Do women’s access to ICTs lead to empowerment? Looking at the CEEWA ICT project in rural Uganda
Much of the discourse on women and information and communication technologies (ICTs) seems to indicate that as a result of using these technologies, marginalised groups like rural women can get empowered. There is however a need to question how empowerment can happen in a situation where access is limited or even non existent.
A case study of an ICT project that was established in Uganda with an aim of economically empowering women is used to asses the extent to which rural women were able to access ICTs, and if as a result they were empowered as claimed by the project reports. The study used observations, unstructured interviews, focus group discussions and review of documents to collect data.
Background to the case study
In the recent past, ICTs have been added to the women and gender equality debate. ICTs are being presented as a tool having potential to benefit women’s ‘empowerment’ and a number of ICT projects that specifically target women have been established in several African countries. In Uganda several projects including the Council for the Economic Empowerment of Women of Africa (CEEWA) ICT project have been established.
CEEWA is an NGO that arose from the Africa preparatory process to the 1995 Beijing Women’s conference. CEEWA’s belief is that without economic empowerment women’s disadvantaged position will remain the same.
Based on this principle, CEEWA set up an ICT project that targeted women entrepreneurs in 1997. Under this project, women were provided access to various ICTs at four sites, namely Buwama, Nabweru, Kampala and Mukono. The ICTs included computers, email and internet services, telephones, fax, scanner, printer, photocopiers, radio, television. Women were also given business and agricultural information through a database driven website. The project developed ICT training materials as well as entrepreneurship training material on CD ROMs tailored to the needs of the local women. The materials were in audio-visual forms and were translated in the local language - Luganda.
Empowerment: the problem of meaning and measurement
Empowerment is often used without a clear definition. This was evident in the CEEWA project that had no definition of empowerment, or the means by which to measure empowerment. Yet the project reports indicate that the project beneficiaries were empowered as a result of using ICTs. Although some scholars like Narayan (2005) argue that the problem is not with the meaning, but rather the way of measuring empowerment , I strongly believe that both the meaning and measurement need to be addressed to ensure a more meaningful evaluation of development projects.
From various writings, ‘empowerment’ is looked at in relation to how people understand power. It is also presented as a process through which women gain power over men. This specific understanding of empowerment is possibly one of the reasons men resist the concept. In other cases, empowerment is presented as a process that enables women gain access to decision making and make choices about their own lives (Huyer and Sikoska 2003) .Feminist understandings of empowerment include the idea of ‘the personal as political’, therefore calling for a consideration of empowerment as experienced by women within the public and private spheres (Rowlands 1997) . Empowerment could also occur at a political, social or economic level. Economic empowerment has to do with access to resources, and is key to women because their subordinate position is entrenchment in their level of access to and control over resources. Social empowerment is about challenging social and cultural structures. While political empowerment involves the rights and abilities of people to participate as equals in decision making processes (Clement 1994) .
Another view to ‘empowerment’ has been put forward by the Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN). DAWN argues that for women to be empowered, their strategic and practical gender needs have to be addressed (Moser 1993) . DAWN uses these strategies to address issues of inequality between women and men because it recognises that women’s empowerment is not a given thing, and that women have to work collectively to overcome the structural inequalities (Longwe 1994) .
There is also the Longwe Women’s Empowerment Framework. This framework examines the extent to which projects lead to women’s empowerment. According to Longwe, only by addressing the five levels at which gender gaps exist, can ‘empowerment’ begin to happen. The five levels include; welfare, access, conscientisation (awareness), mobilisation and control.
Welfare addresses the lowest level at which a development intervention may hope to close a gender gap; while Control is level at which there is a balance of power between women and men and neither has dominance. Access considers equality of access to resources and Conscientisation is a level of awareness-raising. For women to take appropriate action to close gender gaps or inequalities, there must be recognition that their problems stem from inherent structural and institutional discrimination. Participation (mobilisation) is concerned with the extent to which women have been able to take part in decision-making processes alongside men.
But what does empowerment mean? Although defining empowerment is subject to debate, a common understanding is necessary for the sake of this discussion. This paper defines ‘empowerment’ as a multi-dimensional, gradual process by which women become aware of their subordinate position and the power structures at play in their environment; then go a head to do something to overcome these constraints. This process enables women become self-reliant and gain control over their own lives, and act on issues they consider important but without infringing upon the rights of others; this process may also lead to ‘collective’ change (Rowlands 1997 and Freire 1972) .
ICTs and women’s empowerment as experienced in the CEEWA project
Based on testimonies from women involved, the project enabled access to training and information which relatively improved their standard of living as well as their businesses.
After my husband died I was hopeless, but CEEWA taught me how to invest and the use of computes and the telephone. I now keep broilers and also sell tap water. From my saving I can pay fees for my three children and I have also bought a mobile phone.
Access to more resources however did not always translate into the rosy picture described. Some of the women said they experienced abuse from their husbands especially when they received calls from male clients, or when they came home late from the telecentres. ICTs here are seen reinforcing oppressive practices against women as opposed to ‘empowering’ them. In this case we can see that even if women own phones, access is restricted by their spouses who want to control who can call their wives and the times at which this is acceptable.
Economic benefits of ICTs have also disadvantaged women. In some instances, increase in income meant additional burdens because the men simply left all financial responsibilities to their wives.
