“As economies become more and more information-driven, the issues of women's access to and use of ICT is growing in importance for both developed and developing economies”
Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are arguably the most potent tools shaping the 21st century as they re-define the way human beings communicate, learn, work and play. In essence, ICTs are re-defining how we live. As tools for human development and empowerment, ICTs have no equal. Their ability to enable inclusion and access to information as well as to offer a vast array of opportunities across the social, economic, environmental and political domains, make them strategic tools for individual, national and global development.
Women and girls have more to gain from ICT
ICT are key for the empowerment of both women and men, but women and girls have more to gain because they are the most disadvantaged where development opportunities are concerned. Over half the world's population still lives on less than $2 a day. Eighteen percent of this or 1.1 billion people live in extreme poverty on $1 or less a day. Forty percent are unemployed and one in every five adults is illiterate. More than 70 million children are out of school and a larger untracked number drop out of schools even before their primary srages of schooling. In each of these categories, women and girls make up the majority. Attention to the particular needs of women and girls given their position of relative disadvantage is paramount if we are to create a world of equal opportunities via ICT.
ICT amplify the gender divide while creating opportunities for equality
The digital divide between the ICT haves and have-nots is the fastest narrowing divide worldwide. As more people gain access to information and communication, they become better positioned to make decisions that improve their own lives, which in turn help the world address the problem of social and economic disparities. While digital opportunities are spreading to both men and women, the existing gender divide that runs across all social and income groups has been amplified where ICT are concerned. Throughout the world, women face serious challenges that limit or prevent their access, use and ownership of ICT. These challenges stem from economic, social and cultural obstacles, which must be tackled for the sake of equitable development opportunities.
“Women represent the main economic force in most developing countries. As economies become more and more information-driven, the issues of women's access to and use of ICT is growing in importance for both developed and developing economies. The involvement and engagement of women in the Information Society on an equal footing with men will directly contribute to improving the livelihood of people, making it more sustainable and thereby promoting the social and economic advancement of societies”.
-Gender Issues in the Information Society (UNESCO, 2003).
In terms of appropriating the technologies and becoming leaders and creators of ICTs, women face even more challenges. At the World Congress on IT 2008 held recently in Kuala Lumpur, the speakers who represent experts that are world leaders and company heads in ICT, were predominantly male. To compound the problem, a study in the USA by the Center for Work Life Policy recently revealed that among women already engaged in Science, Engineering and Technology careers, 52 percent leave their jobs over time. The implication is disturbing in terms of prospects for equality, growth and innovation, not only for women, but for the economies and societies where women are contributors to change and development.
The problem mainly lies in the existing gender stereotypes and biases that are embedded in cultures and social norms. Huyer and Hafkin's report on Engendering the Knowledge Society, Measuring Women's Participation, which was launched at the 2007 Third Global Knowledge Conference organised by GKP, details the socioeconomic and political factors that continue to frame the gender digital divide, including social and cultural barriers to technology use, education and skill levels, employment and income trends, media and content, privacy and security, and location/mode of access. Women and girls need to have more encouragement and structured support by way of policy and programmes to use and appropriate technology. The planning and implementation of ICT for development thus need to be viewed through a gender lens in order to ensure benefits do not perpetuate gender stereotypes and biases.
“The involvement and engagement of women in the Information Society on an equal footing with men will directly contribute to improving the livelihood of people, making it more sustainable and thereby promoting the social and economic advancement of societies”
Effective ICT4D policy and programmes are gender informed For leaders and decision-makers, improved understanding and awareness of the challenges faced by women as well as the opportunities that ICT can provide for women are critical for creating a world of not only equal opportunities, but of robust and sustainable growth. The effective inclusion and empowerment of women via ICT cannot occur when the approaches and technologies used are gender blind.
Gender segregated data are key for any policy-formulation and programme design, yet they are not always available, planned or demanded. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) provides gender statistics on Internet users only for 2002, which only covered thirty-nine countries. Huyer and Hafkin (2007) discuss the lack of gender indicators in the major ICT, Science, Technology and Innovation indexes, where the only indicator included is usually that of women participation in the work force. More recent data, which is yielding interesting findings for gender studies, come from market research. There is a critical need to ensure the availability of gender-segregated data for policy and programme design as well as implementation. Governments in particular should ensure that gender-segregated data exist to support national development efforts.
National development efforts to address the issue of gender tend to range between mainstreaming and a focused approach. While mainstreaming is important to raise more awareness and generate wide-scale action across development sectors, without champions who ensure continued priority and who will raise red flags that trigger action when gender issues are not addressed adequately, the needs of women vis-