All digital divides, from the urban-rural one to the ones caused by differences in income, education or age, have specific ramifications for women and girls and disadvantage them disproportionately in comparison to men and boys. Yet it would be a mistake to presume that the global political process that has centrally been concerned with finding ways of overcoming digital divides and including everyone in the so-called Information Society would naturally take gender into account. In fact, the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS, Geneva 2003 and Tunis 2005) has been a serious challenge for gender equality advocates. The predominance of a gender-blind and hence male-centered discussion process has made it hard to even achieve a basic commitment to women’s human rights. With each document, from the Geneva Declaration and the Plan of Action to the current drafts of the Political Chapeau and the Operational Part for the Tunis summit, the question has arisen again and again if it would be possible to prevent a backsliding regarding women’s rights and to assure that the core values of gender equality and women’s empowerment get reaffirmed. This state of affairs is particularly worrying given the growing realisation that development will not occur if girls and women continue to be discriminated against.
Who are the gender advocates?
The WSIS Gender Caucus is the organisational entity that has spearheaded gender advocacy in the WSIS process. This caucus is a multi-stakeholder group and is hence open to all gender advocates, from civil society to business, governments and intergovernmental organisations. Shortly after the foundation of the Gender Caucus at the Regional Preparatory Meeting in Mali in the summer of 2002, another organisational entity emerged and joined in the gender advocacy efforts with a slightly different approach: The NGO Gender Strategies Working Group, as the name implies, constituted a civil society platform. It was very active up until the Geneva summit and was instrumental in reaching out to other civil society caucuses and sensitising their members with respect to gender issues. Both entities were able to draw on the substantial body of research on women and media, and women and ICTs, that was presented and discussed in preparation of WSIS. A large part of this research was gathered within the UN context, most notably by Expert Group Meetings held by the Division for the Advancement of Women and other agencies. The findings were synthesised and developed into political recommendations. The Commission on the Status of Women and others submitted these to the WSIS process for consideration. Gender advocacy in the WSIS process has also decisively been shaped by the electronic input of those who could not attend the meetings and negotiations in person. Online discussions and e-mails have been instrumental for lobbying, networking and voicing women’s concerns, which has reinforced the central argument that media politics are crucial with respect to gender relations and vice versa.
What are the gender issues?
The starting point, as outlined above, is the awareness that gender divides, including gender digital divides, exist and must be overcome so that girls and women can realise their full potential and can shape the world in equal partnership with boys and men. Historically, the isolation of women from the mainstream economy and their lack of access to information because of societal, cultural and market constraints have led them to become distant from the global pool of information and knowledge. With respect to ICTs and the Information Society, women hence must be enabled to access these technologies and to use them productively. ICT policy, regulatory frameworks and licensing guidelines need to be conceived from a gender equality perspective and need to promote gender-sensitive infrastructure development, access point planning and universal service at affordable prices. It is particularly vital to connect the geographical areas in which women predominate and to provide women with appropriate facilities, such as women-friendly telecentres with suitable opening hours and helpful staff, and with useful content and services. Comprehensive educational programmes are needed to show women how they might make use of ICTs in a manner that ultimately allows them to take more control of their lives.
Women furthermore must be empowered to develop, create and implement technology and generate content and services that best answer their needs and interests. Free and open source software might prove most suitable for women to move from users to developers. In terms of content and service needs, particular importance must be given to the development of portals, search engines, catalogues and networking tools that make relevant information and partners easily discernible and reachable. Apart from these job tasks, women have to have the same influence as men in policy formulation, implementation and monitoring regarding ICTs. To this end, great advances in terms of girls and women’s education and capacity building are required, advances that do not stop at the level of primary or even secondary education but enable women to become top-level decision makers in all areas relating to ICTs. At the same time, men need to learn to accept women as full and equal partners and autonomous human beings in all aspects of life.
Gender advocacy in the context of the Information Society is not solely ICT-focused, even though the inter-governmental WSIS process has squarely addressed ICTs to the almost complete exclusion of all other means of information and communication. Gender advocates have acknowledged older and traditional information and communication technologies as important and effective in their own right. In terms of affordability, access, and ease of use, they are indispensable. Bridging the digital divide in relation to the older and traditional information and communication technologies means assuring that old and new ICTs will interface and complement each other. Non-users of new ICTs should not suffer disadvantages from their continued reliance on older ICTs. The complementarity of technologies is of particular importance for women, who have for instance found that community radios and women’s communication centres can be true means of empowerment, and who need to be assured that options created by new technologies do not bypass them and again marginalise them.
These options can for instance arise in the context of e-Governance or e-Health initiatives. e-Governance holds the potential for previously marginalised groups to make their political demands heard, to interact with decision makers and to hold them more easily accountable for their work. E-health could bring valuable information to caregivers, most of which are women. While women need to be empowered to benefit from these e-developments as soon as possible, those who remain excluded from direct access for the time being should be able to at least profit in an indirect way. One interim solution would be to set up community radio projects that act as links between women and the Internet, passing online information on to women and delivering the women’s messages electronically.
Education regarding old and new ICTs has to provide girls and women with media literacy, with the ability to judge which media are particularly useful for specific information and communication processes and which sources are most likely to provide accurate and relevant information. While media literacy is important for everyone, girls and women have a particular stake in it as long as information and knowledge are biased towards male world-views and hence are in effect tools of hegemony that marginalise and distort girls’ and women’s concerns, experiences and realities as well as the images they hold of themselves. To counter this hegemonic status quo, education and training need to be gender-sensitive and need to redefine what counts as information and knowledge in a manner that validates previously marginalised perspectives. This also requires a fundamental commitment to cultural and linguistic diversity and to non-discrimination between and among the genders, so that all arbitrary social hierarchies that intersect with the one of gender are addressed simultaneously. It also requires an obliteration of stereotypes that are constricting and that limit groups of people to specific options in life, such as the stereotype that girls and women cannot deal with ‘hard’ technological issues and hence should aspire to be users of technology rather than developers.
