March 2005

Women friendly e-Governance: Present reality in Nepal

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Shikha Shrestha

Program Coordinator
Bellanet South, Asia
sshrestha@bellanet.org

e-Governance is a relatively new term in the South Asian context. It is an even newer concept in Nepal, where it has different connotations for different people. To begin with, the use of Information Communication and Technology (ICT), especially Internet-based technologies, to provide government information and services is what e-Govern-ance is all about. The use of technology has been effective in providing easy services to clients who have access to the technology. This concept of incorporating technologies is helpful in increasing accountability and transparency of government institutions that ultimately would lead to the process of promoting good governance in any country.

There are three different sectors of this type of governance viz government to business (G2B), government to government (G2G) and government to citizen (G2C). Most of the sustainable e-Governance models are citizen centric models. In G2B, the focus of the government is the market sector. It comprises initiatives taken for promoting e-Commerce be it in the form of providing market information online or developing policies and guidelines for facilitating the process of providing market information and services to the clients. G2G is mainly related to increasing institutional linkages between different government departments. This process is essential in building a strong team spirit in the government sector. The third component of e-Governance is the one that has attracted the attention of most people in Nepal.

ICT and Nepal

The national vision of Nepal on e-Governance is concerned with ‘National Information Technology (IT) Development, Computerisation of Government development information systems, and its implementation at the district level to achieve good governance’.
Nepal first entered the world of IT with the introduction of the IBM 1401 computer systems for processing Census Data in 1971. Looking at the potential of IT, His Majesty’s Government (HMG) of Nepal established an autonomous centre named the Electronic Data Processing Centre (EPDC) in 1974, later renamed the National Computer Centre (NCC) in 1978. The Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST), which was established in 1996, took a lead role in promoting and facilitating the effective use of IT. Besides, the National IT Development Council, the National IT Coordination Committee, the National IT Centre, and the IT Park Development Committee are some other institutions established within the country.
Although the establishment of an institution is a preliminary step for facilitating any process, some policy guidelines would help these institutions to perform well in the long run. The Nepali government started to prepare the National Information Technology (IT) policy in the late 1990s. The National Planning Commission was delegated the responsibility of preparing the IT Policy. After a year, the IT policy 2000 was prepared to place Nepal on the global map of information technology in the subsequent five years.

There is a new IT Policy, 2004 still in the discussion phase. The changed vision is that by the year 2015 Nepal would have transformed itself into a knowl-edge-based society by becoming fully capable of harnessing information and communication technologies to achieve the goal of good governance, poverty reduction, and social and economic development. In the document, there are three goals:
• To make IT accessible to the general public and increase employment through this means
• To build knowledge-based industries and
• To build a knowledge-based society

While reviewing the document, it is interesting to note that the IT Policy of Nepal is very gender neutral. There is not even a single provision to make ICT accessible to women and other marginalised sections of the country. Is it because the government thinks that women already have access to this technology or is it because this is still not a priority area for the government? This is a crucial question for the state.

Women friendly e_Governance

The UNDP Human Development Report, 1999 on the gender aspects of the use of ICT and ICT related services showed that ‘women accounted for 38 percent of the users in the United States, 25 percent in Brazil, 17 percent in Japan and South Africa, 16 percent in Russia, only 7 percent in China, and a mere 4 percent in the Arab States. It clearly indicated that there was minimal access of women to ICT. This situation is even worse in developing countries such as Nepal.

Nepal seems relatively inclined to gender neutrality in IT Planning, policy formulation and implementation. Some of the major challenges that retard promotion of women friendly e-Governance are: poor access of women to education and economic opportunities, inadequate number of women IT professionals, and inadequate political willing ness for implementing gender sensitive concepts

Political parties in the country do not have adequate knowledge and exposure to the manner in which advanced technology could bring about changes in a short period of time. Most of the leaders be it in the political or the organisational field, find more comfort in dealing with traditional forms of communication like newspapers, reports and documents than Internet-based communication facilities. However, things are changing.

The fact that Information Communication Technology in Nepal is highly gender neutral has been proved by a review of Old and New Nepalese IT Policies. The policy makers do not feel that there is a need for developing an additional strategy for increasing access of this technology to women. A review of gender neutral and gender sensitive planning processes to study the status of gender sensitisation in the IT policy formulation board would be useful.

