Women’s networks and ICTs: The character, achievements and challenges past and present of the APC WNSP

By the APC Women’s Networking Support Programme (APC WNSP)

The APC WNSP began in the early 1990’s and is one of the strongest women’s Internet-based networks in the world. This article is based on texts from the Women in Sync Kit – a three-part publication on women’s electronic networking [1].

A personal account [2]

‘.. go and find out more about this ‘email’ thing’!.

So rang the words of my director in June, 1991. Having just returned from a conference in the north of England, he was terribly excited about an experimental means of communicating via computer and telephone. A way of communicating that was more durable than fax, cheaper than the telephone, able to transmit information in a format that could be re-produced over, and over again.

To discover more about this technology I talked to Graham Lane, the Information Technology officer of Amnesty International and author of “Communications For Progress” – at the time, a ground-breaking exploration of NGO (non-governmental organisation) and activist use of computer-based communications. Graham introduced me to Mike Jensen [3], a technician at GreenNet.

Mike was experimenting with Fidonet to exchange of information between two computers using a telephone line as conduit. Messages were composed using special ‘DOS’-based software. They were then packed up in a bundle, which was compressed to about 1/20th of its original size. A telephone call was made from one computer to another via a modem. The bundle was then sent down the telephone line – much as logs might flow along a river – to a destination, many thousands of miles away.

Soon after, a communications ‘hub’ was established at GreenNet, which exchanged email, via daily telephone connections, to over 40 communications hubs in Africa, South East Asia, and Central and Eastern Europe. The communications hub in London was called ‘GnFido’ (GreenNet Fidonet) [4].

The heady combination of communication and computer-based technology intrigued me completely, and within six months, I had become the ‘system operator’ of the GreenNet-Fido gateway. I was a ‘techie’ and I was hooked.

The Earth Summit and the women’s networking bureau (1992) [5]

In 1991, GreenNet was working with over 800 NGOs in the UK and Europe. These NGOs worked mainly in the area of environment, development and human rights, and many were preparing for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development or – as it was more popularly referred to – The Earth Summit.

In June 1992, staff of APC members formed a team to provide, for the first time, on-site computer-based communication services to the 17,500 NGO delegates who attended the parallel NGO forum during the Earth Summit [6]. The impact of the service was notable in many respects. Today, these services are often provided by the United Nations directly, often in partnership with NGO networks such as APC. We have come to expect such services at important regional and international events. But at the time, the Earth Summit’s NGO Communication Centre felt like an innovation from the future.

Inspired by this experience, a group of women who were based at various APC member organisations identified the need to serve the international women’s environment and development movement in a similar, but more coordinated manner.

Alas, the path was not so smooth. The obstacles to women’s appropriation of this powerful technology were many. Even some of our colleagues failed to grasp that women would be marginalised further if denied access to fully exploring and appropriating this technology. We had difficulty explaining to donors how critical it was for them to support this area of work. We had difficulty gaining permission from management to allocate time to this work. We had difficulty explaining to people just what it was we actually did! These barriers still exist for many women today.

The women who built the network [7]

APC WNSP Women’s Networking Support Programme (APC WNSP) was officially started in 1992. By 1993, APC’s membership had expanded and relationships had been built with partners in South East Asia, Africa and Central and Eastern Europe. Over twenty women staff and colleagues of APC member and partner networks worked continually to raise awareness and gather support for an international women’s networking support programme. The work was not always prioritised or considered core to the work of the APC member. Some women had a very supportive APC member network base. Others were not as fortunate. In either case, predictably, women worked overtime or in their ‘spare’ time. These women were technicians, information workers, project managers, financial workers, coordinators, and executive directors from over fifteen countries. Collectively, they had all the skills and expertise needed to begin working towards a shared vision of a strong Internet-based women’s network.