Strategic gender interests related to media and ICTs include those of overcoming women’s isolation, allowing women to network and to gain strength as political actors, enabling an articulation of women’s concerns and human rights, providing effective means to hold governments and other social actors responsible for their conduct, and harnessing the technologies to lift women out of poverty and to secure a livelihood. A particular concern with respect to the new ICTs is that their potential to record, transmit and aggregate personal information is not to be used for purposes of surveillance and invasions of privacy. Women might be particularly vulnerable regarding surveillance and invasions of privacy in the contexts of political activism, health care and consumer data.
Gender advocates have been stressing the need to guide all developments from a gender equality perspective and to monitor and evaluate the gendered impact of ICT developments, including the effectiveness of gender-sensitive policies, programmes and initiatives. Monitoring and evaluation require both quantitative and qualitative approaches to assess the impact of ICTs on different subgroups of women and men. Quantitative data hence needs to be disaggregated not only by sex but also by other relevant factors such as income level and education level, age and location. Since access to ICTs is not in and of itself empowering for girls and women, an important question that needs to be asked is to which extent ICT access is used to further strategic gender interests and to bring about social change. Research into these matters of course requires an adequate allocation of resources.
Has the WSIS process taken up these gender issues?
The Geneva Declaration of Principles does acknowledge women as important stakeholders. It states:
“We affirm that development of ICTs provides enormous opportunities for women, who should be an integral part of, and key actors, in the Information Society. We are committed to ensuring that the Information Society enables women’s empowerment and their full participation on the basis on [sic.] equality in all spheres of society and in all decision-making processes. To this end, we should mainstream a gender equality perspective and use ICTs as a tool to that end.” (Paragraph 12)
Beyond this paragraph of the Declaration, which was long fought for, the Geneva Plan of Action contains a number of paragraphs that address various concerns of girls and women. Among these are education, training and careers in ICT-related contexts; telework and entrepreneurship aided by ICTs; media literacy, balanced and diverse media portrayals of men and women, and gender perspectives in ICT education. Also, the need to monitor developments and to devise gender-sensitive indicators is acknowledged. These provisions constitute real achievements of the gender advocacy that has been undertaken in the course of WSIS. Yet one decisive question remains, and that is whether the overall framework and agenda into which these references to women and girls were inserted will prove to be conducive for the fulfillment of the provisions, or whether the framework will instead corrupt these gender-related goals.
A flawed framework?
The Geneva documents favour market solutions and public-private partnerships to overcome the digital divide between the North and the South. In contrast, gender advocates, along with much of civil society and some governments, have been of the opinion that the neo-liberal policy approach to markets in fact constitutes a core problem that intensifies existing inequalities between and among groups of people in the North and the South and that heightens environmental degradation. These constituencies feel that to create sustainable development and people-centered, inclusive, equitable societies, deep structural transformations are required. These need to obliterate sexism, racism, and other forms of discriminatory social stratification as embedded in discourses, institutions and systems that characterise the economic, political, social and cultural spheres. Also, these transformations would have to lead to a responsible and sustainable development of technologies, including a sound management of natural resources, product cycles and waste.
Since the official WSIS documents are a far cry from this kind of vision, the fight for the inclusion of gender concerns at worst has been yet another effort to squeeze “women” into a fundamentally flawed development scheme. At best, however, it will allow women to claim more rights than before and to have more needs met than before. Given the absence of any seriously developed alternative, there does not seem to be much choice. This sentiment is also reflective of the dismal current state of global gender politics more generally. As the Commission on the Status of Women is currently reviewing the developments that have characterised the ten years after the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, it becomes increasingly clear that no unequivocal progress towards gender equality and women’s empowerment can be stated. Many problems and forms of structural discrimination have intensified, from poverty to forced prostitution and trafficking in women. Furthermore, a decisive backlash against women’s rights on the part of several powerful governments makes itself felt, most notably in the area of sexual and reproductive rights. Even the MDGs and their indicators can be seen as indicative of the truncated manner in which women’s rights have recently been dealt with. It hence does not come as a complete surprise that gender equality and women’s rights and empowerment have not been embraced wholeheartedly in the WSIS process, since these principles have not been embraced fully on any political level or in any political process. Despite the need to promote the broadest possible agenda of women’s rights in this political climate, the shaping of the Information Society constitutes a central issue.
Why concentrate on media and ICTs?
Information and communication are at the root of every society’s core processes of negotiating power, norms, values and realities. Peaceful social change is impossible without utilising media and ICTs, while hegemonic powers presently utilise these media and ICTs for spreading their ideologies. This is why on the level of global women’s politics, media and ICTs were codified at the Beijing World Conference as one of twelve critical areas of concern for women. Back then, central challenges were seen in the continued stereotyping of women in the media, the occupational segregation and glass ceilings encountered by women in the media professions, and the need to harness the new electronic networks for women’s empowerment. All of these challenges have not diminished in importance, and many more challenges have arisen with the further development of ICTs and their uneven spread within and among societies. At the same time, numerous media and ICT projects and initiatives have proved how decisive these technologies can be for women’s empowerment. It is hence indispensable for women’s rights advocates to fight for the Information Society as a positive utopia, as a society in which everyone can fully join in and benefit from a free flow of communication, an exchange of ideas and the generation of knowledge. Only on this basis can social justice and gender justice, women’s and men’s human rights and cultural diversity flourish and societies develop in a sustainable manner.