ICTs: Women, free software, copyrights,… forgotten by Mauritanian legislators and decision-makers
Free software is a real solution for the digital divide problems caused by under-development. Free software has an important part to play in the creation of an environment favourable to equitable and sustainable development, and this has to happen with the involvement of women as essential players.
Very early on, Mauritius began mastering information and communication technologies (ICTs) as a special tool at the service of social development. However no provisions were made related to free software, much less with regard to the integration and involvement of women and girls in the ICT domain. This absence was notable in the national document, a Strategic Framework for the Fight Against Poverty (Cadre Stratégique de Lutte contre la Pauvreté - CSLP). It broaches several themes including information and communication technologies and the promotion of women. While it does not mention any possible connection between these two domains, this strategic framework meets good governance concerns and has brought several cross-disciplinary parameters to the fore, as well as introducing some new parameters to Mauritanian policy, such as that of gender.
Centralising gender within development means acknowledging that gender equality is a societal issue and not just a women's issue. It also attests to the legitimacy of gender as a fundamental value that should reflect developmental choices and institutional practices. In this sense, involvement in reducing the digital divide includes the promotion and encouragement of ICT appropriation and equal participation by men and women in the national digital society.
For this to happen, it is essential to promote and strengthen the role of free software. Among other things, it favours the production of reliable, appropriate, inexpensive software for users in poor countries such as Mauritania (152nd out of the 177 poorest countries in the world)i. Free software has a part to play in improved handling of security issues (such as viruses, spam, hackers, data piracy on official servers, national security and defence bodies), and in appropriately meeting the requirements of public and local technical and language (Arabic and other) standards.
It also has a particular role to play in enhancing the spread of the culture of freedom of expression and communication.
In spite of this and the various needs-related recommendations, such as the urgency of encouraging and funding the development of free software in Mauritaniaii, and despite the organisation of numerous workshops on information technology and internet tools based on free software, nothing has been concretely done by the authorities, the private sector, nor even by the local Nouakchott Universityiii towards the promotion, creation and support of such software. Nouakchott University facilitates access to the internet, and to online documentary resources through the various cyberdocs , internet cafes located within the university campus for use by students and teachers. They can access free or paid on line resources and materials, but have no access to messaging and other internet tools. These cyberdocs are set up all over the university campus, with free access for student families (students, teachers and researchers). According to university sources, girls only represent around 31% of users of these online resources and free internet access although they represent 33% of the university's 15,000 studentsiv.
Most ICT training in Mauritius does not correspond to the real needs expressed by trainees and/or their organisations. In addition, no specific measures have been taken to ensure the concrete involvement of women in such training, which means that they represent less than 1% of the training beneficiariesv. These courses are organized by different departments and institutions of the country (Government, donors, agencies for development, etc) by local and foreign ICT trainers.
However, training on subjects such as free software would undoubtedly facilitate the integration of young girls and boys into the labour market through new, relevant and highly sought-after skills (such as webmaster, computer graphics, editing, and camera).
The rare Mauritanian NGOs working in this domain cannot satisfy the training demand. However, if these NGOs had followed the example of the private sector, within the framework of dialogue established by the relevant ministries, training programmes would have been more effective, and their training capacities would have been much larger. These NGOs would have taken part in listing and redefining requirements, and would also have contributed towards the implementation of these training programmes. Even the ICT pseudo-research institute is not aware of these organisations and, as in other domains, public actions are often and especially political and have no sustainable impact as a result. This means that the Government has to collaborate with civil society as it has done with the private sector in particular in the formulation and implementation of ICT policy.
This is illustrated by the NGO "Ntic et citoyenneté” (NICTs and citizenship)'svi efforts to initiate and carry out a survey on the gender digital divide in Mauritania, on the eve of the WSIS in 2005. Efforts including the results validation workshopvii failed, due to issues that are still unclear. However, a pioneer studyviii will show gender-specific indicators in the ICT domain, which is a first in Mauritania. The study was a survey on the digital gender gap in Mauritania as part of a regional study initiated in six francophone countries in West Africa under the coordination of the network Régentic (ENDA-Senegal with funding from IDRC, Canada). Its results were published at the workshop cited above on 29 July 2005. The national results and the regional synthesis are available online.
In the same way, the community access centres created by relevant ministriesix have not survived because the NGOs working in the internet field were not involved in their development and establishment. The failure of the ICT access centre for women entrepreneurs in Mauritania is even more regrettable because it could have been effectively and sustainably useful for these women. Internet cafes that started up under this project have closed because NGOs were not involved in their management. In the town of Aioun in Hodh Elgharbi (800km from the capital), NGOs were not involved in the management of a cyber-town (created and managed by the German cooperation agency GTZ). So, although the cyber-town helped to break the isolation of these NGOs and opened up some short-term opportunities, they did not feel part of the project.
State of play
The liberalisation of the ICT sector in 1999, the creation of a specific technology department and the subsequent adoption of a national ICT strategy, the establishment of a national basic services access agency (covering telecommunications, ICT, water, electricity) followed by the creation of a national regulatory authority (Autorité Nationale de Régulation – ARE) and more recently the Higher Authority for the Press, Radio and Television (Haute Autorité de la Presse et de l’Audiovisuel - HAPA), give the impression of a solid institutional and legal framework, which is not always the case, as such institutions are often exploited by the government.
