPoint in company presentations and how to make use of the spreadsheets. I am in a position to use my computer skills outside the center.” She calls eLIT “a good training center,” adding that she would like to see it offer “new courses and computer programs besides teaching the basic computer skills.”

In the Philadelphia center, Rizvi says, “I can see the physical change in the way women sit and touch the computer mouse. Before they’re touching everything with the fear it might break. Three months later, you see the same women, sitting with their shoulders straight, designing a card on PowerPoint or writing a Word document.” With these new skills comes new confidence.

Reflecting the cultures and economic circumstances in which they’re immersed, the centers have used different tactics to attract and keep students. In India and Pakistan they hire only women teachers to make families feel more comfortable sending their daughters to classes and to help the students themselves feel less inhibited.

The Philadelphia eLIT center has had to do much more recruiting—followed by home or shelter visits to keep students coming back. In contrast, there’s a long waiting list in Pakistan and India, where “three or four women share one computer just to look over each other’s shoulders. They have such a hunger for any kind of educational or economic resources,” Rizvi says. Contrasting the levels of government help available, she adds, “If somebody doesn’t earn income by the time evening comes along, there’s no safety net, no welfare check coming in from anywhere.”

Another difference is that a higher percentage of graduates from the India center have gotten jobs than those from the Pakistan centers, she says. “Probably Indian society is a little more open toward women seeking employment and improving their economic power.” But jobs outside the home aren’t the only way to measure the organization’s effects. Even if these women are simply using their new skills to help their children do their homework, that’s a positive step, she says.

“In my culture there’s a proverb: when you educate a man, you’ve educated one person, but when you educate a woman, you educate 19 persons,” Rizvi says. “It started out alluding to women being talkers, but the reality is that they share information. They share it with their children, their neighbors, their friends, their grandchildren. If the mother is informed, she’s going to raise children who are informed and more open to ideas. Having learned what I did at Wharton, I say investing in the education of women [yields] a better return on investment.”

Simply having email and Internet access can make an immense difference in women’s lives, Rizvi believes. “If I’m sitting in Karachi or Hyderabad and something terrible is happening to me, more often than not I can’t ask for help from my relatives because they are custom- and tradition-bound.”

Three years ago Mukhtar Mai, a teacher in the Punjab province of Pakistan, was sentenced by a local jury to gang rape as punishment for the shame her brother had brought on another family by flirting with one of its female relatives. After being raped, Mai was paraded naked before a village crowd. She took her rapists to court, and her case has drawn international attention as well as thousands of dollars in donations, which she used, in part, to set up a shelter for battered women.

“She is one of many women who suffer such indignities and injustice,” Rizvi is quick to point out, and not all cases get such widespread coverage. But if more women had access to email and the Internet, they could tell their stories.

Another eLIT center was slated to open in Karachi in October. “We’re hoping the new center will have a room for sewing and a room for computers,” Rizvi says. “We want to make it possible for women who make their living by sewing or creating other handicrafts to continue doing what they’re doing and get better at it, to make products that eLIT can place on the Internet, and then to get paid two or three or four times what they otherwise would get paid for their handiwork.” Once these women know how to use computers, they could sell their work online without any middleman, she explains.

Rizvi recently received a package of embroidered goods that one of her sisters had picked up from a potential eLIT student in Karachi. The woman lived in a one-room house with five children. “She’s in her late 30s, and she told my sister that in her entire life she has never had a single good meal,” Rizvi says. “She has always had what was left over and scraped together. And she has never worn new clothes. The hair on my skin stood up and I burst into tears when I heard this. On some level I felt very bad for her lot in life, and on some level I felt very proud of her, that she is not giving up. She is not sitting at the street corner and begging or prostituting herself. Instead, she’s working hard, doing embroidery, to provide for her kids. If we can help [create] an economic outlet and educational opportunity for women like her, that’s what I would like to see happen.”

Lee Shlifer CGS’74, president of the Philadelphia Penn Club, first met Rizvi at an alumni event. “She didn’t want to talk about herself or her accomplishments in life,” he recalls. “But I thought there was something there. So I Googled her name, and all this stuff came up, [like] ‘Working Mother of the Year.’” (Rizvi says she almost turned down the award because she didn’t want to draw attention to herself, but she realized that it would be good publicity for eLIT.)

The next time he saw her, Shlifer confessed to his Internet sleuthing. “She was really embarrassed. She said, ‘In my culture we don’t brag about our accomplishments.’

“Well in our culture we do,” he told her. “I’m a great promoter of people who have something to offer, and you have something to offer.”

Since then, the Philadelphia Penn Club has taken on eLIT as a community-service project, and Shlifer and Rizvi are trying to convince alumni clubs in other major cities—as well as the University itself—to do the same. “I can visualize eLIT centers sponsored by different Penn clubs all over the world,” Shlifer says. “The budget is minimal, and the University would get all this recognition for doing this.”

Shlifer says he’s seen people moved to tears when Rizvi speaks to alumni groups about her goals for eLIT and for women who haven’t had the opportunity to fully develop their talents. “When she makes her presentation, if you don’t feel it in your gut, you’re not alive.”

Rizvi says she would love to see Penn alumni take their “education, skills, and a message of democracy” to all parts of the globe through a network of alumni-supported technology centers. “This would be an enormous contribution toward bringing the future generations of this world together.”

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©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 10/28/05

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The Power of Her Choices