Beyond tools: Internet as a critical policy issue for the advancement of women's rights
I wasn't present at the Beijing Conference in 1995, and having missed it, I feel like I have missed out on one of the most important moments in the history of the women's movement. From the stories I hear, it was truly a time when change not only felt possible, but was a tangible foothold away. And there was a real and shared Commitment to take concrete action to end the violence, dispossession, exploitation and plain injustice that half of the world's population face simply because of our identities as women and girls.
Now, 15 years later, the commitment is being weighed, assessed and contemplated, to see how close we are to transforming this a reality.
So how close are we?
The UN Secretary-General's report (E/CN.6/2010/2) in preparation for the 54th Commission on the Status of Women who undertook this 15 year review, provides a sound overview of the steps that have been taken for each of the areas of commitment as laid out in the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA). It also linked the BPfA to the Millenium Development Goals.
When I was at the Beijing + 10 review in 2005, media and communication rights advocates were searching for the 'missing "J" spot'. Now, 5 years later, judging from the numerous observations by advocates present at the 54th CSW as documented by the GenderIT team, it seems that the elusive Section J is still hard to pin down, whether in terms of sessions, mentions or locations.
ICT and media zest in the UN Sec-Gen preparatory document
In all fairness, media and ICT was mentioned and peppered throughout the UN Sec-Gen preparatory document. For example, under the sections covering 'Education and training', 'Women and health', 'Violence against women', 'Human rights of women' and 'The girl child', they were indicated as important tools for awareness raising and information dissemination (read complete document).
Under Section J of the report, closer attention was given to the importance of access to and control of the media and ICT, and the assessment of their impact on the advancement and empowerment of women. This included noting how they intersected with issues such as poverty, economic development, violence against women and participatory governance.
Importantly, the report acknowledged the "importance of media and ICT in promoting and protecting women's human rights, supporting their empowerment and increasing awareness and acceptance of their leadership roles in society" (para. 340).
It also opened the section by recalling previous commitments to promote equal access to and control over media and ICT by women and men for the advancement and empowerment of women, including the 23rd UN General Assembly special session outcome document (General Assembly resolution S-23/3; A/RES/S-23/3), the agreed conclusions at the 47th Commission on the Status of Women, and the Geneva Declaration of Principles and the Tunis Commitment from both phases of the World Summit on the Information Society.
The Report fails to recognize emerging areas of concerns
Yet at the same time, the value and approach given to ICT seemed limited to:
a) portrayal of women
b) using them as tools to achieve some other purpose (e.g. provide support, raise awareness)
While these remain critical issues to address, there are emerging areas of concern that also need careful consideration.
For example, on the issue of privacy and security. Although the report noted that mobile phones can help in the economic empowerment of rural women in particular, it failed to scrutinise the adequacy of telecommunications infrastructure(E/CN.6/2010/2)i ; or to examine how access to mobile phones also intersected with issues of violence against women beyond using it to call for help, such as on the issue of right to privacy and personal safety.
In Pakistan for example, mobile phone credit resellers have been reported to take note of the physical appearances of women who purchase credit from their premises and sell them to other mobile phone subscribers as a kind of unauthorised 'dating service', which resulted in sexual harassment of the targeted female mobile phone subscribersii.
Many countries do not have adequate data protection legislation to be able to ensure that personal data and information that are collected in the course of providing goods and services by the private sector (e.g. as mobile phone companies) or the state (e.g. hospitals) are subjected to checks and balances to protect our right to privacy.
In light of increased reliance on digital technology to govern multiple aspect of social, political and economic life, the right to exercise control over one's personal data is a critical part of exercising control over one's own body. Read in the context of women's sexual rights and right to personal safety, it's important to include this perspective in the review of legislative measures taken to address violence against women (Section D) and women's control over ICT (Section J).
There was also little mention of how women's right to the freedom of expression, opinion and information was met through State action under Section J. Instead, legislative action was troublingly cited as being undertaken through regulation of content and expression, such as in through laws to censor pornography. Critically missing from the analysis and review were policy debates on vague definition "obscene content", control of women's mobility and sexuality disguised through moral policing laws, accountability of information gatekeepers, gender disparity in governance structures and processes of internet governance, and mechanisms of internet content regulation that often limits women's access to life-saving information, including sexual reproductive health and information to combat violence etc.iii
Countering stereotypical attitudes
Countering stereotypes is a dialogue, a reiterative process between social actors that need to be challenged and changed through a sustained process of exchange. As such, it cannot be limited to only awareness raising and information dissemination campaigns through new media and ICT.
Particularly since the value of internet technologies is their ability to facilitate conversations and interactivity. The assumed framework of relations in terms of communications and media in itself requires rethinking. It is no longer just the case of one (media channel owned by one company) to many (the information consuming public), but also many (the public who are users, distributors and producers of content on digital platforms) to many.
With this, efforts to build women and girls' capacity on ICT should not focus solely on its economic potential, but to also ensure that we have control over communication platforms, channels and spaces and how they are shaped, so that we can disrupt and challenge normative ideas of gender roles and relations. The primary framework that anchors this process would be, as identified by the report, the protection and realisation of women's human rights.
Perhaps the slipperiness of Section J is the fact that it does intersect and cut across all critical areas of concern. In almost every section of the report, stereotypical attitudes was noted as a significant barrier to the advancement of women's rights, and linked to media and ICT in some way. As with Article 5 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), this can remain as one of the most difficult thing to assess, measure and review.
Nonetheless, it is clear that women's right to communicate, to not just have access to but have control over and define communication spaces and processes, needs to be clearly articulated and approached as a critical policy issue in its own right. One concrete way is to move away from the understanding of ICT as being primarily a-political tools, simply to be wielded, but as a fraught political terrain that is at the heart of women's human rights.
Jac is the Women's Rights and ICT Policy coordinator for APC WNSP. She coordinates the OpenNet Initiative-Asia Gender Research Framework project, EroTICS research (Exploratory Research on Sexuality and the Internet), and APC's "Take Back The Tech!" campaign. Jac is the focal point for APC's work on human rights. Jac is based in Malaysia.
i; For example see section A. Women and poverty, which detail how access to technology was critical to help address the multidimensional issue of women and poverty
iii See Mabel Bianco, "EROTICS: An Exploratory Research on Sexuality & The Internet - Policy Review" for a policy overview of these areas; http://www.genderit.org/en/index.shtml?w=r&x=96266