All of the women who are drawn to the programme from inside and outside of the APC are activists. Both on a personal and political level, these women work, through actions (be it awareness raising, training, lobbying, campaigning, organising workshops, or writing) to highlight the injustices people (and in most cases, women specifically) face and the struggles they wage towards redressing these injustices. Many members work in areas such as human rights, women’s health and reproductive rights, violence against women, women and armed conflict, and women’s economic empowerment.

They are more often than not working with women’s groups in their local communities and therefore provide an important function as ‘bridges’ or ‘brokers’ between local and national, local and regional, local and international support networks and fora.

In general, they are engaged with information and technology as tools for their work.

Who do the members represent? [8]

One of the major strengths of the programme has been its open approach to diverse types of membership. Members of the programme may represent a women’s organisation; a women’s media network; or be staff of an Internet based network; staff at APC or at APC member organisations. Some are members in an individual capacity.

A safe and secure space [9]

In a world where micro-seconds measure human accomplishments, where micro-chips store unbelievable amounts of highly complex technical information, where computer processors perform calculations at speeds that rise daily and geometrically, one of the factors which contributes to strong network building is time: careful attention to time.

The two years in the run-up to Beijing [10] – the APC WNSP’s first major project – was spent strengthening and linking existing women’s networks through a long, slow, solid process of trust and relationship building.

What is interesting about the APC WNSP is that it has survived, and thrived during times when there has been little or no funding. The reasons for this are very much related to the less visible aspects of the programme, those concerned with the ‘human’ side of the work; the mentoring, the support, the solidarity and the fact that the programme tries to be relevant and therefore, a part of women’s lives. Another of the less visible aspects of the programme, and more difficult to ‘quantify’ is the way women build networks.

‘Women led’ and ‘women only’ space [11]

An important aspect of this supportive environment has been the practice of providing a ‘women only’ work space and insisting that women take up all leadership positions. We call this practice being ‘women-led’.

The electronic planning spaces of the programme are almost without exception, women only. There are exceptions to this practice at national and regional level, but in these situations, the men who participate are allies who understand the importance of – on the one hand, providing support and sharing knowledge and skills – whilst on the other, respecting the ‘women-led’ philosophy of the programme, the unique ways women work and the spaces that they provide for one another.

In the early nineties, many male colleagues provided technical, moral and other types of support. In some cases, male colleagues were identified as focal points in places where relationships had not been developed with women or women’s groups. Most of our experience of men joining the programme work spaces have been positive. The fact that they have taken the time and effort to become involved was often the outward expression of their recognition and acceptance of the way we work. When the motivation for joining the space was an expression of men’s ‘right’ to be involved, tensions and suspicion often surfaced and the impact of their involvement was felt in a less than constructive way.

Consolidation and activity [12]

During the two years prior to the Fourth United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 [13], women’s groups began tentative encounters with the new technology. Many of the electronic networking projects and initiatives responded to the emergent issues at that time. These issues invariably concerned access to training, credit, equipment, and ‘know-how’; impact of the new technologies on women’s already overburdened lives; appropriateness of a technology that is strongly male-centric, expensive, and frequently produced in the North; and questions about security and privacy. There was also the issue of language, and in an Internet dominated by English-language content, this remains a seemingly insurmountable barrier.

Issues and barriers, notwithstanding, women of APC and their colleagues from other organisations began linking up and preparing for the Beijing Conference. Seizing the opportunity, the coordinating committee of the APC WNSP implemented a set of activities that provided a kind of ‘kick-start’ to the programme.

