DHAKA, Bangladesh, 18 May 2006
From being a student activist to working with the word in the library, and getting involved in a wide range of campaigns, soft-spoken Mylene Soto has seen many things. Today, she’s part of APC member Women’sHub, a group that works for the promotion of gender equality amidst the alphabet-soup and geeky world of ICTs (information and communication technology). She joins Cheekay Cinco for this discussion on gender and ICTs in the Asian context.
"Women’sHub conducted research on existing ICT practices in the Philippines to see whether there is a gender perspective in the national ICT policies, both existing and pending. We also conducted a baseline survey of where women were in the ICT field at that time," says Soto.
They conducted workshops with high school teachers on ICT awareness-raising, all in the Philippines. Teachers were mainly from the capital city. "The baseline research was supposed to be from three major provinces, but we were able to deliver two—Cebu and Metro Manila," says Ms Soto.
She explains that women are in almost equal numbers in schools, in colleges, and even in the university. "But when you look at where they are in the ICT industry, most of them are in call centres. In engineering courses, there are almost equal numbers, and this is the case in the science courses, too. But they’re not in decision-making or in more technical areas," she explains. "They’re occasionally in management positions, but mostly in marketing."
Women’sHub has been working on a blogging space, which is about to be used by the women’s programme. It’s called sheblogs.net, and, subject to some technical problems being sorted out, is expected to be operational in a little while.
"Last year, the APC partnered with us in the South-East Asia Secure Online Communication Workshop. It’s to conduct training on using online applications to support the security of advocacy of NGOs," explains Soto.
Soto is one of seven who set up the "flat" (non-hierarchical) non-profit corporation in 2000. Soto explains the idea behind Women’sHub: "At that time, most of us (involved in setting it up) were working at the regional or international level. Most of us are also members of the Women’s Programme of APC. We felt we should do programmes at the national level (in the Philippines). So we applied for funding from CIDA Canada for that research."
Cheekay Cinco, another member of Women’sHub and an avid photographer, adds: "Women’sHub members have always been members of the APC WNSP (the Association for Progressive Communications Women’s Networking Support Programme).
We were engaged in regional (beyond the Philippines) work. In 2001, there was a decision to do more local work. But it was hard to do it (without a structure) as APC WNSP, as there was not a local entity." This project, supported by the Canadian International Development Agency, lasted for one-and-half years, but other projects have come up since. "Studies locating gender are part of our effort to make policy recommendations to legislators. After our baseline studies, we invited legislators to present our findings to them," adds Soto.
"For more than ten years, our government has been cashing in on the development of ICTs to gain revenues. But we found out that in all the policies pending, bills approved, or in publicly funded ICT initiatives, there was no gender component at all.
The position in the Philippines hadn’t changed at all since, even with the creation of the Commission on ICTs last year, says Soto.
What would it take to change the situation, or at least reverse the tide? What does Women’sHub see as a viable strategy while working for change?
Soto says: "Now we don’t have funding, so now nothing’s happening (on our side). Part of it is about increasing awareness, providing training. We also got requests for the same. We did hold one on women’s electronic training. This was aimed at encouraging the use of online communication tools, chatting, website development. This is an offshoot of the regional work we were doing for the Asia Pacific Women’s electronic training (WENT) workshop in 1999–2003."
Helping overseas migrant workers
Women’sHub have done work for the Centre for Migrant Advocacy (CMA), an NGO that has its work geared towards overseas contract workers, because they are the ones who most need the help. They have helped the CMA to develop its website. This meant providing training to deepen the understanding of websites, how to use them efficiently with APC’s tool ActionApps, and how to maintain them. Now, they’re going in for a website revamp at the CMA.
"Women’sHub is also involved in their SMS help-line project," Cinco said. "One member who is a techie helps with the database stuff. She does a lot of the technical backend work for this organisation. I come in mostly to help with the web development and fund-raising."
The Philippines has a large number of overseas contract workers. This project provides a health-line service to overseas workers by SMS. Their messages are automatically stored in a database, and also automatically forwarded to the Philippine department of foreign affairs, for action.
This SOS SMS project was launched in early 2006 for overseas Filipino workers (or OFWs) in distress, especially women at risk. "Emergency assistance is just a text (SMS) away," say the promoters of the project. They anticipate it would be handy (no pun intended), especially for those working as domestic workers or caregivers in private homes, and irregular or undocumented, or even ‘invisible’ migrant workers.
