[OPINION] Report from Rio: After sessions ending at 4 am, do gender issues count?
By Dafne Sabanes Plou
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL, 27 July 2005
Gender issues don´t count when it comes to discussing telecommunications policies. Or so it seems, with most still believing that these technologies are gender-neutral. So why at all, their approach suggests, should one have all these women talking of gender issues while analysing the growth of new information and communication technologies (ICTs) and their impact on society, culture, economics and policy-making?
At Rio de Janeiro’s June 8-10, 2005 World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) regional Latin America and the Caribbean Regional Conference, representatives of international organisations — including financing institutions — reflected this problem. They had a hard time to link their well prepared discourses on ICT development to the people’s social, economic, political and cultural rights, not to mention gender justice.
[WSIS is a UN-sponsored conference about information and communication. The summit happens twice: its first part took place in December 2003 in Geneva. Phase two will take place in November 2005 in Tunis. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) took the lead in organizing the event, which includes the participation of more than 50 heads of state. WSIS is also related to UNESCO. When the 2003 summit failed to agree on the future of Internet governance, the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) was formed to come up with ideas on how to progress.]
Many of these organisations have spent a good amount of money to pay for experts to research and write-up on gender issues. This is reflected on papers uploaded to their websites.
Most are good documents and the organisations are happy to show how they follow these politically-correct gender policies in their programmes and projects around the world.
But when it comes to telecommunications and ICTs, and discussing the need to build an inclusive information society, they leave these policies aside. They don’t seem to find a case for gender issues in their ICT policies.
Are government representatives different?
Only a handful of them included gender issues in their concerns and had enough courage to discuss openly — in plenary sessions and in committee meetings — the need for mainstreaming gender in ICT policies.
One country proposed that a gender dimension should become a cross-cutting axis in the Plan of Action and that a working group to incorporate this dimension should be created. But this was not even discussed.
So there was a lot to be done by civil society organisations, and women´s organisations, in the Rio Conference. It was not an easy task, as only plenary sessions were open to all participants. Committee meetings, where the real decisions took place, could only be attended by government representatives.
At this point, work done by civil society representatives in their own countries, prior to the conference, became very valuable. Activists were able to discuss the issues and lobby their representatives, thanks to the consistent job done at home.
Civil society representatives who were members of government delegations were of great help, too. On many occasions they were able to put forward and support civil society interests, including specific language in the final documents.
Thanks to these interventions, governments committed themselves to create ICT public access centres and also to grant access to community radio and TV stations using ICTs. They also made the commitment to promote Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), specially in education and digital inclusion programmes.
After three days of intense debate, with sessions even ending at 4 am, the conference was able to produce the ‘Rio de Janeiro Commitment’ and the ‘Regional Action Plan — eLac2007’ (see URL below).
Both documents open the way to the implementation of ICT policies in the region that take into account national interests and people’s rights. There are a few specific mentions of women and gender issues in both documents, related mainly to training and building gender indicators, but the concern for fostering an inclusive information society is present in them.
Civil society organisations will now have the difficult task of monitoring the implementation of the Action Plan, and of securing effective and democratic participation in its development.