|Telecentres can empower women in developing countries if we design them to meet their needs and reduce the barrier for women to access telecentres|
Since the international community recognised ICTs as important tools for development in the late 1990s, a number of telecentres have been established in developing countries. But does a telecentre empower women in a developing country? Although telecentres are available, they might not be available to serve women and men equally. Although women could access the information at a telecentre, they might not do so much to improve the situation of themselves and their families. There is a view that telecentres do not always benefit women and the advancement of their life in developing countries. However, many scholars on gender and Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are skeptical about telecentre's impact on women and argue that telecentres in developing countries are not particularly effective in helping women to gain access to better economic, educational and other opportunities because of high access costs and other factors such as social and religious barriers and skepticism regarding ICTs (Gurumurthy, 2004; Huyer & Mitter, 2003). In order to examine whether a telecentre can empower women in a developing country, the author conducted a field study in five telecentres in Jamaica in 2006. The results of the study infer the potential of women's empowerment at telecentres by showing the different ways of using telecentres between Jamaican women and men and the significant role of computer training to empower women in telecentres in Jamaica.
Gender difference in the use of telecentres
In Jamaica, women and men use telecentres differently in terms of purpose and frequency. The result of the survey in five telecentres shows that the first three purposes of women for visiting telecentres are 1) checking e-Mails, 2) study and 3) web surfing. The first three purposes of men's visit are 1) checking e-mails, 2) web surfing and 3) typing text. Only 15 percent of the male respondents stated that they use telecentre for study whilst 33 percent of women do so. 25 percent of men visit telecentres for playing games, whilst only 11 percent of women do so. Thus, men tend to use telecentres for entertainment whilst women use them for learning activities in Jamaica.
Another finding of the study is that men visit telecentres more frequently than women in Jamaica. The survey result in five telecentres indicates that 35 percent of men visit telecentres more than three times per week whilst 27 percent of women do so. On the other hand, 11 percent of women visit telecentres once per month whilst 5 percent of men do so. Thus, Jamaican men seem to have more time to visit telecentres than Jamaican women. Whilst 46 percent of the female users identify time as a factor to prevent them from visiting telecentres, 42 percent of them suggest money as a factor to affect the frequency of their visits in telecentres. In this way, Jamaican women and men use telecentres differently whilst they have different restrictions for using them.
Measuring women empowerment
Whilst it is difficult to measure women's empowerment in telecentres, some evidences show women can be empowered through training in telecentres in Jamaica. Survey results suggest that many Jamaican women than men think that computer training at a telecentre will help their career and education. 94 percent of female trainees at Jamaican telecentres think that computer training will help their career very much, whilst only 50 percent of male trainees think so (Chart 3). Similarly, 69 percent of female trainees think that computer training will help them further their education whilst 56 percent of male trainees think so (Chart 4). Thus, Jamaican women have more expectation toward the benefits of computer training than Jamaican men. The same phenomenon is also observed by the fact that more women than men participated in computer trainings provided by UNDP and Microsoft in telecentres in Jamaica in 2005 (Table 1).
(Annual Report of UNDP/Microsoft ICT Training for Disadvantaged Youth, UNDP Jamaica, 2006)
Jamaican women's experience of empowerment in telecentres
The sign of women's empowerment in telecentres in Jamaica was also identified in the findings from focus group interviews.. For example, an 18 year-old Jamaican woman taking computer training course at the International School of Jamaica (ISJ) stated, “I would like to use them (ICTs) to the best (availability) in school and at work to uplift my knowledge and workplace capabilities.” Similarly, another 18-year female trainee at the ISJ said, “I would like to be able to work in a large business using different types of technologies including computers.” Several Jamaican women showed their desire for further study with computers at the University or at the Institute of Technology in Jamaica. A 25 year-old Jamaican woman asserted, “I plan to go further into more computer studies to know every aspects of computer and to get a job that involves the computer.”
In addition to their eagerness to apply computer skills in their study and work, the author found that Jamaican women have strong desire to help other people with their new computer skills acquired through telecentres. For example, a 20 year-old female trainee at ISJ avouched, “I would like to help others who are in the position I was in.” Similarly, another 25-year old Jamaican woman from ISJ stated, “I would like to use it (a computer) on my job and to help my son and my other family members who have no computer skills.”
Results of the case study revealed that a number of Jamaican women want to use their computer skills not only for the purpose of enhancing their education and work, but also for helping their children, family and others.
On the basis of the respondents' feedback, it was found that Jamaican men preferred to use their computer skills for themselves such as for their work and hobbies. A 19 year-old male affirmed, “I would like to use the skills to do graphic design.” I would like to further my computer skills.” Another 20 year-old male said that he uses telecentre to develop web pages. According to a 40 year-old male, a telecentre is a facility for him to make music and music videos also to do flyers, business cards and movie making etc. A 34-year old male maintained that he uses telecentres to do presentation at work and for future use in soccer coaching. Thus, Jamaican men's attitudes toward computer skills are different from those of Jamaican women.
Whilst Jamaican women and men use telecentres differently, it is important to lessen the barrier for women to use telecentres by reducing access fees and building telecentres in convenient and safer locations. It can be argued that telecentres have their limitations in regard to women's empowerment; the findings of the study in Jamaica show that women can be empowered through telecentres provided the telecentres are designed and implemented to meet particular needs of women. However, poor and old women are still excluded from telecentres whilst many middle-class women have access to telecentres.
Although several telecentres offer free computer training courses for women in Jamaica, there are not yet many inexpensive advanced computer training courses for those who have completed a basic computer course.
Moreover, there are yet few job opportunities for women who have completed a computer training course in Jamaica. Hence, it is necessary to design telecentres to meet the needs of women from all classes, provide a series of computer trainings to empower women for a long term, and connect women to the job markets for their economic empowerment.
Raising awareness to opt for IT jobs among females
With more job opportunities coming in IT related field in US, educators are working strenuously to bridge the digital divide that exists between the male and female employers. According to The National Centre for Women and Information Technology (www.ncwit.org) report “although more than 50 percent of high school advanced placement(AP) test takers are female, girls make up only 15 percent of those who take the AP computer science test. What's more, women fill only 26 percent of IT-related professional positions”.