Publisher: GenderIT.org South Africa, 23 April 2018
This monthly column series speaks to the research project: Local Access Networks: can the unconnected connect themselves?. This research explores the topic of self-managed infrastructure, from a community-run approach as well as opens up the understanding around community networks and their possible relationship with feminism and gender.
The project plans to answer the research question on community networks: "What are the additional benefits to the local community in terms of well-being, gender equity and social and economic development when local connectivity initiatives are locally owned and operated"? The project specifically hopes "to identify and understand the gender dimensions of local access networks, the roles women play in them, the barriers to women’s participation and mechanisms to increase their participation and transform gender roles". This element of the project involves working closely with a senior researcher to help explore this area alongside the guidance of APC’s Women’s Rights Programme. The local access research team have diverse and extended experience of thinking about gender and community networks which will also have tremendous value towards the aims of the project.
For the next five months, this special column will bring forward some particular aspects of gender and community networks. This introductory column begins with a personal reflection on wireless networks and gender, with emphasis on new exploratory research that highlights aspects of gender in community networks. The second column will speak to the policy space and representation of women in regulatory and policy level work. The third column will look at the community networks movement at regional and global spaces and women’s participation. The fourth column is informed by the field research and considers concerns around research about women and community networks. Finally, the last and fifth column would look at the Feminist Principles of the Internet (FPI) and its relevance to community networks. As a reflection on the previous four columns, this final column will ask what have we learned over this period about gender and community networks and how the FPI can or cannot work for community networks. All the columns are also leading up to the 2018 Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch) which will be a compendium of community network innovation and experiences divided into country and thematic chapters. These columns hope to influence what is written in GISWatch 2018 around feminist infrastructure and gender impacts of community networks.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, community networks (or sometimes called community wireless networks, or locally run mesh networks) can broadly be defined for its characteristic of independent network infrastructure, controlled and owned by a community and used for meeting the communication needs of those in the community 1. The community would be involved in the layout of telecommunications infrastructure. In the case the community network is based on the use of wireless technologies, this would entail equipment such as towers as nodes and off-the-shelf WiFi routers and in some cases, be connected to backhaul internet through fibre or other available links. Through community ownership, the premise is that the local neighbourhoods would be empowered to get their own information and content that they want, including access to the internet. Some regions still lack any telecommunication infrastructure to connect to the internet as some internet service providers have yet to reach or these ISPs show little interest to meet the needs of low-population-density areas. In such cases, community members work together to build the appropriate physical infrastructure and the organisational model suited to help meet their connectivity needs 2.
Why gender and community networks?
Ten years ago, I had asked a similar question and now I have the chance to express some of my candid reflections on it.
In 2008, I had received a research grant to explore the social aspects of community owned wireless networks in Africa. There was specific concern at the time that there were major barriers of entry for women to be a part of the innovative processes to bring the internet to rural areas. I was to go and visit and observe for myself what was happening in some of these projects. I visited wireless mesh networks in rural parts of areas of Africa including Winneba, Ghana, White River, South Africa, and Kabale, Uganda.
These sites usually entailed numerous hours on a local bus or taxi to reach the village and sleeping in a shared room in the missionary house, or a one bedroom accommodation within a homestay, all that was affordable from my small research grant. From the three site visits, it appeared that these networks were run by entrepreneurial men or a group of men with some technical expertise. In Winneba, the centre was surrounded by male youth working on the computer or on a project. In these projects, I observed the lack of women’s involvement. I wondered if the lack of concern about women’s involvement would further structural gendered dynamics in society, prohibiting the local infrastructure to grow more equitably or to be limited to the involvement of a few women. Would internet use also then take place on an uneven basis between men and women?
Yet all was not lost. During the same time, I was also exposed to women breaking through the male dominated mold. These missions included a visit to Kampala, Uganda and visiting the Makerere university to meet the students (both men and women) of the then Community Wireless Resource Centre and its then director Dorothy Okello (now president of Uganda Institution of Engineers and leads the Women of Uganda Network or WOUGNET) around their work on rural wireless architecture.
At one 2009 research conference, Wireless Africa, I presented on the topic of gender and networks and recall one particular slide. I asked ‘what valuable innovations / insights / economic change are missed in my community when women are excluded from the knowledge society?’ Ultimately, this is the motivation for why we research gender and community networks. At the same meeting, I met women technologists from Angola, Morocco, Kenya, Lesotho – who in a male dominated space were envisioning access to their rural African homes and communities with what technologies and resources were then available.
Further experiences opened me up to another world of wireless and feminism. The Feminist Tech Exchange (FTX) 2008 in Cape Town, where I saw the likes of Lilian Chamorro of Colombia demonstrate the development and use of a cantenna (as in, using a large coffee can to create point-to-point WiFi connection). Women activists were fully engaged in understanding the process and how to bring back such learnings.
There was momentum back in 2008 for WiFi connectivity within and run by communities, yet little was known around women’s participation and what processes have contributed to improved relationships of women in involvement within community networks. In 2018, are we to see a resurgence of interest to understand these dynamics?
Fast forward to 2018
A global research project is now running and we are asking similar questions of gender and community networks. The context has changed, but what has changed in the gender dynamics between men and women in community networks? I can now ask what is different to what I observed in 2008 and to what is happening now in 2018? How have things changed and what is the position of women in relation to men when in comes to gender representation around wireless networks in communities? Are there still gaps to be filled?
Perhaps the context plays a part. Back in 2008, internet was sparse in rural areas. You could get a possible GPRS signal on the phone, if you were lucky and not located next to a hill. The innovation of individuals (that I had observed) taking up efforts to connect their area to WiFi internet was extraordinary. Those few happened to be predominantly male technologists or telecommunications engineers. Then the growth of mobile telephony was looked upon as the way to absorb the rest of the space where there was still no connectivity, including in the rural areas. So there was no need to set up further networks in remote places… or so we thought.
In 2018, we now see the maturation of the mobile industry no longer seeking to reach the furthest mile as it would not be financially profitable. How then will the internet reach those that remained unconnected? Today, another revival of internet self-provision is in action - through a revival or global movement of community networks. Better technologies and spectrum availability, ongoing iterations of supportive policy in all spheres of government and informed communities of the value of internet are driving rural remote places to demand internet. There appears to be this movement of local communities who better understand the value of access, and are investing to improve training and participation, working together to bring the physical infrastructure collectively to their localities.
There are also emergent articles and researchers interested to work on the topic of gender and community networks. Feminist autonomous infrastructure build on frameworks "with having real consideration about conditions of people", including those who are involved in the infrastructure. Researchers like Tigist Shewarega Hussen working in the field write about applying the third world feminist lens on community networks and ask what is really community participation of such networks when there is poor articulation of women's involvement. When she visited Mankosi, there were clear efforts of women in the maintenance of the network. This supports Laura Forlano’s suggestion that “it is possible to reimagine the transformation of passive users into more active participants in the functioning of the network, which requires a deeper commitment to listening, learning and the infrastructuring of social relations”. 3
We are taking this monthly column as the learning journey for our research team and hopefully yourselves as informed readers as we explore the gendered changes in community networks.
1. Frangoudis, P. A., Polyzos, G. C., & Kemerlis, V. P. (2011). Wireless community networks: an alternative approach for nomadic broadband network access. IEEE Communications Magazine, 49(5). 2. Kos, J., Milutinović, M., & Čehovin, L. (2015). nodewatcher: A substrate for growing your own community network. Computer Networks, 93, 279-296. 3. Forlano, L. (2016). Infrastructuring as critical feminist technoscientific practice. Spheres # 3. 1-4. p.4.