In addition, the numerous Mauritian male bloggers and rare female bloggers (of which there are about two to four and who almost always prefer to stay anonymous)x are in the process of carving out a place for themselves on the internet and of contributing, in socially aware media, towards citizen participation, management of public welfare, the culture of transparency, denunciation, pressure and solidarity and also towards all freedoms.
External hosting offers more opportunities, confidentiality and security than domestic hosting, which is fairly selective (internet domain management is still under the monopoly of the government) and is often monitored and can therefore be censored. In Mauritania it has already happened and the latest example is the censorship of the news website Taqadoumy, which opposed the last takeover in Mauritania against a democratically elected President, was simply blocked.
In Mauritania, most internet servers are administered by open source productsxi and most internet cafes use free software for management purposes. Such free software is often downloaded from the internet, copied from colleagues or brought back from regional and international workshops, and allows work to be carried out in domains such as office automation, internet, multimedia, authoring, utilities. Pirated software overcomes obstacles faced in buying software, such as the cost and the unreliable distribution of software. Due to these obstacles individuals, institutions and private companies, and even public institutions, use pirated software and there is no relevant legislation/ national jurisdiction to control this phenomenon, even if ARE and HAPA are attempting to fill the gap. This needs and legislative gap could have been a boon for women, if they were able to take advantage of of it, but the few women involved in this field of activity don’t necessarily have sufficient commitment to building the open source movement.
Maurifemmexii, an indisputable source of information on everything related to the Mauritanian woman, has been victim to the cost of plagiarism of its internet site on several occasions. Journalists, bloggers and researchers, among others, often dip into their resources to illustrate the work that they are publishing, without citing the source. The managers of this website have made requests that authors cite them as a source, but have been ignored. There is little information on relevant Mauritanian laws that could protect the material.
In the National ICT Strategy, a open source development was not explicitly mentioned, which limits initiatives in this domain and encourages the exodus or brain drain of predominantly male graduates. Female graduates are rarely seen to have connections with creation or innovation in this field. Moreover, women only make up 8.7% of ICT professionals throughout the countryxiii. Some of them have distinguished themselves, but they are few in number, though they exist. Two prominent female internet technology specialists in Mauritania were trained abroad and are now in senior decision-making positions. Fatimétou Mint Abdelmalekxiv is the Mayor of a residential district in the capital, and has distinguished herself through her management of this commune, and by the strength of her personality in the domain of citizen policies, a domain that was greatly monopolised by men at that time. Fatimétou Mint Mohamed Saleckxv, who holds a doctorate in mathematics applied to information technology, was the first head of the ministerial department for new technology in Mauritania, a post she held for several years.
In summary, it has to be acknowledged that, in Mauritania, nothing is concretely envisaged with regard to the appropriation of free software and its promotion as a tool for development and access to knowledge, as well as sovereignty and independence. The anarchy of the liberalisation of the internet has not been accompanied by additional copyright protection.
iSocioeconomic statistics drawn from the website: http://www.statistiques-mondiales.com/mauritanie.htm
ii ”Vues d’ensemble des TIC et du Commerce Electronique en Mauritanie et points d’actions suggérés” (“Overview of ICTs and E-business in Mauritania and recommended action points"), SEMINAR-WORKSHOP 19-27 October, NOUAKCHOTT, CCI-SETN: http://www.mauritania.mr/passerelles/docs/pdf/e_commerce_TIC_en_Mauritanie.pdf
iv Statistics from the Nouakchott University library (2008/2009)
vii “Etude sur la Fracture Numérique de Genre en Afrique francophone , données et indicateurs : Rapport National de la Mauritanie” (“Study on the Gender Digital Divide in French-Speaking Africa, data and indicators : Mauritania National Report”), July 2005 (http://www.maurifemme.mr/bibliovirtuelle.html)
viii “ Sur la fracture numérique de genre en Afrique francophone” (“On the gender digital divide in French-speaking Africa “) : www.famafrique.org/regentic/indifract/fracturenumeriquedegenre.pdf
ix Mauritanian ICT access strategy: http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/mexico04/doc/doc/11_MRT_f.pdf
xi “Historique de l’état des lieux de l’Internet en Mauritanie”, (“Background to the State of Play of the Internet in Mauritius”), Zakaria OULD AMAR, PhD, ADAGE Associate Director, Advisory and Development http://220.127.116.11/search?q=cache:dRH2v54pu-4J:www.modernisation.gov.mr/NR/rdonlyres/EC1C923C-3CC4-4325-918F-B79971EB4932/0/HistoriqueEtatdeslieuxdInternetenMauritanie.pps+logiciels+libres%2Bmauritanie&hl=fr&ct=clnk&cd=8&gl=fr
xiv Fatimétou Mint Abdelmaleck, Mayor of Tevragh Zeina (Mauritania) http://www.ani.mr/sys_journal/ImgJournal_26_01_2009_19_11_54.pdf
xvFatimétou Mint Mohamed Saleck : http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/connect/africa/2007/media/plib/detail.asp?y=2007&n=876