Does social networking make sense for government institutes?

Author's name: 
Erika Smith

Doing a search for women´s institutes in Mexico yields few results – even though all women´s institutes are required by law to have websites. Mexico´s 2002 transparency law was heralded as key to ending corruption, a vindication of citizens’ right to know. Getting info out of the Federal Institute for Access to Public Information (IFAI) may not be crystal clear (in fact, women´s electronic network Modemmujer developed a multimedia training module called the Crystal Ball to help women learn how to ask for information via the IFAI system) but it has meant that at the very least government institutions are required to have a website. So while all state women´s institutes do have sites, in reality they are hard to find, and several have little information and are poorly packaged.

I asked why that was when I gave a workshop on women´s rights and social networking last week with approximately 30 women´s institutes operating at the state level in Mexico. I was surprised to hear that the lackluster officialist sites were, reportedly, a result of the very law which dictates transparency. Social communication specialists just biting at the bit to do something more on the internet complained about being strapped into a straight jacket. Many state governments have set up the website architecture according to a minimalist interpretation of the access to public information law´s stipulations and women´s institutes have to fit into that mold.

I suggested workshop participants forget about what they can or can´t publish on their websites and focus instead – as state women´s institutes – on WHO they wanted to be talking to, WHAT they wanted to be saying, and most importantly, WHY. Some wanted to debunk a myth that the institutes only exist for women facing physical violence. “We want to connect with teenagers in highschool, professional women, senior citizens – all need to know their rights, how to exercise them and what our services are.” They wanted to get out the word on their campaigns and contests, and many cited wanting a channel for interaction with the women in their states, to hear their concerns and needs. “After all, we’re here to serve them, and many women don’t even know the institutes exist!” They were especially keen on getting practical information available in all spaces possible, such as the steps to follow and services available if a woman faces violence at home.

Most institutes operate on a shoestring budget – struggling to survive and frequently tasked with both being the watchdog for women´s rights and gender mainstreaming as well as a service provider or referral service for women in vulnerable situations.

Enter social networking – an inexpensive solution for getting the word out? Easy to use? A way to connect with broader audiences? All of the above were reasons they´d come to the workshop. Discussion was animated – seeing the internet as a vital point of reference for youth but recognising that at least in Mexico, the majority of women are not online, especially if they are over 30. “But their daughters, nieces and grandchildren are online,” some observed, seeing social networking as complementary to other communications and outreach efforts.

Debate about whether spaces such as Facebook or Twitter are even “appropriate” for women´s institutes or government bodies ensued. Institutes in Veracruz and Jalisco shared their success stories, noting that Facebook provided them with an easy and quick way to get information out in all types of formats, and that lively discussions and questions and answers were exchanged. Others shared how they did use Facebook to promote women´s rights and media equality in reporting, but without the offical stamp of the women´s institute because it was not permitted in state government policy. We took a look at privacy concerns with Facebook, as well as the difference between fan and community pages versus personal profiles. Everyone in the room was on Facebook – would they want their profiles to be linked to an institute´s Facebook page?

Still others shared creative ways to talk about women´s rights – being a strong advocate by example and participation, rather than simply listing women´s rights or available services. The Jalisco women´s institute sponsored a one-minute cinema contest on date violence. The movie that won, Cicatrices (Scars) is promoted in You Tube as a favorite pick and was screened at the Avon Speak Out Against Domestic Violence in the Cannes 2009 Short Film Corner.

Social networking goes far beyond a Facebook profile, and what it means to have an increased and interactive presence on the internet using and interconnecting with any number of social networking communities must necessarily fit in with institutional and communicational objectives. Participants were interested to see how wikis and photo, video and document sharing can have internal and inter-institutional collaboration benefits as well. Having the opportunity to explore the possibilities with 30 communications specialists dedicated to women´s rights was not only fun, but an honor. “It´s all about guaranteeing the right to communication and information for women in the state,” said one participant – hmm, gender mainstreaming of transparency and the right to know, yet another task for women´s institutes.

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