[SPECIAL EDITION] There is no opting out.: Indigenous women in Malaysia and questions of access

7 September 2017

There is no opting out. Internet connectivity and information technology are now embodied in our collective shared human condition, cutting across geographical boundaries and different spheres of our lives and identities. As governments move towards e-government, whether you like it or not, you are in a digital system of some kind or other even if you do not have access to the internet. Once touted as the panacea in transforming unequal gender power dynamics, increasing democratic space and public participation, it is now reproducing and exacerbating existing inequalities, especially gender inequality, rooted in patriarchy, the monopolisation and control of resources which results in gross inequalities in wealth distribution, exploitation of labour, impoverishment of peoples and countries, and the denial of human rights. This all-pervasive expansion of technological evolution privileges the few.

As governments move towards e-government, whether you like it or not, you are in a digital system of some kind or other even if you do not have access to the internet.

The arguments for an internet based on feminist principles are indispensable to the on-going struggle for gender equality and human rights. A feminist approach to digital freedoms requires consistent introspection of subjectivity and social experience through on-going negotiation and renegotiation, relies on defining and redefining experiences, and finally, demands that we accept and be inclusive of differences and diversity, while ensuring that no one is denied their human rights -- universal, indivisible, inalienable, interrelated and interdependent.

The digital world is now woven within the fabric of our very being – a seamless extension of our lived realities, but the greatest irony is that there remain voices that are still missing from the internet rights movement. Voices who do not share the same zest for connectivity and digital innovation, but recognise the need for access only to serve a greater communal purpose. Today, it is vital for us to ask where do the experiences of indigenous women sit in the struggle against digital tyranny and what does the future of a feminist internet entail for them. What are the issues in the context of Malaysia?

Missing Voices, Present Bodies

The indigenous community in Malaysia accounts for 13.9% of the entire population as of 2015 1 and remain poorly connected to the internet, even with the nation’s broadband penetration stood at 81.6% per 100 household in 20162. The right to access affordable internet connectivity is another addition to their long historical struggle for their collective rights over land, territories, resources, identity and livelihood. The injustices they face are reinforced by systemic barriers to access to infrastructure, welfare, healthcare and timely and accurate information. For indigenous women, the challenges are compounded by the intersectionality of their status as women, indigenous, and poor. They face patriarchal oppression and disempowerment externally imposed by the State.

The right to access affordable internet connectivity is just another addition to their long historical struggle for their collective rights over land, territories, resources, identity and livelihood. The injustices they face are reinforced by systemic barriers to access to infrastructure, welfare, healthcare and timely and accurate information. For indigenous women, the challenges are compounded by the intersectionality of their status as women, indigenous, and poor.

Little appreciation is given to the lived realities of indigenous women. Too few acknowledge and value the cultural connection that an indigenous woman has with natural resources, and how this knowledge alone shifts and shapes the mapping of the lands they derive their livelihood and on which the full meaning of their existence sits. There are more than 50 ethnic groups with differing customary practices and geographical distribution – forming a unique and distinctive relationship and power dynamics among the indigenous communities, and one of the more under-researched and under-documented area of interest in our country.

Traditional knowledge is seen as something to appropriate and commercialise, and cultural identity suffers as a tokenistic gesture of performative value for tourism purposes. Other than that, the usual arguments as to why the indigenous peoples remain largely unconnected is the fact that they are a minority, and live quite far apart from each other. In Peninsular Malaysia, the indigenous peoples account for a mere 0.84% of the national population (14,457,300)3. With only about 20 to maybe 30 in a village, these are hardly numbers for any telecommunication company to jump at and say, "let’s invest here".

Without fuller conversations, we understand their problems in a piece-meal manner, much like zero-rating services are proposed as the solutions to connectivity. We need research on the indigenous communities and internet connectivity so that we can rethink what we see as problems, and transform these through a better thought-out and integrated intervention that offers some level of development justice.

The discourse around internet access issues must move beyond the singular issue of physical and structural access, and to situate access within the context of indigenous women’s lives and experiences. And more so pivotally, we should avoid employing a rhetoric commonality that make women’s ICT issues synonymous to the dominant voices of the feminist movement.

