October 2006

Are ICTs Gender Neutral?

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Eleven years after the Fourth World Conference on Women which was held in 1995 in Beijing that came out with a Action Plan, and six years after the Millennium Summit which focused on some of the common goals relating to gender equality, poverty reduction, education for all, maternal mortality, etc., the gender gap continues to worry development planners locally in developing countries and globally. The Millennium Development Goals, for the first time, set up targets to be achieved. It was not just a statement of intent but actionable goals. Countries that committed to these goals set the target date as 2015. When the Beijing Plus Ten meeting was held last year in New York, the civil society organised, with the support of a number of international agencies, including UNIFEM, use of cyberspace to ensure greater participation among women in the conference. The Internet allows for greater participation, and connects women for campaigns and advocacy for ensuring their rights, as well as addressing the issues of gender violence.

Most importantly, women, who face cultural, social, and political divides, face different challenges. Without women’s participation in decision-making positions, poverty is not likely to be eliminated. Gender issues must be mainstreamed and integrated with development strategies. ICTs are transforming economies and yet, women are often left behind.

When we talk about ‘digital divide’, there are distinct, perceived and noticeable disparities for women to infrastructure access and skills development. But do we have any idea how many of the women in the developing countries are regular ICT users? What is the increase in percentage of ICT using women in comparison to men? Gender disaggregated data and impacts of technology are still few and far between to obtain. But we do have stories of transformation and impacts where efforts have been made to create enabling environments and supportive facilitation for women to access and use technology for livelihoods development, health, education, farming, etc. This promotes also entrepreneurship.

We need to think of a proper way out to find out the gap, to find out the women who are lagging behind. Let us start brain storming for that – let us start counting the heads which need ICT support to stand up, to be empowered in its true sense. Three critical strategic inputs need to be put in place: gender sensitive policies, ICT infrastructure and access to where women live and increased educational levels. Innovative efforts that are documented in this issue can throw light on the possibilities of benefiting from the ICT especially to achieve gender equality objectives.

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