October 2003

African women and civil society ICT networks

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Gender and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) discussions, in the context of developing countries, concentrate on disparities between men and women. The buzzword is the Digital Divide. Not only is Africa considered to be the looser of the emerging Global Information Society but also, the women there, are perceived as the information poor and the ICT have-nots of today's world. After all, so reads the argument, African women are highly represented among the poor, illiterate, and low educated groups in society, blocking ICT access. Most women live in rural areas, without electricity or telecommunications infrastructure, while ICT processes are concentrated in urban areas. Additionally, African women lack decision-making power to change the situation.

More than identifying ICT disparities, many Digital Divide scholars warn that ICT exclusion results in increased social exclusion, with African women 'getting further behind' (in income, education, rights, et cetera) as compared to men and the North. I agree with the statements that there are huge ICT disparities between continents and between the sexes. Nevertheless, my research on African civil society into ICT networks indicates that these disparities do not take the shape of a gap isolating the majority of African women from people in the Global Information Society. The Digital Divide concept is flawed in several ways, as I will discuss below. In this article, I propose an alternative view departing from the particularities of societies, gender relations, and ICT processes in Africa. The underlying model envisions linkages instead of a gap, so that in addition to disparities, it also identifies opportunities in ICT, gender, and development. I will highlight the qualitative case examples of some innovative contributions by African women's organizations and distinguish the multiple roles they play in civil society ICT processes. The examples will demonstrate that even African women completely devoid of new media access can still be empowered through resourceful linkages.

Africa in the information age
Much thinking about ICT stems from the rich countries of the North. Too often, concepts are simply 'transplanted' to the developing countries of the South regardless of the distinct circumstances. Let me, therefore, first take a critical look at two main ICT concepts

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