The economic and political marginalization of women, especially in developing countries, is leading to their stunted growth. Gender discrimination in the access to information is hampering sustainable development. Several conferences and summits held on gender, in particular, the UN World Conferences on Women, Beijing and Beijing +5, have reaffirmed the need to focus on gender equality issues through ICT use. Keeping this in mind, Digital Opportunity Channel (www.digitaloppor-tunity.org) of OneWorld South Asia in partnership with i4d (www.i4donline.net) launched the email-based discussion forum on 'Gender and ICT: Issues, Implications and Opportunities' on September 12, 2003.
This forum provides stakeholders in these fields a medium to interact and debate about the implications of ICT applications in development and the opportunities that they offer. It also provides them with a platform to take their voices to policymakers in order to influence local and global strategies. This discussion moves a step ahead with the objectives of prior gender conferences to provide inputs to the upcoming Gender Caucus of WSIS 2003.
The platform attempts to increase sensitization towards gender, of policies and design of development tools. It will circulate information on resources, practices and events on how women globally are being empowered by ICT.
Already, the forum has over 150 participants. The postings are topic-based, leading to objective-oriented discussion. The focal themes include access to ICTs and their use, gender implications of ICT's and capacity building and entrepreneurship till December 2003.
The first of the postings related to accessibility – lack of access to ICT being one of the major impediments towards achieving an information society. “Governments and others stakeholders should provide the necessary conditions to ensure women's equal access to information and knowledge as well as ensuring their equal role as producers and decision makers in all aspects related to the shaping of IT policies and frameworks”. (Bucharest Conference, November 2002). The discussions mostly center around barriers like technology, education, social and cultural factors that hamper women to access information. Of technology, it is so agreed that it is per se neutral to gender and its usage depend on the society's ideologies, assumptions and preconceptions. Notwithstanding these, numerous cases of self-help groups comprising of poor and uneducated women using ICT as a tool to enable access to education, wealth and empowerment are known and cited. Most participants seem to believe that social and cultural factors are important and integral to gender discussions.
Alternative, and often unconventional means of dissemination of information also find place on the boards. In many cases, the lack of locally relevant content as well as an unclear need for information marginalises women. It is suggested that knowledge banks be created to aid and abet develo-pment, ably supported by 'appropriate ICT technology'.
Currently, emphasis is being laid on formulating ways to bring in provisions of gender concerns in the current draft of the WSIS Declaration and Action Plan. This platform has acted as a support network, campaigning critical gender issues for WSIS raised from different corners of the world.
In the words of a certain posting, “somehow we could combine forces and discussions here, perhaps bringing the discussions to date in from other forums, and then carrying on together in some fashion? It presents an already developed foundation upon which to build debate and hopefully consensus.”