Surely, we need research on the indigenous communities and internet connectivity so that we can rethink what we see as problems, and transform these through a better thought-out and integrated intervention that offers some level of development justice.. We should avoid employing a rhetoric commonality that make women’s ICT issues synonymous to the dominant voices of the feminist movement.

Narratives as told by others

I recollect a conversation I had with a volunteer teacher for indigenous children in the state of Sabah, when she told me she struggled to explain the concept of a ‘wet market’ (a topic covered in textbook provided by the government) to her students. The idea of having to go to a dedicated place to get fresh meat and vegetable is simply strange to a community who eat what they plant and hunt. Friends and family around me generally know very little of the lives of the indigenous peoples in Malaysia. It shouldn’t be a surprise given that our world and perspective are shaped by the dominant narrative, shared and told through the lens of the dominant culture.

The internet works in a manner that mirror access and voices in our everyday lives. With the vast amount of information made available to us today, the stories of the indigenous peoples, especially the indigenous women, are unfamiliar to Malaysian society and the world at large. There is better awareness as compared to 10 years, but it is not happening at a rate that some other groups have benefited from the transformative ability of the internet.

The internet and information technology has always defined our culture and increasingly, the degree of autonomy we have over our culture is eroding as a consequence of the global information network. In most indigenous communities, women serve as primary caregivers to children and elderly family members. They are the holders and teachers of the traditional knowledge passed down through generations, who are the main food producers and managers of their natural resources, and who have the knowledge to adapt to the effects of climate change on these resources. Their roles and knowledge are crucial to the survival of indigenous community. Being largely unconnected to the internet, compounded by various marginalisation, among others – digital illiteracy and poverty, also means that they do not have access to these resources to document and distribute their knowledge and skills.

One good initiative is the digital story map for the Sarayaku tribe in Ecuador, to demonstrate how the Ecuadorian State parcelled off their territory to oil companies. This is an important step in giving visibility to the stories of the Sarayaku’s struggles using digital mapping and storytelling.

The digital story map for the Sarayaku tribe in Ecuador shows how the Ecuadorian State parcelled off their territory to oil companies. This is an important step in giving visibility to the stories of the Sarayaku’s struggles using digital mapping and storytelling.

Free Prior Informed Consent

The free prior and informed consent (FPIC) principle is a known key principle in international law and jurisprudence related to the indigenous peoples; it is a principle that a community has the right to give or withhold its consent to proposed projects that may affect the lands they customarily own, occupy or otherwise use. FPIC is a concept based on autonomy and right to self-determination. For a long time, the rights of indigenous peoples have been severely violated, by government and private sectors and by those who assert they know what’s best for the communities and development of mankind. Hence, the aim of FPIC is to ensure an equal level playing field between the communities and the government and private sector; one that allow the indigenous communities to make the decision on their own as to whether the project is beneficial to them, asking important question like "Is this what we want and need collectively?"

Free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) is a principle that a community has the right to give or withhold its consent to proposed projects that may affect the lands they customarily own, occupy or otherwise use. FPIC is a concept based on autonomy and right to self-determination.

The principle is open to contention – whether it is a substantial right or a mere procedural right, and the enforceability of an international principle is subjected to many criticisms. But this principle is a key reminder of the importance of meaningful engagement in any development project. And more so today when the powerful few are turning our cities into smart cities; replacing human labour with automated robots; adopting big data and algorithm intelligence at the centre of governance and decision making etc.

And it is not sufficient that consultation is conducted, the FPIC requires a much higher threshold. The final study on Indigenous Peoples and the right to participate in decision-making by the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples advises on the proper implementation FPIC: "The element of ‘free’ implies no coercion, intimidation or manipulation; ‘prior’ implies that consent is obtained in advance of the activity associated with the decision being made, and includes the time necessary to allow Indigenous Peoples to undertake their own decision-making processes; ‘informed’ implies that Indigenous Peoples have been provided all information relating to the activity and that that information is objective, accurate and presented in a manner and form understandable to Indigenous Peoples; ‘consent’ implies that Indigenous Peoples have agreed to the activity that is the subject of the relevant decision, which may also be subject to conditions. "

So, what would an internet, based on the principle of free prior and informed consent, be like for the indigenous peoples, and indigenous women in particular?

