Women in pink at WSIS II

On the first day, I was so desperate to see women at this space because of the overbearing presence of men, especially those in uniformed and are armed. When I scanned around, I saw mainly (apart from the participants) women in pink who were cleaners and usually hauled big bags of rubbish with them…

On the first day, I was so desperate to see women at this space because of the overbearing presence of men, especially those in uniformed and are armed. When I scanned around, I saw mainly (apart from the participants) women in pink who were cleaners and usually hauled big bags of rubbish with them.

There was also women who were usherers and information officers in serious shades of maroon suits as the exhibition centre became more active.

Today, there was another class of women, courtesy of the private sector, namely Alcatel. Women dressed in satin-like off-shoulder sashes sparkling in their stand. They were all young (I would guess early twenties), all beautiful, and mostly in – yes, once again – pink.

It was certainly eye-widening.

I stopped to speak to them, and they were friendly and informed, whose task was to sell Alcatel mobile phones. They were actually students at a local university, undergoing degrees in Management and English.

Young, articulate, bright women. I am tempted to even claim them as the future shapers and movers of the Information Society. What are they doing here? Are they participating as stakeholders in the negotiation process, or at the very least, as members of the WSIS Gender Caucus?

Uhm.. no, they are dressed in off-shoulder pink satin dresses, looking beautiful, and attracting potential customers for Alcaltel.

All universities have been closed for the entire period of the Summit (five days), for reasons I can only guess at (another time maybe). But it would seem clear that what is NOT the reason is so that students can participate at the Summit as a group politically invested in the process and outcomes.

Entry to the Summit is heavily policed, and unless it is for employment – security personnel, usher, cleaner, mobile phone seller, map pointer etc – it seems that engagement is very much dictated by immediate and short term fiscal gains.

Which are not bad actually for those at the Alcatel stand. They are paid 100 dinars per day — which is really good money when a kebab can be purchased for 1 dinar, a SIM card for 10 dinars, an SMS message sent for 0.6 dinars, and taxi ride of about 20km is about 8 dinars.

When asked if they use the internet or own mobile phones, they said yes, but the complained about the speed of the connection. Wouldn’t it make sense for them to dialogue with their information minister, or other representatives in the government, about their concerns and perspectives at this rare space where there is a possibility to meet?

Perhaps the conversation did happen, but if so, it is a happy chance rather than through considered design.

Nonetheless, they still fare a little better than the cleaners. Again, it is frustrating that I am not able to converse in Arabic or French, but APC’s information coordinator Frederic Dubois who spoke French managed to help me out in translation.

There are apparently two different shifts of work: from 8:00 am to 3:00 pm, they are paid eight dinars, and from 3:00 pm – 12:00 am, they are paid 12 dinars. To be able to afford one meal from the Summit restaurant, they would have to work for four and half (daytime shift) or three days (night shift).

When asked, the cleaner I spoke (via Frederic) to did not own a mobile phone – though she knows how to operate one – or have access to the Internet. I guess, once again, the “All” in ICTs for all seems to be selective in its application.

A little reminder of the Geneva/WSIS Declaration of Principles:

"1. We, the representatives of the peoples of the world, assembled in Geneva from 10-12 December 2003 for the first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society, declare our common desire and commitment to build a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society, where everyone can create, access, utilize and share information and knowledge, enabling individuals, communities and peoples to achieve their full potential in promoting their sustainable development and improving their quality of life, premised on the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and respecting fully and upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

More specifically on women and the hard-earned Paragraph 19:

“12. We affirm that development of ICTs provides enormous opportunities for women, who should be an integral part of, and key actors, in the Information Society. We are committed to ensuring that the Information Society enables women’s empowerment and their full participation on the basis on equality in all spheres of society and in all decision-making processes. To this end, we should mainstream a gender equality perspective and use ICTs as a tool to that end.”

I didn’t realise that development-oriented meant conforming to tired gender-stereotyped roles in employment as the fringes and accessories of a black-suit event.

What a surprise to see ‘enormous opportunities’ for women meaning earning slightly more as a cleaner in the WSIS event as opposed to the normal garment manufacturing job that the woman I spoke to held. Silly of me really, to think that key actors meant a little more selling mobile phones with a university degree in line.

Something has seriously gone wrong somewhere in the equation. We seem very capable of talking the talk, and in fact feel almost compelled to have images of women whenever there is mention of the potential of ICTs for XYZ, but when it comes to reality, the gap is jarring.

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