Feminist reflection on internet policies

Changing the way you see ICT

Women at the IGF: Now we need to mainstream gender

Sonia Randhawa
Sonia Randhawa on 22 November, 2012
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Sonia Randhawa is the member of GenderIT.org's pool of writers. She is currently doing a PhD on women journalists in Malaysia in the 1990s. She lives in Melbourne, Australia, but still calls Malaysia home.
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This year’s Internet Governance Forum came to a close in Baku, Azerbaijan on 9 November. GenderIT.org contributor Sonia Randhawa spoke to three women about their experiences at the IGF, and whether any progress is being made in terms of the representation of women, and the prominence of women’s rights and gender as cross-cutting issues for internet goverance. Jac sm Kee is from Malaysia and represented the APC Women’s Rights Programme; GenderIT.org editor Katerina Fialova is from the Czech Republic; and Bosnian Valentina Pellizzer is executive director of OneWorld SouthEast Europe.

Sonia Randhawa (SR): First can we discuss the representation of women at the IGF – last year they were noticeable by their absence. Things didn’t seem great at the opening session of the IGF, where a number of women tweeted about having only two women speakers, with around 20 men.

Jac sm Kee (JK): There were lots of women at the forum this year, but it did not translate into speakers at the main sessions or at the workshops, though we will find out more when we get the gender report card , but what was missing was the integration of a gender perspective or even a perspective that would reflect the diversity of the participants, particularly of the women who were in this space, who were really well qualified and articulate. But the main positive is that we now have the gender report card.

SR: Could you explain what that is?

Katerina Fialova (KF): This has actually just started and was initiated by the Association for Progressive Commmunication (APC), Last year, volunteers tracked the main sessions and workshops, reporting back on the number of women and men speakers and participants. It has now been taken up by the IGF secretariat, who have introduced it into the reporting mechanisms for all the workshop organizers.

As Jac said, this is a big breakthrough. And the IGF Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) and the IGF secretariat have made a big effort to get an equal number of men and women as participants, but not as speakers, even though a lot of women engaged from the floor. This is still a ‘fail’ for the IGF. Previously they seemed to be making an effort to get women speakers in the main sessions, but this seems to have stopped. There were certainly not enough women on the main panels, there needs to be more people speaking about gender, even more diversity of speakers generally. Gender is not addressedas part of the content, for example, there was workshop about safety of online media actors, but there was not mention of harassment and violation of human rights of online writers just because they are women. Part of the problem is that these discussions focussed on government versus civil actors, not the emerging areas of peer to peer (P2P) threats to privacy rights.

Valentina Pellizza (VP): This is the first time there was a main session on gender, but the opening was like going back in time 20 years! The speakers were mainly men, white and over 60, but there were two women, who were both very refreshing. Amelia Andersdotter (Swedish Member of the European Parliament) had a very strong position, her own direction. It was refreshing. There were, as Jac says, a lot of women there, in the different sessions, but we need to bring them to the circle, there is a lot of work to be done. I found Jac very inspirational – when women had the opportunity to speak, they did a great job, but when it came to women talking about gender… some of the women were there representing governments or big companies, and they did not have this perspective.

JK: In terms of the spaces, there were some quite glaring disparities, and is important in terms of the ongoing discussions on the viability of the IGF, will it continue to be the main space where these dialogues will be held? How well has the IGF performed in terms of facilitating greater participation of women? The gender report card will tell us who came and whether access is improving or not, but there needs to be more than that. There needs to be greater GENDER representation, gender present in the workshops. So, for example, by upgrading gender into one of the aspects that needs to be taken into consideration when participants propose workshops, just as they have to currently think about diversity.

KF: One proposal from the Gender Dynamic Coalition was that at least one women’s rights or gender advocate or expert should sit among panellistsof each main session, which would be a good way to bring gender into the IGF.