Development for the indigenous women

The ever-frequent antithesis to the right of indigenous peoples is that they are "retrogressive" and "anti-development". The remarks are highly judgemental and nothing more than an opinion from those who do not comprehend the values and lived experiences of the indigenous communities. The reality is, indigenous peoples want sustainable development, not an imposed top-bottom approach of development that do not consider the values of their customary practices, their connection to the land and natural resources, and their identity and dignity. For years, indigenous peoples have fought for the right to education, to proper health care, to information and to public participation – and these are them fighting for their right to development.

Zero rating services such as Free Basics and many other subsidised data strategies operates based on the presumption that everyone needs only access to several pre-selected services, and that a watered down internet access to those who do not have access is better than having none.

Zero rating services such as Free Basics and many other subsidised data strategies operates based on the presumption that everyone needs only access to several pre-selected services, and that a watered down internet access to those who do not have access is better than having none. It is beyond the scope of this article to dive into the disadvantages of limiting new internet users experience to a narrow scope. A top-down based service or product, even when well-intend, has an overall tendency towards dogmatism and launched without proper understanding of the needs of the indigenous communities.

We should start by not assuming that indigenous peoples need the internet we are familiar with today, that they need to be part of this globalised information network systems. Much like how we shouldn’t expect them to understand the concept of a ‘wet market’. We should start by understanding their demand for sustainable development and explore, together with them, on how can technology and communication networks can be employed to facilitate and enhance their daily lives.

While getting connections to the indigenous people and women should be a priority, any approach to do so should align with their social context and as part of their right to sustainable development and right to equal participation. While the inception of community network model and concept is still in its early stages in Malaysia, it is a worthwhile approach for a sustainable local ecosystem that serves the need of the communities.

2050

"The world in 2050 will be much different from the world today – what will guide us to face this future?"

This is an excerption from the National Transformation 50 or TN50’s website – an initiative to plan for the future of Malaysia in the period 2020 – 2050. It envisioned a future where people work mostly from pods as they are connected virtually; all buildings, transport vehicles, and cities are smart and interconnected; industries and organisations turn to robotics and AI for physical task; sharing economy becomes commonplace, causing even more disruptions across industries and redefining business regulation; life expectancy approaches 150 for some, owing to biotech advancements etc.

This is no longer a plot from a sci-fi movie but a very plausible future, not for everyone, but for the rich, powerful and privileged few. Any plan or vision to move the nation forward, cannot do so without addressing the question of patriarchy and gender-based power struggle, more so for those from marginalised communities.

Any plan or vision to move the nation forward, cannot do so without addressing the question of patriarchy and gender-based power struggle, more so for those from marginalised communities.

The executive has on several occasions claimed that TN50 is a bottom-up expression of the people’s aspirations, achieved through town halls meetings with youth and an online e-engagement sessions, drawing and essay competition targeted at schools, universities and the general public. It is not bottom up in its truest sense unless and until we acknowledge the need to address the need of the most vulnerable one in our country. Critically and urgently we must build our Malaysian online feminism, inclusive of the terms of the indigenous women. It is pivotal for us to generate discourses and narratives that challenge the existing power dynamics and status quo while reclaiming our rights to decision-making and in shaping the internet we want.

It is pivotal for us to generate discourses and narratives that challenge the existing power dynamics and status quo while reclaiming our rights to decision-making and in shaping the internet we want.

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Footnotes

1 International Work Group for Indigenous Affair, "Indigenous peoples in Malaysia", available at: http://www.iwgia.org/regions/asia/malaysia. (Go back)

2 Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission, "Communication and Multimedia: Pocket Book of Statistic (Special Edition 2016)", available at: https://www.mcmc.gov.my/skmmgovmy/media/General/pdf/MCMC-CM-Statistical-... (Go Back)

3 International Work Group for Indigenous Affair, "Indigenous peoples in Malaysia", available at: http://www.iwgia.org/regions/asia/malaysia (Go back)

 

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