The SOS Short Messaging System for OFWs in Distress (SOS SMS) is a 24/7 text-based ICT mechanism. Overseas Filipino IT workers themselves had a role to play in building the system.
The group behind the project explains: "As a text-based mechanism, SOS SMS rides on the backbone of the cell phone technology, capitalising on the OFWs’ familiarity with the SMS utility, and is dependent solely on the OFWs’ access to any SMS-enabled landline or cell phone unit."
So, it allows for the near-instantaneous, inexpensive, 24/7 reporting of OFW cases from practically anywhere. More significantly, SOS SMS gives government agencies and NGOs the opportunity to respond or intervene in a timely, adequate and efficient manner, particularly where an OFW’s life, safety or wellbeing is at stake.
As a research tool, SOS SMS establishes a database that permits case documentation, indexation, classification and analysis of various OFW problems and related issues.
Cinco says: "I think this is the direction [in which] we want to take Women’s Hub… We’ve always wanted to support NGOs in the country, aside from the Gender and ICT campaigns, specifically women’s organisations, or those which have a very strong gender focus."
One of their priorities is to underline the importance of "knowing whom to contact" when tech help is needed. "It’s not just about how to make a machine work. In the Philippines, Women’sHub is lucky enough that we are in touch with technically inclined people who can provide the support," Cinco adds.
"If the CMA staff have problems with their Linux machines, they e-mail me or Sarah. They’re full on Linux," she says.
This is a complex region. The country has some 114 spoken dialects, eight major languages, and 7000-plus islands— "depending on whether it’s the high tide or low tide". It is one of the main Asian capitals for non-government organisations (NGOs).
"We’ve got a pretty strong women’s movement, too," says Cinco. Incidentally, the history of the women’s movement in the Philippines dates back hundred years. The Philippines was one of the first countries to give women the right to vote, and the women’s movement has a strong tradition, with matriarchal roots in pre-colonial times.
Cinco says that in the Philippines, the Linux User Group is very supportive and that newcomers are not given a hard time because of their inexperience.
But influencing policy in the Philippines as far as gender is concerned is not very easy. Cinco says that woman becomes the ‘gender’ person in any ICT-related event, and is identified in the women’s movement as the ‘tech’ person. "So you get ghettoised into a role you don’t want to be the only role," she says. "You straddle two movements."
But the members are glad that the Women’sHub is invited to every ICT event. In other events, it would be expected to "do only the gender-related bit". "But it’s something you have to do, because if you want to engage, you can’t not engage," argues Cinco.
Cinco says of her background: "I wanted to be a physicist. Then, I shifted to the library information sciences. Before I ended up there, it was three years of journalism, a year of political science. So, I spent actually seven years in university before I decided what I wanted to do. That’s how I got into computers, doing databases."
Soto, on the other hand, studied political science and the humanities. "I didn’t finish. In 1979, I joined the anti-Marcos movement. In 1984, I went back to school again. I have a 22-year-old daughter who (has) just graduated from university."
She adds: "When in the mainstream, (I’ve been involved with) various campaigns—breast-feeding, environment, alternative schools for children. After that, I joined the women’s movement through Isis International. My primary work was in the resource centre and library. That’s where we (Cinco and I) met. Also, I’ve been a volunteer for Greenpeace-SE Asia."
Recently, Geenpeace had an anti-climate change campaign where activists climbed the pylons of a major coal plant outside Bangkok. They sat in their hanging harnesses and camped there for four days. They put up banners and set up a cybercamp, a website and a blog where people could send messages to. "These people really know how to use ICT in their campaigns," Cinco said.
She comments: "My life may not be as colourful as the other stories. But, looking back now, I know I have reinvented myself," adding:
"Actually, one day you wake up and are surprised by where you end up."
Both Soto and Cinco agree with the view that, after so many protests, campaigns, revolutions and betrayed promises, the Philippines, like other Asian nations, needs alternative ways to engage the attention of the protest-fatigued citizen and raise relevant issues in campaigns.
Cinco says: "After all the people’s power protests (and disappointing outcomes, with successor government betraying hopes), there’s fatigue. Everyone is very cynical of protests. Activists in the Philippines need to rethink there’s other ways of getting a message across, aside from taking to the streets."