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ICTs helping to bridge gender divide

08 December 2009

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New technologies are empowering women by giving them greater connectivity, access to social services and reducing the gender gap, writes Aparna Ray. Increasing use of cell phone and other computer-related technologies among women is putting more pressure on policymakers to integrate gender in ICT policy processes.

As digital technologies open up new spaces and possibilities, there is a lot of optimism about empowerment of women, and alleviation of gender disparity. According to the ITU, the UN agency for ICT issues:

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) can be used to close the gender gap by creating new jobs for impoverished women. Women, for example, have been at the forefront of the village phone movement, selling airtime to rural people too poor to own their own phones. ICTs can also be used to promote basic literacy and education for women and girls, provide job training and prepare women for careers in the ICT sector as well as to ensure health and safety.

As far as women’s empowerment at the bottom of the pyramid goes, the buzz has been more centered on mobile phones than computer-related ICTs.

In an article for the IDRC, “Women’s use of information and communication technologies in Mozambique: a tool for empowerment?” Gertrudes Macueve, Judite Mandlate, Lucia Ginger, Polly Gaster and Esselina Macome point out other important reasons why the mobile phone has been relatively more gender responsive than the computer-related ICTs.

“We find that women have already started appropriating the mobile phone, finding their own ways to overcome difficulties of literacy, language and costs, working together and using it as a tool for expanding their assets and capabilities with no need for technical training or back-up.

Perhaps this is the best example of self-empowerment through utilising new ICTs…
"… If computer-related ICTs were providing a real solution to rural women’s immediate problems, they would have appropriated them and used them to strengthen their ability to solve problems, make decisions and choices, and take desired actions."

Strategic uses of ICTs are being made in other key areas of empowerment, such as combating violence among women. A recent Stanford University Study report by Dayoung Lee indicates that mobile phones lower a woman’s tolerance of domestic violence significantly by giving them greater connectivity and access.

Lee writes: Phones may empower women by giving them better access to social services. Given the privacy of talking on the phone, women can more easily report domestic violence or consult family planning agencies.

However, that is not to say that ICTs are a panacea for gender discrimination. The world of ICT and gender remains a complex one. Where we have seen positive strides towards gender equality, we have also seen ICTs provide another space for the further marginalisation of women, and scope for exerting greater control, power and perpetrating violence against them.

Lee writes that though the benefits of a mobile phone was indisputable, they depended ultimately on having access to a mobile phone in the first place. According to her:

Household ownership of mobile phones does not indicate that women have access to them, or that women own them. Because mobile phones can be carried around, husbands may have more complete control over them than over landline phones. If they take the mobile phone to work, for example, women have no means of taking advantage of it.

In the paper “Violence against Women and Information Communication Technologies: Uganda Country Report: Strengthening women’s strategic use of ICT to combat violence against women and girls”, the authors Aramanzan Madanda, Berna Ngolobe and Goretti Zavuga Amuriat highlight the tenuous relation between ICT and violence against women.

Privacy invasion through SMS stalking and monitoring and control by spouses is growing.

Men control women’s use of mobile phones and give or withhold permission to their wives to use them, when and how. The link between mobile phones and killing of women are not incidents in isolation. Some women have acquired two SIM cards to forestall domestic violence. This is a sign of women’s empowerment as telephones provide a means through which to break male control by opening contacts to the outside world.

Women use mobiles to contact police officers in the event of domestic violence. Women’s organisations use the internet in combination with TV, radio, newspapers and other print media to highlight violence against women.

The Blank Noise Project is one such initiative we have seen in the recent times – to raise awareness and voices against street sexual harassment of women. Examples of other initiatives are a) a Bangladesh national campaign for strategic use of ICT to end violence against women from 2008 and b) Texting for Social Action in Africa organised by the Gender Based Violence Prevention Network in collaboration with Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET).

In a 2008 case study on “Mobile Cell Phones and Poverty Reduction: Technology Spending Patterns and Poverty Level Change among Households in Uganda”, Kathleen Diga from the IDRC noted :

Certain household members rarely made use of the mobile phone while the household head maintained possession of the tool. Women, for example, have calls completed on their behalf as partners fear the overuse of their airtime.

The fear may also develop from a perception of breakdown in head authority within households of this conservative community. These negative perceptions appear to re-enforced asset control particularly with the mobile phone within the household.

In fact, Lee’s study recommends that the government consider offering mobile phones at subsidised costs to women to enhance their access.

There is a growing voice among activists and bloggers to pressurise policymakers into integrating gender in ICT policy processes.
Berna argues that we need to consciously include gender in ICT policy, if we want to tap into the benefits of ICT in the area of bridging the gender divide.

However, even if these policies would be put in place in the near future, how will we be able to evaluate the progress made in this arena? Well, APC WNSP’s GEM is an “evaluation methodology that integrates a gender analysis into evaluations of initiatives that use ICTs for social change. It is an evaluation tool for determining whether ICTs are really improving or worsening women’s lives and gender relations, as well as for promoting positive change at the individual, institutional, community and broader social levels.”

Are women passively waiting for policymakers to decide their fate with respect to access to ICTs?

“No” says Helen Hambly Odame, Associate Professor at the School of Environmental Design & Rural Development at the University of Guelph in Canada.

She writes, “Women are not ‘waiting’ for access to ICTs, but rather using ICTs when they are available to get around the constraints they face in politics, society and economy.”

Necessity is the mother of invention, they say, one can only hope the desire for a safer, better quality of life will ensure that more and more women will come forward for ICT4D initiatives.

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