There is also the problem of infrastructure. There were just 5 computers at each telecentre to be used by a whole sub-county with a population of about 40,000 people. The internet speed was slow, so users pay a lot more since charges for use is per minute, and a minute may pass even before a web page opens. The distance to the telecentres was long and women had limited time because of their heavy domestic schedule.
The level of ownership and investment by women is also very low in Uganda. Interviews with policy makers indicated that ownership of ICT businesses is not with women. While many women are employed in the ICT sector, it is at a very low level - as either sales assistants in telephone shops or booths - and most of ICT-related businesses are owned by men.
Most women involved in ICTs acknowledge participation in the project. They say CEEWA consulted them before the project was set up and also during the baseline survey. However they indicated that a number of things asked for has not been addressed.
Ceewa officers come to our homes and told us about the project. They also contacted us during the baseline study and after a few months invited us to join the project. They taught us book keeping, saving money, also how to use the computer. We also asked for loans but they did not give us that one.
So although there was an element of participation, it is not at an equal level. CEEWA and donors had their own predesigned ideas on how to implement the project. Women at this level have also not directly participated in policy processes.
A number of women indicated that as a result of participating in the CEEWA project their confidence level has gone up. An example is Nalukwago who is a local council leader;
For me I used to be timid and although I was already in the council I used not to contribute but with CEEWA, I have learned to be confident in public, now I can also participate in meetings.
The beneficiaries’ relationship with CEEWA and donors of the project was never evaluated. This area should be examined especially since the project beneficiaries indicate a limited level of decision-making on their part. Working ethics of those trying to ‘empower’ rural women need to be further examined to make ‘empowerment’ more meaningful.
In terms of conscientisation, the women indicated that their level of awareness had improved. However conscientisation as argued by Longwe should include recognition by the women that most of their problems stem from inherent structural and institutional discrimination. Women also need to recognise that sometimes women themselves play a role in reinforcing these restrictions.
As seen from the aspects of domestic violence and the co-ownership of the phones; women would rather develop strategies to minimise abuse rather than confront the men. During the discussion, women were actually giving accuses for men’s violence. Only one woman in Buwama seemed to have challenged such a situation and other participants thought she was too harsh. She says she has become confident as a result of the project, has learnt how to save and improved her economic status. This, she says, has given her the confidence to deal with the polygamous marriage she is in. Although she has not walked out, she has challenged her husband on the subject and stopped financing her husband and his other wives, Instead, she used the extra money to take her child to a boarding school.
As an enormous source of information, ICTs constitute a powerful learning tool that provides access to marketing information that can help women’s business succeed. ICTs, like mobile telephony, can also offer direct and inexpensive means of communication for women’s organisations and enable them to share knowledge on a quick and collective basis. However, access to ICTs is restricted because of oppressive gender relations, socio-cultural barriers, distance to the ICT facilities, poor infrastructure and costs for access ICTs.
Additionally, the findings indicate that the assumption where access to ICT will automatically empower women economically or otherwise is questionable. On the contrary, women’s social position in society has not changed much. Women’s economic position may have improved slightly, but they remain culturally constrained. In certain cases, ICTs reinforce violence. As a matter of fact, control of ICTs still remains with men. Although several women work in the ICT industry, it is at the lowest level. Ownership and investment in the ICT sector remains within the male domain.
The relationship between the beneficiaries, CEEWA and the donors also points to the fact that those least likely to use ICTs in a specific context are responsible for making decision and policies. These decision makers are therefore least likely to be aware of what it means in practical terms to use these artefacts. The context in which the rural women live in is very different from that of CEEWA officials and the donors of the project.
As a last issue therefore, there is a need to be cautious in making claims about what ICTs can actually do. ICTs do make a difference in the life of women entrepreneurs in rural Uganda however what seemed most relevant for the women like the mobile phone was not directly part of the project. There is therefore a need to have clear indicators and a definition of empowerment at the beginning of these projects to ensure a more meaning evaluation of what the project can and cannot do.
 Narayan, D. Ed. (2005) Measuring empowerment: cross-displinary perspectives. Washington DC; The World Bank
 Huyer, S. and Sikuska, T. (2003) Overcoming the gender digital divide: understanding ICTs and their potential for the empowerment of women. United Nations-INSTRAW virtual seminar series on gender and ICTs. N0.1. http://www.un-instraw.org/en/research/gender_and_ict/virtual_seminars.html (accessed on 2 April 2004)
 Rowlands, J. (1997) Questioning empowerment: working with women in Honduras, Oxford, Oxfam GB
 Clement, A. (1994) ‘Computing at work: empowering action by ‘low-level users’. In Communication of the ACM.37, 1:53-63
 DAWN is concept that arose out of Southern Women’s awareness of the need for an alternative model of development. DAWN calls for a model of social advancement which is equitable, participatory, holistic, and sustainable and respond to people’s needs. Although DAWN emerged out of an NGO forum in 1985, its philosophy reflects the dissatisfaction of many developing countries at the time with unfavourable terms of trade, protectionism and the conditionalities of the World Banks Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) (World Dev 1995:2002).
 Moser, C., (1993) Gender Planning and Development: Theory, Practice and Training. London: Routledge
 Longwe, S. H. (1994) ‘From welfare to empowerment’. In Office of women in Reviews, UNICEF