RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil, 31 August 2004
“We are constantly urged to make the case for gender and ICT,” said Karen Banks, coordinator of the APC Women’s Networking Support Programme in her opening address to the APC WNSP’s first gender and ICT policy conference, “ICT policy makers, funders, governments and even civil society ICT advocates ask ‘why gender?’ and the women’s movement asks ‘why ICTs?’” The debate dominated the proceedings throughout the two-day meeting in Rio de Janeiro in June.
The Networking for Change and Empowerment Forum organised by the APC WNSP provided a vital space for agenda and strategy discussion for the more than 40 gender and information and communications technologies (ICT) advocates present from 23 countries. The Gender and ICT Policy section of the Forum came on the heels of a three-day exchange on WNSP’s Gender Evaluation Methodology (GEM) for ICT initiatives where GEM Practitioners were able to focus on gender and ICTs at the local level, in their projects, contexts and experiences. The resulting gender and ICT policy debate in the Forum was further enriched by this grounding in local context.
“Gender and ICT activism is about fundamentally changing inequitable systems through the application of appropriate ICTs,” said Jennifer Radloff, APC-Africa-Women coordinator. “We cannot separate our social activism from our use of ICTs and we cannot be ICT activists if we are not rooted in the realities of our communities. The Forum was a space to reconfirm how much we are doing, how much experience we have gained and that we have the tools to contribute to changing inequitable systems.”
The two-day policy forum combined presentations, debate and regional strategising, all geared towards strengthening gender and ICT advocacy work with deepened analysis. Participants identified challenges and set priorities for their regions, leaving the forum with renewed energy to address national gender and ICT policy work. Besides providing an overview of gender and ICT globally and regionally, several country case studies were explored to look at the cross-section between gender and national ICT policy. There was a special focus on host nation Brazil with presentations from Carlos Afonso of RITS, APC member in Brazil, Nilza Iraci from Geledés Black Woman’s Institute, and Silvana Lemos from the women’s ICT and community radio network, Cyberela.
Forum participants were a diverse group made up of seasoned gender and ICT activists who were on the front line at WSIS debates struggling to keep gender on the agenda, feminists from different women’s networks, social movements and organizations, and representatives from local ICT initiatives concerned about gender and social change.
Influencing the political agenda
The forum’s Regional Roundtable clearly demonstrated that government connectivity agendas around the world – be it Kenya, Jordan, Ecuador – are focussed on private sector growth in the ICT arena and frequently subject to the whims of political leaders. "I realized how advocacy work around sensitive issues, as many ICT policy issues are, is vulnerable; often you must re-start or change your strategy again and again, because of elections or other political changes," commented one participant. "It is really hard to sustain any achievement if you don’t dialogue with government and push constantly for legislation change."
Current instances of real dialogue and civil society inclusion in ICT policy formulation were only achieved after sustained lobbying. Even then, participants cited limited results in terms of improved representation. "We need to push for the ICT for development perspective – veer the government strategies around ICT from a strictly private sector view," said one activist. "But at the same time, we need to ensure that civil society participation is not token or [used to provide] a smoke screen… be critical and aware of so-called "multi-sectoral" approaches by the government."
Clear strides forward in participation by civil society were evident in Brazil, where ICT advocates are proud of their country’s stance on maintaining top level country domain control (keeping .br in Brazilian hands) and cited examples of local governments who have shelled out funds to wire their communities, seeing this investment in infrastructure as strategic for community development. But activists there noted that even progressive policy-makers will often favour policies that are most easily achieved in a short period of time over those that create more inclusive change but are more difficult to achieve.
Women and ICTs – the Brazilian reality
In general descriptions of the national ICT context in Brazil, women were invisible, blanketed in the term "civil society". However, as participants learned more about Brazilian reality from feminist ICT activists present, the stark reality of ICTs for poor, rural and urban women, a vast majority of Black descent, crystalised the intersections of race, class and gender in ICTs where the priority issue continues to be access.
Nilza Garci, Director of Geledés, Black Women’s Institute, stated that only 12.5 percent of people own computers in Brazil, and of those computer owners, only 2.5 percent are Afro-descendent. "The attitude among Black women is that new technologies were not made for them." Geledés work has focussed on training and raising awareness about the possibilities of ICTs for rural and urban Black communities. "We’re constantly questioned about why we work on this issue with Black women: ‘Why focus on computer literacy and digital education when they have nothing?’ people ask; I answer: ‘Because they have the right to have rights.’"
From Cinderella to Cyberspace to Cyberela
Silvana Lemos shared how the Cyberela Network has addressed access issues combining community radio with ICTs. "One strategy, when you talk about how to position gender and ICTs, is convergence with other media. In this sense radio is key, especially in rural areas, because access is much greater, especially where access to the internet just is not possible." She said, in Brazil, with 73% of women having no contact with computers, radio is their contact with internet. The Cyberela Network has established telecentres in far-flung rural areas and trained women broadcasters in their use, they say, "from Cinderella to Cyberspace to Cyberela". From the Cyberela point of view, a fundamental component of access for women is content – created by and for women. As one participant stated, "looking at regional and national realities confirmed the work that needs to be done at a very basic level – the level of access to media and ICTs for women and how this is so fundamentally linked to content creation and dissemination."
Why “gender and ICT”?
Forum participants noted gender invisibility when examining macro level policy (be such policy at the global, regional or national levels) and the clear need for gender policy when examining local realities.
