Desperate Housewives No More

Source: Sunday Island, 7 May 2006

 Azlita Ahmad is not physically challenged, but she rarely has the chance to step out of her house.

That’s because she has to stay at home to be with her six-year-old son who is diagnosed with Down Syndrome and requires her constant care and attention.

As the years went by, Azlita felt frustration seeping in. Her husband, who is a transport driver, earns enough to make ends meet, but there were times when she yearned for more than taking care of the children. Unfortunately, her restricted mobility made taking on a normal job near impossible.

However, two years ago, things changed - Azlita started to earn money using her mobile phone.

No, she did not get into direct sales or telemarketing; she joined Salaam Wanita (www.just, a local support group for disadvantaged women, and got into business with about 20 others in weaving ornamental baskets for corporate clients.

The group’s basket weaving business is coordinated through an innovative web-to-mobile phone solution that was unveiled last year.

Whenever a request is sent to Salaam Wanita, the co-ordinator of the group broadcasts the details of the order to all its members through an online application.The application sends a text message to each member describing details of the order such as the size parameters, number of baskets required and deadline. Upon receiving the SMS, the women interested in taking up the job would reply to the message indicating whether they can meet the order and how many they can produce.

"Quick, easy, convenient," quips Azlita emphatically when asked what she thought about weaving baskets at home. Her eyes flitted around the room bashfully during our conversation, occasionally resting on her son who was playing gleefully on a huge green plush armchair:

"No more brooding around at home. Furthermore, this helps supplement my income," she adds softly, after some thought.

The Salaam Wanita project is an offshoot of the successful eHomeMakers project founded by Chong Sheau Ching, a writer passionate about women issues. Launched in 2001, eHomeMakers is an award-winning multi-language web community that provides education, services and networking support for over 10,000 active registered members who operate cottage industries.

Initially frequented by mostly homemakers and single mothers, the one-stop resource portal has become so successful that today nearly half of its members are male. The Salaam Wanita project took off in June 2002, providing training in basic IT skills for disadvantaged urban poor women to prepare them for work at home or as tele-workers.

These women were mainly homebound due to physical disabilities, chronic illness, family commitments or other reasons and therefore unable to source for work or business opportunities outside their homes.

By 2003, roughly 200 women have been trained in Internet and computer use and the group had even opened a branch in Ipoh, a state in north Peninsula Malaysia.

It was hoped that after being taught to use the PC and the Internet, these women would be able to participate in work opportunities posted at a forum in the eHomeMakers portal. However, it was soon found that their disposition still left them unable to take a proactive approach towards opportunities offered to them.

"Firstly, most of them, particularly those aged 35 and above are slow in learning computer skills, especially those burdened by ailments," explains Chong who also oversees Salaam Wanita.

"They are also quite resistant to learning new technologies as they cannot link the new knowledge to opportunities for earning an income," Chong adds.

Meanwhile, the cost of maintaining a computer with higher electricity consumption and Internet connectivity eats into their already meagre income. As for modems and phone lines, these are often struck by lightning during fierce thunderstorms.

In such situations, the ill and old cannot move quickly enough to disconnect their lines or devices, says Chong.

Complicating matters further are gender and logistical issues that often plague downtrodden women.

"Drunk fathers and husbands tend to become violent and may damage the PCs.

"Also, a high neighbourhood crime rate means that when women go for treatment in hospitals, they may come back to find their computers stolen," says Chong.

Chong added that the leaks in roofs and drainage problems that is often found in low cost houses and squatter homes tends to lead to water ruining the computers. When Anna Robless, the current manager of Salaam Wanita took the group’s helm last April, she found coordinating the activities of some 200 women through phone and fax quite a hair-raising chore.

"It was so confusing and messy," describes Robless who was required to fax or call the women when opportunities offered by private sectors were listed on the eHomeMakers website.

To her dismay, the ones who were ill and in hospital were unreachable, while single mothers who were working on their own home products missed out when their own fixed line phones were engaged.

"Since their phones and fax machines were shared with family members, miscommunication and misidentification often happened," she recalls.

Another problem was that many of the women gave up trying to contact Robless when Salaam Wanita’s phone and fax was engaged.

"By the time we got the women coordinated, the customers had lost interest as it took us too long to respond to them," said Robless.

Later on, she resorted to organising group meetings which turned out to be equally ineffective as the women either faced transportation problems or were unable to attend meetings due to illness or physical problems.

Luckily, much of the group’s problems have been resolved with the webto-mobile phone solution.

Basket weaving training sessions are organised monthly, and some of the senior members have become skilled enough to become trainers.

Last year, about 300 baskets of various sizes were produced. Sixty per cent of the proceeds go back to the women, while the other 40 per cent are kept in a fund used to sustain the group’s operations through promotion, training and marketing.

Although the significant obstacles have been eliminated by technology, it is still too soon to heave a sigh of relief, admits Robless.

"When we first started using the web-to-mobile phone solution, 98 per cent of the members didn’t reply. They were still not used to this mode of communication, so we still had to call them," she recalls.

The lack of orders from clients remains a constant worry for Robless, which is crucial for the group’s growth and survival.

"No matter how high-tech we go, without sufficient orders, there would not be enough work for the women to do. If that happens, some will drop out of the programme.

It has not been easy, but we just try our best to make do with what we have. When we see the smiles on these women’s faces, we feel that our efforts have been worth the while," she said.