Gender and ICT/Foreward

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Two decades ago, at the Third UN World Conference on Women in Nairobi, we realized the potential of the new Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to advance gender equality and women’s empowerment. A decade later, we realized what it would take. A genuine Information Society demands the equitable participation of all members of society in the creation, management and use of its products. Without this, the notion remains an empty promise.

UNIFEM has worked for over a decade to help make the promise a reality for women. It is true that some women can use technology to access new markets, to access information and to compete on more equal terms with men. In countries or communities where strict cultural norms and traditions isolate women in their homes, for example the Internet has greatly facilitated their access to knowledge information. But technology is never neutral. It cannot by itself change the power structures that are deeply embedded in society. While the Internet has been a powerful tool for global advocacy for ending violence against women and other human rights abuses, for example, it has also served to facilitate the dramatic increase in sex tourism and trafficking in women and girls.

The constraints to women’s access to and control over ICTs are by now well known. Despite advances that have reduced prices for computers and connectivity in many regions, they are still beyond the reach of most women worldwide. Telecommunications infrastructure is largely urban centred, Internet content is still primarily in English and online use of some languages has been constrained by technical design. Women have less time to use computers, email or the Internet regularly. Similarly, the unequal participation of women in decision-making, and their lack of needed skills and training factor into the gender gap in ICT policy and design.

So long as women are viewed solely as consumers of ICTs, they will never be able to fully participate in their benefits. Enabling women to realize these benefits means building their capacity not only to access technologies, but also to participate in their design, influence their content and shape their uses. Women are producers as well as consumers of information and knowledge. Women must also participate in shaping the regulatory environment that surrounds content and use. Without such an environment the digital divide will remain – between rich and poor, between those with the advanced education and skills and those without, and between women and men. But we also need to ask to what extent women are involved in, and gender issues addressed in the shaping of regulations – with regard to both content and use.

UNIFEM is supporting the development of websites, virtual communities and networks and CD-ROMS on such issues as gender and trade, ending violence against women, and women’s human rights, as well as region-specific initiatives such as Arab Women Connect, which offers web-based information spaces in Arabic and English. We are currently partnering with Cisco Corporation in Jordan in the creation of e-villages, which is building the capacity of rural women to secure jobs in the new economy. Our Digital Diaspora initiative in Africa is harnessing the technical know-how and business expertise of entrepreneurs in the diaspora to women’s organizations and business associations in Africa to strengthen women’s economic security through training in ICTs, the creation of business partnerships and access to finance. In India we have set up a web-based centre for journalists on gender and HIV/AIDS, and in South Asia and Africa we are supporting networks of HIV positive women by linking them through an online resource centre.

Importantly also, women themselves are actively seeking help in building their ICT skills – in rural villages as well as big cities. Significant progress has been made, in Asia-Pacific and elsewhere, examples of which are highlighted in this publication. However, in looking at their impact on the ground, we must also realize that, for the most part, they remain at the level of pilot projects and ad hoc policies. We need to find ways to ensure they are scaled up and adopted in all countries and regions, and reach women everywhere at home and at work, even in remote areas.

It is within this context that I welcome this publication by UNDP Asia-Pacific Development Information Programme (UNDP-APDIP) and the Association for Progressive Communications Women’s Networking Support Program (APC WNSP), placing the discussion of ICTs and gender within a gender equality framework. While acknowledging the benefits, both real and potential, of the much-heralded Information Society, they have moved forward to address the implications of integrating a gender perspective at a national level. What policies need to be put in place? What steps can be taken to expand the reach of good practice examples? It is time we move the discussion from the potential to the reality, and begin an in-depth policy dialogue on how to operationalize the recommendations that have been signed and agreed to by Member States.

At the most recent World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2005, UNDP-APDIP worked with UNIFEM South Asia and several other partners to organize a pre-WSIS Summit forum for Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), academics and leading activists from the country level to dialogue on some of the more pertinent issues we face in charting the way forward. We look forward to greater collaboration with UNDP-APDIP, UN partners, international donors and CSOs to eliminate the inequalities that still define today’s Information Society.

An Information Society is not built by designs and intents but by concrete measurable actions. It is only when global commitments and national policies are translated into meaningful public policy development and implementation, that we can say for certain that we are making progress towards a true Information Society, and genuine e-quality for everyone, both women and men.

Noeleen Heyzer
Executive Director, UNIFEM