The initial activities implemented by the coordinating committee of WNSP included:

§ documenting the names and numbers of women and women’s groups using email at the time (40 when we started)
§ organising content (on issues such as health, violence, labour, environment and development) into electronic newsgroups
§ making this content available to all women’s groups using email that we were aware of (APC’s policy at the time was to provide access to the APC Newsgroup series only to users of APC networks. The APC WNSP lobbied to change this policy in relation to the content that was relevant and critical for women.)
§ encouraging every APC member and partner to identify a ‘focal point’ for the WNSP
§ establishing connections and building relationships with the focal points
§ fundraising to subsidise the cost of women receiving this content, particularly if they were based in the South. This was really a critical aspect of our work at the time. The cost of accessing email was really prohibitive for most women, even those who did have a computer and telephone line. These subsidies often made the difference between participating or not.
§ encouraging women to establish their own electronic newsgroups, particularly at a regional level. In 1993, there were no more than half a dozen electronic newsgroups focussing on women’s issues available via APC networks. By the end of 1997, there were over 50.

In addition to this, the ‘Gender and Information Technology Project ‘ which ran from 1993 to 1996 and which was funded by the IDRC (International Development Research Council) provided the opportunity for technical and policy training workshops to be held in Africa, Asia and Latin America, women technicians to attend the Internet Society’s Developing Countries technical workshop, women-to-women training workshops, and, groundbreaking research on women’s use of ICT [14]

The future

Five years ago, the APCWNSP was concerned with raising general awareness about the importance of women engaging with ICTs. Addressing questions of basic access and connectivity, providing training opportunities and materials, and engaging in discourse regarding the so-called benefits of joining the “Information Superhighway” filled our waking days.

Far greater numbers of women are now using new ICT in their work, but the issues identified five years ago still remain critical for most women in the world. The majority of the world’s women still do not have access to a telephone line, let alone a computer or the skills and knowledge to exploit the new technologies. In addition, in 2000, we now have to contend with new issues and challenges such as:

§ the rapid commercialisation of the Internet, where women are seen as an important ‘target market’;
§ the increasing convergence of transnational mainstream media with the power of the Internet, such as the corporate merger between Ted Turner’s media empire and America OnLine (AOL), which threatens to pipe homogenised content into everyone’s living room by the year 2005;
§ intensifying attempts by governments to restrict free and democratic access to the Internet by developing legislation attempting to regulate its use; and
§ the ascendancy of international trade bodies working to encompass the terms of exchange of ‘information products’ and ‘knowledge’.

In this environment, the APC WNSP’s priorities for the coming years will focus on training, policy and advocacy and building the capacity of the network.

References

1 Abstracts taken from “Networking for Change: The APC WNSP’s First Eight Years”, APC WNSP, 2000
2 A personal account from APC WNSP coordinator, Karen Banks, of how she became involved in computer networking taken from “Networking for Change: The APC WNSP’s First Eight Years”, APC WNSP, 2000 p.p. 1-2
3 Also see: Brian Murphy “Mike Jensen and the Code that stitched together the APC: The Pre-Internet Days and Early Efforts at Linking APC Nodes”, APC Annual Report 2000
4 Also see: Karen Banks “Fidonet: The ‘Critical Mass’ technology”, APC Annual Report 2000
5 “Networking for Change: The APC WNSP’s First Eight Years”, APC WNSP, 2000, pp. 3-4
6 Also see: Rory O’Brien “Enabling Civil Society Participation in Global Policy-Making: APC and the United Nations”, APC Annual Report 2000
7 “Networking for Change: The APC WNSP’s First Eight Years”, APC WNSP, 2000, pp. 5-10
8 “Networking for Change: The APC WNSP’s First Eight Years”, APC WNSP, 2000, pp. 11
9 “Networking for Change: The APC WNSP’s First Eight Years”, APC WNSP, 2000, pp. 11
10 The Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing, China in 1995.
11 “Networking for Change: The APC WNSP’s First Eight Years”, APC WNSP, 2000, pp. 12-14
12 “Networking for Change: The APC WNSP’s First Eight Years”, APC WNSP, 2000, pp. 14-16
13 Also see: Rory O’Brien “Enabling Civil Society Participation in Global Policy-Making: APC and the United Nations”, APC Annual Report 2000
14 http://community.web.net/apcwomen

Source

APC Annual Report 2000

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