The first “free software” workshop run for women by women in the world? Southern African women do it!

By APC-Africa-Women JOHANNESBURG, South Africa,

“The 1st SADC FOSS Workshop is a long overdue exercise for African women, creating awareness about free and open software (FOSS), and training how to use the FOSS tools. There is no more reason to remain frustrated about the digital divide. The introduction of FOSS had been successful, and I can wait to integrate FOSS when I get back. FOSS can be thought of the ‘new’ Digital Unite. Indeed fascinatingly AWESOME!”

[Workshop participant]

Splicing cables, partitioning hard drives, developing technology plans and sharing stories of activism set the scene for a lively and full 5 days 1st Southern African Development Community (SADC) FOSS workshop to be held. And as far as we know, the first FOSS workshop for women in the world. Women holding their breath as their hand-made cables were tested, groups debating how gender and ICT policy issues affected their work, sharing stories of unstable access to the internet and whether VSAT was more cost effective than dial-up – were some of the many activities which happened at the Women’sNet offices in Johannesburg form the 6-10 September.

The workshop also inducted the new FOSS walk-in internet café recently set up in the Women’sNet offices. The computers were brand-new and the surfaces of the desks still shiny. The internet café was full of women from the SADC Community, including participants from Kenya and Uganda, learning how to use Content Management Systems, contribute to blogs and of course during lunch-breaks, check their email!

Women’sNet, a non-profit women’s organisation based in Johannesburg, hosted the workshop to build awareness of and demonstrate the potential of Free and Open Source Solutions (FOSS) in the non-profit sector, and women’s organisations specifically. The event was organised by Women’sNet, with inputs from APC Women’s Networking Support Programme (APC WNSP), APC-Africa-Women (the regional network of APC WNSP), Meraka, and Ungana-Afrika. The event was sponsored by the Open Society Initiative Southern Africa (OSISA) and the Information Programme of Open Society Institute (Hungary).


Women’sNet believes that being able to use information technology strategically and effectively is an important source of empowerment and skills development for women who often feel isolated and disempowered by rapidly advancing technological change. At the same time, there is growing awareness of the potential role of free/open source software (FOSS) in particular in harnessing ICTs for socio-economic development.

Among the potential benefits of FOSS are:

* Open source software is royalty- and license free, which means that the cost of acquiring the software is lower than that of proprietary software.

* Because the source code is accessible, open source software can be modified to meet the needs of users in particular contexts and languages.

* Users are not trapped into ongoing dependency on a particular vendor for upgrades and support.

* The collaborative open source model of software development offers greater opportunities for local skills and economic development.

* Some free software is recognized as more stable and more secure than its proprietary counterparts.

* Open source software is often less demanding on hardware resources than proprietary software, and can help break the cycle of constantly needing to upgrade hardware to accommodate "software bloat".

Some background and synergies

A panel discussion hosted by APC-Africa-Women at the WSIS Summit in Geneva in December 2003 on "Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) – The potential power and possibilities for women’s organisations and networks” stimulated discussion and interest amongst women’s organisations about exploring FOSS. It was agreed that a hands-on workshop was needed. The idea was to stimulate awareness and adoption of free and open software source (FOSS) solutions among women’s organisations in the region and to deepen understanding and skills among women technicians in providing technical support to women’s organisations. This in order to provide an ability to assess, adopt and effectively use FOSS applications within women’s organisations. These became the two overall objectives of the workshop.

This was also undertaken with an awareness what women are often the last to benefit from new developments in the ICT sector.

The global support among the APC Women’s Networking Support Programme enabled two women to travel from the Philippines and the United Kingdom to train and to learn from what we believe to be the first workshop to be held on FOSS for women. The idea was to expand the experience beyond SADC and Africa and enable this model to be adapted and adopted in other regions.

Purpose of the workshop

With the exception of certain Internet-related tools, open source software is not yet widely used in Africa, and there have been no initiatives aimed specifically at using open source to support women’s organizations and networks. In order to realize the potential of open source software it is necessary to

* Raise awareness of open source tools at a variety of levels: policy, management, technical staff and end-users.

* Provide easy access to open source tools.

* Develop skills among end-users, technical staff and potential open source developers.

* Ensure the ongoing development of support and training materials.

* Develop capacity for planning and decision-making around implementing open source solutions, including an awareness of factors such as total cost of ownership.

The structure of the workshop:

The workshop was run over 5 days and was structured into two parallel tracks, with some overlapping sessions.

Track 1 participants and facilitators shared technical skills and experiences, discussed key challenges in realizing FOSS projects, and develop concrete strategies for supporting women’s NGOs in their technology decision-making processes and effectively integrating ICT into their operations and future plans. This targeted young women computer technicians – mainly technical support staff and system administrators – to build their capacity to support women’s organisations in their assessments of technical hardware- and software-related needs and, where required, in migrating to and implementing FOSS solutions.

Track 2 targeted decision-makers and end-users in women’s organisations, with a view to building their ability to assess and choose between different technical (especially software) solutions. This track demonstrated the use of some FOSS software solutions that facilitate web publishing and information-sharing, illustrated the ease with which women’s organisations can maintain their a web site – e.g. by pooling content and collaborative online publishing – at the regional level, using only basic word processing skills.

The glue that held that tracks and participants together was a commitment to gender equality and an involvement in the women’s movement. Participants work in arenas from HIV/AIDs information dissemination, preventing violence against women, involvement in SchoolNets and a teacher responsible for ICT training in her school. The belief that using ICTs strategically in their work enabled a more effective advocacy and networking was a consistent theme. Applying technical competencies to activism and sharing skills and knowledge made for a dynamic and exciting workshop. Making the ideologies behind FOSS real and applicable to the women’s movement was one of the achievements of the workshop.

The Future

A mailing list has been activated to keep participants in touch with each other and enable sharing of resources, tools and stories on FOSS. The “techies” were particularly keen to ensure that follow-up happens including a system administrators workshop. There are plans to replicate the workshop at a pan-African level and other regions are developing plans for similar workshops. All participants left with a CD-Rom of all materials and many FOSS tools as well as the knowledge that African women are successfully challenging digital and technical exclusions.

“It’s great to have female role models and trainers who are on their way to becoming techies. It is easy to remain at the word processing level because that is what you use everyday. Sometimes you hear these techno words and don’t even bother to find out what they mean because the technician (usually male) is there to take care of the problems. What dependency! After this there is no more excuse. There is no rocket science involved in using technology more effectively.”

“It feels so good to be among women who realise the benefits and usefulness of ICTs and hopefully by the end of workshop FOSS. It’s a cool cool feeling (makes me smile all the way to bed). I have had a lot of experiences (good and bad) in using ICTs for development and its gives me hope to see so many women in one place talking technology and I must appreciate that I’m learning new things everyday. It’s also interesting to note that ICTs offer a means to innovative programming, having heard about the interventions in Mozambique from Lucilia it gives me hope that my dream is slowly becoming a reality. I have dreamt that women and children and everyone else can access important information at the click of a button.

Author: —- (APC-Africa-Women)
Source: APC-Africa-Women
Date: 10/01/2004
Location: JOHANNESBURG, South Africa
Category: Women and ICTs

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