The information age has not trickled down to women

Date: January 1, 1970
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Ten years after the Beijing Conference on Women with the advent of better interconnectivity, deregulation and liberalization of telecom monopolies, the question of women?s inclusion in statistical data remains either marginal or invisible. The age-old assumption that the benefits of the information age will somehow trickle down to women is still widely held, despite evidence to the contrary.

Close to 10 years ago, Africa participated in a groundbreaking gathering of policy makers and civil society actors in China for the World Conference on Women. The Beijing Platform for Action that resulted, vowed to improve the status of women in 12 critical areas, including information and communication. In the aftermath of Beijing, telecentres sprouted on the continent and today, mobile telephones are increasingly becoming so integrated in the lives of people that there seems to be little to complain about, at least on the surface.

Fast forward to 2003, and in the wake of the World Summit on the Information Society, whose first phase was held last December in Geneva, the Economic Commission for Africa’s (ECA) African Information Society Initiative, (AISI) demonstrated the results of efforts carried out in over 30 countries to formulate or implement National Information and Communication Initiatives (NICI), also known as e-strategies.

These strategies constitute a country’s policy and vision for transforming itself into an Information Society where the Information, Communications Technologies (ICTs) are integrated across sectors and contribute to better governance and poverty alleviation. From the highest political level, countries such as Rwanda, Ghana and Mauritius demonstrate that citizen participation is key to building a foundation for ushering a country into the information age.

Yet, with the advent of better interconnectivity, deregulation and liberalization of telecom monopolies, the question of women’s inclusion in statistical data remains either marginal or invisible. The age-old assumption that the benefits of the information age will somehow trickle down to women is still widely held.

According to participants attending a recent evaluation by ECA of SCAN-ICT, which is a multi-donor project that conducts research on the impact of ICT on society, “the status of women across the various sectors investigated over a period of several years remains marginal and invisible”. The countries participating in the project did not have gender as an objective of the methodology, making it difficult to come up with meaningful data collection and analysis of gender and ICTs.

Although the project methodology did not integrate gender in its framework, the results of countries such as Uganda and Mozambique do make the point that women remain marginally represented in telecenter projects, in education and in decision-making. There is no doubt that mainstreaming gender in research objectives and generating original ICT gender-disaggregated data are long overdue.

Aware of this inadequacy in the research, the ECA aims to work with participating countries to define gender in the methodology and research process, thereby coming out with informed data on how ICTs impact on women as a specific group. Blame it on gender-blind research, or a lack of understanding as to what constitutes gender-disaggregated data, or its relevance to market analysis, but data generated by official sources generally do not account for women and its only in 2003 that the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) began to include “female internet users as a percentage of both total users and as a percentage of females”.

It is worth recognizing that in policy implementation, all the NICI plans that the ECA has helped to develop recognize the importance of women’s access. For instance, Ghana’s NICI plan stipulates a number of interesting issues that include “increasing women’s access, promotion of women’s rights to expression and communication through ICTs and monitoring progress towards gender equality in the area of ICTs.” Its policy objectives aim to accelerate the development of women and to eliminate gender inequalities in education, employment and decision-making through ICTs. The inclusion of gender as an issue in Ghana’s ICT for development plan is an achievement. However, given the complexity of the issues in question, the challenge lies in implementation and translating that vision into reality.

If women are to benefit from ICTs across sectors, policy makers need to make informed-decisions based on gender-disaggregated ICT data. Building the capacity of national statistical offices and research institutions and equipping them with gender mainstreaming and assessment tools are key to bringing gender on the visibility map.

E-strategies need to go beyond the good intention of “recognizing” the importance of increasing women’s access. Governments need to put their money where their mouths are. Allocation of resources in the budgets of sectoral applications needs to be done with gender equity at the core.

Beyond mainstreaming gender in ICT policy, it is also crucial to focus on removing systemic barriers that inhibit the participation of women in the information society. Cultural practices that turn women into second class citizens, and that inhibit women from appropriating their equal and rightful place in society, thus preventing them from attaining educational opportunities or science and technology based opportunities, are just as critical today as they were a decade ago.

As Africa begins to assess the role of women 10 years after Beijing, civil society needs to arm itself with adequate knowledge of the national e-strategies being developed or implemented and play an active role in asking “where are the women?”.

The media, whose reporting and analysis on ICT for development in general has been recently reported in an ECA/Open Society study entitled “African Media and ICT4D; Documentary Evidence” as woefully inadequate, needs to wake up to its role as an integral development actor. Reporting carries with it a responsibility to find the gender question in every ICT story – because half of the untold story should seek to respond to half of the population it speaks of and respond to the question – where are the women?

Ten years from now, a typical gender-ICT story should demonstrate that women did not just appropriate ICTs, only to end up in environmentally unsound and unhygienic technology "sweatshops", that are so common in the consumer industry, where they are inadequately paid for software or hardware development, and lowly remunerated and benefiting little from so-called ICT skills. Further, the very technologies that they seek to appropriate should not rob them of their dignity, or make them vulnerable to surveillance and infringe on their privacy and rights. Rather women should appropriate the technologies with a view to speak out, share knowledge in a language they understand, be heard and have the wherewithal to alleviate poverty.

Governments need to be reminded that “Chapter J” of the Platform for Action and the subsequent section J of the Beijing + 10 “Outcome Document” are even more relevant today than in the last decade.

Mercy Wambui is an ICT specialist with the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.

This article is part of the GEM Opinion and Commentary Service that provides views and perspectives on current events. for more information. 


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