The road travelled

e-Governance is a concept adopted for channelling government services and information to different clients. Women constitute nearly half of the population in Nepal i.e. 50.04 percent out of total population of 22,736,934 (National Population Census 2001). Therefore, strategies should be designed to have easy access of women to these services. This would lead to an efficient e-Governing mechanism, which is only possible when the government and civil society are gender sensitive in the planning phase of e-Governance. As Nepal is in the initial stage of e-Governance, it is a favourable condition to incorporate gender sensitive planning and thereby women friendly e-Governance in Nepal. However, the road travelled appears like this:
• The rural literacy rate for females is 36.5 percent and the urban rate is 61.5 percent (Women in Governance, 2003). Inadequate literacy and exposure of these women do not make them confident of playing with different tools and techniques. • Out of 1000 persons in Nepal, 32 have telephone lines, 6 have access to mobile phones, 8 with TV sets, 39 with radio access, 5 with personal computers, and 60 persons with Internet access. UN statistics show that only 22 percent of Asian women have access to the Internet.

Planning Phases Issue identification and analysis Gender Neutral Analysis based on macro information: number of telephone lines, internet connections, mobile connections Gender Sensitive Analysis based on information related to women: how many women are linked with telephone, Internet, mobile and other communication services,
access of women to these services
(distance and expense)
Selection of Core Issue No mention of issues related to women and girls but assumed that addressing issues of total community will automatically address issues of women and girls Mention of issues of women and girls most specifically poor and rural ones for accessing communication services
Formulation of Issue based plan/policy Formulated with IT professionals, Formulated with IT professionals,
draft government personnel, national level civil government personnel, grass roots
society organisations based civil society organisations,
women activists and analysts
Policy/plan developed to increase connectivity/ penetration into total households Policy and plan developed to increase connectivity/ penetration with specific consideration of women issues such
as time and expense, with specific targets to increase connectivity to women by developing women-led telecentre schemes
Implementation of plan/ policy Executed by professionals (specifically men) and government personnel with specific focus on achieving overall impact Executed with joint efforts of women leaders, grassroots-based organisations, and gender sensitive professionals with specific focus on achieving gender impact
Monitoring and Evaluation Based on process and progress indicators Same, but also based on gender and class indicators
Renewal and Redesign Related to findings on overall impact of the plan/policy and consideration given more to community need Related to findings on gender impact of the plan/policy with consideration to gender need

• There is a larger number of male software developers than female. According to the IDEC study of 2001, the Asia/Pacific region, with 1.7 million software developers, is currently the number two producer of development talent, surpassing Western Europe’s 1.6 million developers, but well behind North America’s 2.6 million professional developers. There are very few women software developers in the world and the number is fewer in developing countries such as Nepal. Then there is the issue that almost all computer software is male friendly. So, there is a need for increasing the number of women software and programme designers who would develop women friendly computer tools.
• Women have very little participation in political governance. Women constitute  5.8 percent of the House of Representa-tives, and 9.6 percent in local governance. The case in IT governance is no different. A high level commission for IT (HLCIT) chaired by the Prime Minister was formed in 2003. The key mandate of the HLCIT was to serve as an apex institute to provide support to the government in the formulation, implementation and monitoring of IT policy and strategy. There is not even a single woman member in the Executive Board of the commission. As per one of the staff members, there are 19 staffs in the commission of which only three are women (1 Advisory/Con-sultant and 2 Junior Officers). This low representation of women in the committee is a symptom of the gender-neutral policy in the country.

• The Computer Association of Nepal (CAN), which was established in 1992, has been striving to boost knowledge and awareness about computers and IT in Nepal. The association has 351 members. Only three percent are women (9 members). Can this small percentage of women representatives force the remaining 97 percent (male members) to raise Gender and IT issues at the national level? The real concern is to increase the representation of women members in these associations and committees that can influence national and international communication policies.

Women have very little access to economic resources though the daily average working hours for women is 16 hours. Women own eight percent of total landholdings, four percent households have female ownership, and they constitute eight percent of civil service positions (Nepal Human Development Report, 2004). Women’s access to employment is limited only to 16.5 percent, while the male counterparts in the country use the other opportunities (FWLD, 1998). The cost of accessing Internet and email is very expensive in Nepal. The extension of infrastructure, particularly wireless and satellite communication, to the rural mass is crucial for increasing women’s access to information technology. There are some ISP Providers like World Link that are committed to providing Internet services to rural areas. However, the need for recognising similar market players that are inclined to the social sector is ever more, and these providers should also be gender sensitised so that they make special efforts to network women into the wireless community.

