Cyber Dialogues give women real power

Date: January 1, 1970
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An innovative new concept known as cyber dialogues is putting the power of information technology into the hands of women who have had experiences of abuse.

Using a virtual meeting space women, and men, connect with each other from public meeting points or the privacy of their own homes and offices.  Just a couple of years after the first launch in 2004, cyber dialogues are cropping up all over Southern Africa and beyond.
Speaking at the second Gender and Media Summit held at Indaba Hotel, Kubi Rama, of the Gender and Media Southern Africa (GEMSA) Network, said in reflection:
 “Information in urban centres or discussed in international fora did not get out  there to as many as possible. And that is why we decided to use cyber dialogues to have women in different settings to share their experiences on important issues of gender violence.”
GEMSA, an umbrella organisation of individuals and institutions who work to promote gender equality in and through the media, has its roots in the first Southern African Gender and Media Summit in September 2004. With the secretariat currently hosted by Johannesburg-based Gender Links, this network is drawing on this tool to help make connections among women and activists across the region.
The cyber dialogues enable women who have in the past, or are presently facing gender violence, to pour out their hearts, share experiences, and ask very personal questions on the issue. The dialogues also helped link them with policy makers and donors in discussing these matters.
Having worked successfully at the country level during the 2004 sixteen days of activism against gender violence, Gender Links and African Women and Child (AWC) Features drew on the cyber dialogues at the global stage for the Beijing Plus 10 Review conference held in New York in March 2005.
The main objective of the Beijing Plus 10 cyber dialogue was to ensure that women – especially African and those in the South – who did not make it to New York, could still interact with the news coming out of the conference and be part of the process shaping their own issues at the international level.
On a daily basis, women in Africa and Asian countries were able to have their views form part of the agenda of the conference, thanks to the cyber dialogues.
A total of 333 users and 28 expert panelists from 18 countries across the globe participated in seven theme-based dialogues. An on-line newspaper kept them abreast with what was going on at the conference, and in turn using the information to make recommendations during the chat time.  
Issues coming through these dialogues were part of the agenda of the African and Asian-Pacific women’s group who were presenting a position on issues that affect them most.
Women, though thousands of miles away, were able to utilise the power of cyber dialogues to be part of the discussions at the New York conference.
At this year’s Gender and Media Summit, testimonies of how the cyber dialogues have worked wonders for civil society organisations in different countries of Southern Africa were encouraging.
“Violated women who had bottled-up what they went through started opening-up and were inspired to share their experiences when they chatted online with others who had gone through similar experience,” said Sarry Xoagus-Eises the Namibian GEMSA country representative.  
According to Xoagus-Eises, the training that preceded the use of cyber dialogues during the sixteen days increased the capacity of Namibian women to use the internet and the cyber space and they are now thinking of how to link up with people in neighbouring countries.
Loveness Jamabaya of GEMSA Zimbabwe said that in Zimbabwe the cyber dialogues were an empowering platform for women.
Civil society organisations also use the dialogues as monitoring tools to help them put to task policy makers who do not fulfill commitments they make during these on-line chats.
The tool is not without its challenges, including limited access to computers with internet facilities, especially for women. Low computer literacy, transport logistics, unreliable internet services, lack of knowledge of issues on the table during the chat, all complicated the effectiveness of the cyber dialogues.
So was the challenge to bring on board all kinds of people: the blind, deaf, the youths and the illiterate.
Nevertheless, the positive stories coming from Namibia, Zimbabwe and other countries powerfully show how information and communication technologies can advance the rights and well-being of women.
Sally Shackleton of Women’sNet presented another creative use of new technologies, Digital Stories that help women tell their stories of suffering in a very personal way.  Digital stories combine personal experiences, photos, video, artwork and music to create a moving multimedia experience.
Her organisation is using these stories to help women survivors of rape tell their stories in language they understand well and without someone talking on their behalf.
A wide range of groups can make use of cyber dialogues. In prisons, the dialogues can facilitate discussions between prisoners and their families, and can be a way for people living with HIV/AIDS to connect. They can also help women candidates share strategies on how to win an election and enhance dialogue between governors and the governed.
This new and innovative strategy of harnessing new technologies, is paving the way for increased communication and dialogue on a whole range of topics. As people connect through cyber space, they offer support and encouragement to each other, while exchanging a free flow of ideas.
Arthur Okwemba is a Kenyan journalist with the African Woman and Child Feature Service. This article is part of the GEM Opinion and Commentary Service that provides views and perspectives on current events.

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