On the one hand policy-makers’ reaction to gender and ICT advocates is ‘why focus on gender’, or even the notion that technology, and therefore any policy related to it, is gender neutral. But on the other hand, women’s movements and gender lobbyists don’t see why they should be concerned about ICT policy. Pi Villanueva, from WomensHub in the Philippines, sums it up this way:
"In the Philippines we have been able to get access to policy makers at high levels in part because we’re a small country. We organised a policy dialogue with policy-makers and their reaction was – why on earth are you organising a gender and ICT forum? They understand ICT in a macro-economic way. They asked: but why focus on women, why not on general population – rural population, etc. We saw that the constituency of ICT for development is already small, and gender and ICT more so. We need strategies to involve women’s organisations with ICT policy – and we must also work intensively with other actors, because ICT policy decisions are made behind closed doors."
Different understandings of what gender means affect policy-makers’ and civil society’s ability to prioritise the issue as many confuse the term "gender" with "women". "We are talking about gender and gender equality, and that necessarily means talking about women’s empowerment,” said Angela Kuga Thas, from Malaysia, after the first day of forum debate. "It’s not just about looking at how men and boys use ICTs and stopping there, but rather how men’s and boys’ use of ICTs impact on women and their lives. It’s not just about providing equal ICT access to both women and men, but also addressing the effects of past discriminations that women and girls have faced that can affect their active participation, use and application of ICTs today."
ICTs are low on the list of priorities for the women’s movement
All participants in the forum agreed that the continuing harsh reality for women worldwide means that that there is a broad range of priority issues for women’s movements and ICTs are quite low on that list, although ICTs are now a fundamental tool in women’s activism. As Villanueva stated: "It’s unrealistic to expect the main contingent of the women’s movement to join the ICT parade. We need to make a better case to the women’s movement [and show] why ICTs in particular, or technology in general, is a strategic issue for women. That is our challenge." Jenny Radloff added "Because our work as gender and ICT activists is a new arena, we have to weave this into the work that is already happening such as, Beijing+10, HIV-AIDS work, poverty alleviation, preventing violence against women."
Rights vs needs
Karen Banks, APC WNSP Coordinator, noted that trends in development have changed. There is an emergence of emphasis on poverty reduction strategies, she observed. "Governments and donors are withdrawing funding of initiatives that are trying to mainstream gender issues in all human rights and development areas," and instead focusing on the much broader issue of ‘poverty alleviation’.
Part of the flurry of interest in e-commerce and teleworking as panaceas for economic plight is linked to this. Commented Angela Kuga Thas: "Poverty alleviation in the development context is almost often viewed only as addressing needs
social, environmental, economic, and most times, addressing these needs within existing social structures and power dynamics of the community concerned. However, addressing needs is very different from addressing rights.” If we address needs without situating our actions within a human rights framework, she cautioned, we run the risk of being seen as servicing a need rather than ensuring people’s rights.
"What underpins our work is the fundamental right to communicate and what barriers there are to realise this right. Not only do most women not have access to basic communication tools but we speak different languages, come from a range of contexts, have diverse racial, ethnic, social realities. A respect for this diversity enables WNSP to encourage many diverse women to participate," reflected Jenny Radloff.
Strategising for Africa, Asia, Central and Eastern Europe and Latin America
The extensive regional strategising sessions for Africa, Asia, Central and Eastern Europe and Latin America that the forum provided brought about a chorus of enthusiasm. For many present it was the first time that activists had the space and time to do serious regional reflection. Gender and ICT issues in the different regions were analysed and prioritised, as activists began to map out strategies for action at the regional and national level. While access – in the broadest sense of the term to include infrastructure, training, content, know how, etc – was consistently cited across the board, the gender and ICT issues identified varied in significance and importance according to the context.
Katerina Fialova, from the Czech Republic, shared: "We identified several priority issues, specific to our regions. One of them is e-commerce and women’s empowerment. E-commerce is widely promoted as the strategy for women’s economical empowerment by donors and development agencies across Central and Eastern European (CEE) region. We want to do a critical review of the assumptions and myths about what it will bring to the region and women. The other critical issue is censorship, since all the country in the region are following EU Policies, where a lot of censorship effort is now on-going under the cover of the fight against terrorism, women trafficking and prostitution. It is especially important to make people in CEE countries aware of these attempts. During almost 50 years of communism in our countries, we had been living in strong censorship culture and have very limited freedom of speech, so we are kind of used to giving up our privacy."
The Africa working group realized the diversity of responses from local initiatives given the different ICT challenges in the region:
"There is a lot of very good work happening in Africa where women’s organisations such as Isis-WICCE are using media tools to empower women, provide forums for sharing, linking media to giving women a voice, linking women’s voices to advocacy processes and to resources for healing. Women’sNet are taking up the challenge of FOSS, realizing that girls need to be given access to new media tools and creating the space through Girl’sNet. Fantsuam Foundation works with rural constituencies and adapt tools to the local context."
Cheekay Cinco, GEM coordinator for the Asia Pacific region, commented "There has always been a difficulty in trying to sum up the "top" gender and ICT issues in the Asia Pacific region, mostly because the issues (both gender and ICT) are diverse, conflicting and vast. The projects we worked with in the region for GEM were selected to reflect this kind of diversity, ranging from rural telecentre initiatives to a large-scale women’s teleworking network…. the diversity and differences in gender and ICT issues in the region is brought about by the reality that there is a wide (and widening) gap in ICT access and know-how in the region, and differences in how gender and Feminist concepts are taken on and understood."
The regional sessions formed part of the forum’s capacity-building strategy, permitting participants to gain more knowledge and know how about how to understand and address gender and ICT issues from a policy perspective at the national level. The sessions also highlighted inputs necessary to be able to move forward with such activities, including continued research and evaluation initiatives.
The Networking for Change and Empowerment Forum allowed a review of 10 years of work by the APC Women’s Networking Support Program and other advocates in gender and ICT.
Organisations mentioned above:
Geledés – Instituto da Mulher Negra
Cyberela Network and Cemina:
RITS – Information Network for the Third Sector