Efforts

Providing information related to economic opportunities is essential for empowering women. This is possible through women friendly e-Governance. Since the country is heavily dependent on agriculture, and since women constitute a major agricultural force in the country, different agro-based information and tele-agro services could be provided to rural areas giving more emphasis to women. e-Governance could also be a tool for increasing access to formal and non-formal education, health services and information, and other government services. It will ultimately improve the quality of the life of women and their families. However, the transformation process should be SMART (Simple, Moral, Accountable, Responsive and Transparent) in order to ensure sustainability of transformation process.

Promotion of e-Governance cannot be possible without the effective use of ICTs. There has been some initia-tion of projects such as the Rural Urban Partnership Programme (RUPP), a joint collaboration of UNDP and the Nepal Government. The programme has enhanced the capacity of the government (municipality) to provide online services like birth, death and map registrations. The Home Ministry has also started computerising databases of nationality certificates. This computerisation process started in 10 of the 75 districts of the country. Then, with the support of UNDP the Nepal government has established some telecentres. The Parbat telecentre is one of the best where the operator is a grassroots level young girl who is computer literate and provides information to villagers as per their requirements. However, one of the major issues that arise is, is it enough to have women only in the operational phase? Should the status of these women be upgraded so that they have a say in managing these centres?

Similarly, the content of the Internet plays a significant role in raising interest in Internet-based tools. Most of the content is in English and the percentage that can read and write the language in the country is abysmal. This shows that Eng-lish-based Internet has been useful to only a limited population of the country. The development of ‘local content’ should be one of the prioritised areas. Special consideration should also be given to citizen centric approaches for disseminating information. In most of the government portals, information is developed on the basis of different departments and sections in the concerned Ministry. It is assumed that citizens should know the relevant departments for accessing any service. This needs to be redressed and information should be developed and disseminated keeping citizens – the major clients of the information- in mind.

Then again, while it is known that there are rural-based telecentres that have been essential in providing information services to grassroots clients, do women have enough time to go to these centres and collect information due to their domestic/family workload? There are two types of needs here – one is a practical need, and the other strategic. There should be fulfilment of basic practical needs that provide women more time to get involved in other external activities. Added responsibilities should also bring more access to financial resources for these marginalised women. There are several grassroots women working voluntarily in the social sector. There should be mechanisms where these women can also earn for their time. One of the ways could be training these grassroots women (literate) to operate and manage similar telecenters. The empowerment of these women should be the ultimate target of gender sensitive planning be it social, economic or political empowerment.

Regarding the sustainability of these telecentres, they have been established in market areas that are generally too distanced for these women to visit. Sometimes these centres open only in the evenings when it is not considered safe or convenient for these women. Then, there are inhibitions and ‘fears’ about computers and technologies as womenfolk are usually brought up in a culture where these items are regarded as ‘for males only’. There are several stories in Nepal where women have been ragged for joining computer classes. So, there is a need for increasing awareness both of men and women regarding the relevance of ICT for empowerment and development processes.

Conclusion

e-Governance is in an embryonic stage. In this early stage, it is comparatively easier to incorporate gender sensitive strategies and policies. There is a strong need to sensitise IT professionals and policy makers in terms of women friendly e-Governance.

Enhancing the professionalism of the women involved in the IT sector is one step in this direction. Even with their present numbers, they should be incorporated into policy formulation committees. This would raise gender concerns in ICTs and also provide alternative solutions to increase the access of women to these technologies, information and e-Governance. Government and the civil society should play critical roles in providing basic education to all women. Besides, there should also be increased awareness and capacity to make the best use of e-Governance. There should be maximum dissemination of information on available government services like birth and death registration, citizenship, etc.

Civil society can play a vital role in disseminating such information to the target communities. Apart from the government sector, civil society should increasingly work to create a role model in promoting women friendly e-Governance at the rural level. Developing local content for dissemination could be something that both the government and civil society could look at in a joint manner. The content should be developed on the basis of womens’ information-need, and this study of information-need should also act as a basis for improving e-Governance services. e-Governance could then reach the stage where it begins to promote social, economic and political empowerment of women for the holistic development of the country.

References

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