The internet of memory: Encouraging more women to find their “J” spot. The journey continues

The next step on the road from Huairou to New York (the first leg of the journey was described in our last installment) was via Seoul in September 1999 for a meeting of women’s media, communications and information groups, at Sookmyung University. The occasion, the Global Women’s Electronic Networking Training (GWENT). This convening launched WomenAction, a global network and campaign of women’s rights and media activists aiming to build the network through training, skills sharing, strategies in online facilitation and website construction and to develop short- and long-term objectives to impact on Section J of the Beijing Platform for Action, “Women and the Media”.

1999 was the year of...

  • Worrying about Y2K.

  • Playing Snake on a green-screened Nokia phone.

  • The release of David Bowie’s album “Hours”, the first complete album by a major artist available to download over the internet, preceding the physical release by two weeks.

  • The publication of Naomi Klein’s No Logo, a critique of branding culture which becomes the anti-globalisation movement’s key text.

WomenAction included over 30 women’s media, communications and information groups and had a core aim of influencing the June 2000 United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS). UNGASS 2000 was convened to review the status of the Beijing Platform for Action, and was popularly referred to as Beijing+5. For the APC Women's Networking Support Programme (APC WNSP), Beijing+5 was the second high-point for its ICT policy initiatives in the global arena.

WomenAction employed various creative and collaborative strategies at the Beijing+5 convening, from setting up a telecentre in the NGO space opposite the UN buildings, to developing a print and electronic newspaper called Flame (and at subsequent convenings called GEM News). The newspaper was edited by a team of journalists from Asia, Africa, Europe, North America and South America and produced in French, Spanish and English.

Feminist International Radio Endeavour (FIRE) broadcast live over the internet and was rebroadcast via community radio stations to reach those not at the conference. Les Penelopes provided a one-hour daily interactive TV broadcast. Policy advocacy activities included producing statements, alternative reports and a Declaration to UNGASS of the NGO Caucus on Women and Media. Part of the statement read:

As codified in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all people have the right to "seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontier." This implies that it is essential for women and marginalized groups to gain access to all means of communication and public expression, including the mass media; noncommercial access to broadcasting spectrum and communications technology; and a say in the direction of technology development.

Policy advocacy at UNGASS 2000 strengthened the global partnerships between women and media groups, but governments were passive at best, and obstructionist at worst, towards the women and ICTs agenda. This reflected what little interest both UNGASS/Beijing+5 and governments had in taking this up as a priority concern. There was obvious resistance to the inclusion of any language or reference to more democratic forms of regulating the information and communications industry. [1]

And *this* challenge continues!

Engagement with UN processes on the rights of women, to upfront the need to articulate clearly women’s rights to use technologies freely, creatively and without surveillance and violence, also continues. From the five-year reviews of the Beijing Platform for Action to each Commission on the Status of Women, APC WRP, always in partnership with feminist organisations, works to influence language on women’s rights and the internet. From humorous comments like the one made by Maira Suarez of FIRE – “I wonder if we will find women’s 'J' spot?”, referencing Section J of the Beijing Platform – to raising the critical issue of online gender-based violence, APC WRP has successfully garnered support from women’s organisations who work in multiple fields, not just in media. Because we realise that without free and open access and use of the internet, our work and movement building will be compromised.

The way the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) works is that each year a priority theme is selected and the principal output of the CSW is the “agreed conclusions” on that priority theme. The output contains an assessment of progress, gaps and challenges, and a set of concrete recommendations for action by a diversity of stakeholders, to be implemented at all levels. As with most UN processes, CSW is a complex space with civil society hosting parallel sessions while also working to engage with governments to influence the language in the agreed conclusions.

A critical aspect for the work of APC WRP and our partners is the work around showing the linkages between internet legislation and strategic frameworks, platforms, agendas and development goals which need to include the impacts and related rights brought on by the internet. One milestone for APC WRP was the 57th Commission on the Status of Women which took place in 2013. The session’s priority theme was “Elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls”. Representatives from APC WRP attended and offered strategic inputs regarding violence against women and information and communications technologies. The inputs came from the years of work of APC WRP and APC member partners on combating online gender-based violence.

But this is just one of the interventions made by APC WRP over more than 20 years. Just type “CSW” into genderit.org to see all the advocacy, partnerships, side events and adventures we’ve had at CSW. It is a difficult and exhausting space, always in a freezing cold New York, and we’ve questioned putting our energies there over the years. But how does one measure a journey such as this? This blog post is just a snapshot of the engagement with CSW over the years.

The road from Huairou to New York was never lonely! Partnerships have deepened and grown and the beauty is that more women’s organisations who are not just engaged with media or technology are firmly convinced that including women’s internet rights in all legislation is crucial for women’s rights advocacy and movement building, and that women’s rights have got to be central in any internet rights debate. This intersectionality and engagement is often like skipping down the proverbial yellow brick road [2] – although without the ruby slippers – and finding misogynistic wicked wizards but also feminist, smart and powerful witches as allies.

As Karen Banks put it, “Any programme or project which aims to support the empowerment of women must acknowledge the reality of women’s lives and adapt and respond accordingly.” It is the credo of APC WRP. Perhaps our language has changed a bit to encapsulate this as “creating safe spaces of exchange and experience where the politics and practice of technology are informed by local, concrete and contextual realities of women.” Whatever language we use, the internet is a powerful space and tool for feminist movement building, and APC continues to create the spaces to engage women’s rights activist in the governance and politics of technology and to use the spaces and tools safely, creatively and with confidence.

So the techie activist women in that tent in Huairou started a revolution which resonates across the decades and has shaped the dynamic engagement of women using, claiming, hacking and coding the internet today.

[1] Read more on this subject here.
[2] Meaning “a course of action that a person takes believing that it will lead to good things.”

Want to continue exploring the history of the APC women's programme? Check out Women in Sync, a three-volume book set published in 2000 that captures the APC WNSP experience of getting women online during the 1990s.