We also need to look, once we get the gender report card, at what those numbers mean in terms of getting women rights on the table, not just having them ‘by’ the table. It is also important to uphold multistakeholder principle inbuilt into the IGF architecture. I still went to the workshop where most panellists came from the private sector, even from just one organization. The diversity of stakeholders, in its broad understanding, needs to be reflected at the table, the issues discussed are affected by that. Futher, some women participants felt that in term of intervening, it is easier for a man as a panellist or even a male speaker from the floor to make an intervention than women A couple of women felt they were cut back just because of their gender. So there needs to also be improved facilitation of the debates to help enhance the participation of women speakers.

SR: One of the problems I find when talking about the IGF is explaining how it makes an impact, particularly an impact of the lives of women internet users (recognising the huge diversity of people that this includes).

JK: This is part of the debate. The tension is that it is not a decision-making space. It brings together civil society, private companies, governments and bodies like UNESCO, somewhere where we can all talk, for example, on privacy, looking at what are some of the different products, the technology, what the stakes are, how are users affected.

The only reason we can sit at a table and talk is because we don’t have to come to any agreement. We hope that they will amend their work with the points that we raise in mind. So how this impacts women… it has an impact on women in all parts of the world! It has an impact on decisions on how technology is being developed, for example the ‘do not track’ add-on to browsers, that is a direct result of policy going on in the European Union, providing a technology solution which complements a policy process. These conversations are happening in spaces like the IGF.

Another discussion is on whether there is a right to be forgotten online, for example, if there are private photographs that are distributed online, it can further harassment and sexual violence. If these pictures are still going around after 15 years, and the person harassed wants these pictures deleted or removed, it is in these kind of spaces that we can begin discussions on these issues, which are then taken up in other places, such as ICANN.

It isn’t how we understand policy or governance in the traditional sense, but because of the way the internet is distributed, it is not possible to set up one ultimate decision-making body. The IGF space is somewhere these conversations take place, a way of consensus building.

KF: I quite agree. Spaces like IGF also allow me as a women’s and internet right advocate to learn and broaden my perspectives. On gender and internet issues, we are still a small group of people predominantly speaking to each other only. The IGF allow us to (certain extent) reach to other stakeholders, bringing perhaps a different perspective. For example the right to be forgotten, mentioned by Jac. It was interesting to hear the perspective of the Google representatives, who were asking, what does this mean, since it is an ahistorical requirement, not something needed prior to the digital era, what about archives and offline, should we rewrite (meaning cross out what we don’t like) them as well?

In terms of outcomes for women internet users, it is about filling in those missing aspects, voices and issues that are not yet part of the debate, which is why it is so difficult to name what the impacts are. For example, in cases of technology-related violence against women (VAW) – what is the relation between freedom of expression, safety and privacy, who takes care of balancing these issues for all users, we aren’t seeing that debate yet at the IGF. And these gaps in discussions can have consequences. In one workshop on freedom of expression and privacy, I took part in, they talked about balancing the right to privacy and freedom of expression, and that the right to come first should be the one most in the public interest, but we need to also talk how public is defined, whose ‘public’ interest gets priority. A lot of these questions, particularly on gender, are still missing from the discussions.

VP: I had been following the IGF process, but then pulled out, and was working primarily at the local level, I felt very distant from the conversations taking place at the IGF then. But this year I came back, because I’ve been working on policy and advocacy. At the IGF, I am more convinced and interested now, even if it is not a decision-making body, it is a tough negotiating space. To be in that space with government, intergovernmental organisations, because there is no pressure, there is an opportunity for dialogue. It is important to have the chance to meet, look and talk informally. The importance is reinforced for me, because there were others from Bosnia who are now looking at doing a local IGF.

Also, there were strong women there, but we need to have more of a foot in the door. It is important to be there, though we also need to be on panels. But being there makes a difference. For example, in the session on access and diversity, the chair of the session was a woman, but the notice said ‘Chairman’ – I persuaded the secretariat to change it to ‘Chairperson’. So there is that type of space for interaction, that dynamism that would not be present in a more formal setting, it is important.

 

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