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As an organisation that has worked with the Orang Asli indigenous women in peninsular Malaysia since 2013, one of the biggest challenges we have faced as EMPOWER is how best to integrate the work on the right to information and access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) with the most pressing of issues: native land rights. This challenge is further compounded by the fact that there are only about 100,000 Orang Asli in the peninsula in a growing national population size of 34 million. Most have already been relocated into more urban settings, eroding their sense of community, and the villages where they are located can be far and wide from each other, sometimes only reached through difficult access routes. What makes matters worse is that a village can be as small as one family.

We initially thought that we could try to pilot a project where the Orang Asli women manage one of the government’s internet centres, but such an initiative was expected to be wrought with bureaucratic challenges. Then I learnt a bit more about community networks from my colleague, Serene, who leads our Net, Tech and Rights programme.

Community networks are internet connectivity and communication networks managed by communities themselves. The idea is to increase connectivity and communication without the hefty burden of costs, and to distribute these costs effectively among users, including potential outsiders such as businesses, schools, libraries, hospitals, etc. nearby. This idea is very much aligned to the initial thinking and idea that EMPOWER had come up with, where we thought that we could get one of the internet centres set up by the government to be managed by the Orang Asli women, but much better in ideology, as it really promotes local ownership. So I decided to attend the Community Network Exchange organised by Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) with two objectives in mind:

  • To gather more information on the technical know-how of setting up community networks.

  • To get to know the individuals who can become resource persons in building up EMPOWER’s own knowledge, technical know-how and related skills for the set-up of community networks.

The conversations I had and the presentations I observed made me think about why EMPOWER wants to engage in establishing community networks. I was particularly thankful for the conversations I had with Nicolas, Carlos, Senthil and Rahul. While local ownership is critical, I can’t help but wonder too if we are we addressing access issues without really thinking of how we address gender inequalities within these communities. How do we ensure that we’re not reinforcing gender inequalities? Or gender stereotypes? Or existing gender-power dynamics?

For example, Senthil shared how he started to get the community interested by organising a simple competition, like a talent show for the girls. And when they won, the parents became interested. Eventually, he started getting the girls to enter science and technology competitions, and when they won, more and more parents became interested in having their girls work with community networks. In order to sustain the community network, he organises trips by engineering students, charging these students per head, to visit these communities. These students will then teach the community something and in return, the community will share with them their problems, and these then become issue problems for final year projects that these students will try to address. I was really impressed with his work, how he ensures sustainability of the community networks managed by girls, and his sincerity. But my head was buzzing with so many questions to myself, and for EMPOWER.

Does such an initiative fit into a particular development paradigm where only the ones who excel are recognised for their contributions? How much do girls have to excel before they are valued as girls? I can’t help but wonder, what of the girls who cannot excel and who will never be able to excel in science and technology? Would they be made to feel more stupid, and ridiculed further? I am quite sure that Senthil has considered these aspects, but there was so little time for such rich conversations. I had failed to ask him about what exactly fell under “science and technology”. These days, such a subject could be much wider in scope. The fact that Senthil focuses on girls is certainly commendable, but how does it affect gender relationships within the community? How do the boys feel? Do they feel left out? Do they feel more resentful towards girls? If they do, how does this resentfulness play out? Should the change be about knowledge and skills and only focused on the relationship to technology? At the same time, how much do we risk over-romanticising our understanding of “community” if we don’t cater to how individuals, families and communities feel a sense of self-worth? A sense of self-worth often dictated by more dominant and mainstream ideas of who and what is of more value. Context, context, context, I told myself. We cannot forget context, and contexts change with time, conditioned by the interplay of a complex combination of factors.

I love Senthil’s work, and his enthusiasm to address issues of access not only to ICTs but to opportunities for growth. We, at EMPOWER, hope to work with him more closely, and of course with APC, but it has set me thinking as to how to further disrupt the gender-power dynamics and more specifically, to make more feasible the development justice paradigm in the work that we do. How do we centre the concept of gender equality in our initiative? Four of us are finally taking a road trip today to speak to a few community leaders at two Orang Asli villages in the state of Negeri Sembilan. I look forward to more conversations and insights.

Angela attended the Community Network Exchange organised by DEF with the support of a grant from the APC Member Exchange and Travel Fund (METF).