“We are in the process of constructing a new political field, and this is just the beginning”

Magaly Pazello is a Brazilian researcher and consultant in gender and information and communication technologies (ICT) and a member of the g2g group. She was the only woman from Brazil to participate in the entire World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) process. In an exclusive interview with GenderIT.org, Magaly highlights the debates about the reduction in international funding for Latin America, and observes that the search for new partnerships and creation of innovative projects are fundamental steps for moving forwards in constructing this new political field. But also, that “this is just the beginning” of the process.


Flavia Fascendini: Looking back over the agreements made at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) and post-WSIS around financing for universal access in developing countries, do you think that this has had any impact on the field of women and ICT?


Magaly Pazello: To answer this question, we need to go back in time and reiterate something that was one of the big obstacles in the negotiation of the WSIS documents: the language used to talk about gender.


The feeling we had was that all the discussions about gender equality, equity, women’s rights, etc. which had taken place in previous conferences had never existed. We were facing a sort of rupture in the language and a return to the past, back to even before the World Conference on Human Rights, the International Conference on Population and Development and the Conference on Women. And this is really unfortunate.


On the one hand, it was not unexpected because it reflected the state of the world in 2003: we were very close to 2001, the invasion of Afghanistan had just taken place; then came the whole Iraq story, Bush doing those horrible things, preparing the path for his re-election. In other words, it was a really bad moment. We were living in a time when questions of privacy, human rights and security became dangerously entangled, to the point that it became “acceptable” to violate rights and civil liberties in exchange for a supposed sense of security, and so on. A good example of this is the Patriot Act.


So language is crucial when documents are being negotiated in a diplomatic context, because the texts which are negotiated and agreed upon are supposedly going to become actions; they are going to become public policies. In the first instance, each word, each full stop and each comma means something. They have a history, a reason for existing, they involve political negotiation, they involve agreements between countries.


So this rupture and this return to the past were decisive for weakening what had been discussed and achieved beforehand. We must not forget that before WSIS we had the process around the International Conference on Financing for Development in 2001, which was interrupted by the events of 11 September and ended up taking place in an environment reminiscent of the Cold War. So, that was the scenario: a widespread weakening of rights, of legitimated languages.


Going back to WSIS, we therefore came up against just how fragile and vulnerable this kind of victory is. In other words, how much we have to keep working and be vigilant so that the achievements of one conference are reflected in agreements and go on to become part of actual practice.


The impact of this scenario on the regional level, I mean on Latin America, was that the language on gender and the rights of women became reduced to something very assistencialista [a Brazilian word with negative connotations, associated with the provision of aid, or handouts, for the needy]: women were never mentioned in the contexts where the roles of actors were being negotiated in the mechanisms for decision-making and in the design of ICT policies.


Instead, the proposed texts focused on things like developing the digital literacy of girls and women. This is a serious problem because people keep working on the question of financing the information society with a gender perspective as if gender was synonymous with women, and as if we were just to be passive beneficiaries. The mechanisms are of a different nature, they must not be assistencialista, nor must they use the word gender incorrectly like this.


In parallel to this, something very strange was happening. Resources were available for funding projects and actions during the WSIS process. And there was an enormous concern that these resources would come to an end as soon as the WSIS process concluded, in Tunis. You might ask if these funds were extensive or limited, if the money was badly used or accessible to everyone.


This worry about the scarcity of financial resources was discernible, so much so that it was part of debates in Latin America, for example, in multi-sector meetings organised by the information society division of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). This was articulated to the point of influencing the decisions about the targets for eLAC2007.


So this is very strange, because if on the one hand you have a strategy which is to hold back the availability of resources, and on the other there is this scenario of weakening in which the language used does not reflect the achievements of previous processes, there is no way to connect a gender perspective with financing in a satisfactory way. So what we saw were very weak commitments in relation to gender and the empowerment of women. The promotion of actions and programmes are insufficient in the face of the real needs which exist.


Flavia Fascendini: There is a shortfall…


Magaly Pazello: Exactly. That is the problem, and it is a serious problem. At the eLAC2010 meeting which took place recently, the Dominican Republic took on the responsibility for the gender working group. We are finally going to have a gender working group. This is something that it was not possible to agree in 2005 at the Regional Ministerial Conference because the governments said they could not take on this agenda, and that countries did not have the capacity to deal with this question. In addition, they argued that the agenda for 2007 was already extensive.


However, because of Beijing [the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995], all governments in Latin America with maybe a few exceptions, have departments or ministries for the promotion of policies for women. So, how can it be that their governments do not have the necessary capacity?


The lack of commitment was clear. The governments said this because those departments and ministries were not involved in the process, and they were not involved in the process because this is not yet a priority agenda for women. A wide debate is needed about what the field of information society covers and how the different arenas of this new field are discussing issues which are important for everyone, for all sectors of humanity.


So if your question is about what has an impact, well, in a way there is no impact. Because there are some resources, but there is no clarity on how these resources should be used according to a gender perspective. We still need to build the bridge that makes this connection, and it has to be a strong bridge! Actually, your question is the challenge that we have to face.


Flavia Fascendini: And what do you think about the recent inclusion of an article which mentions gender implicitly in the document known as the San Salvador Commitment, the result of the eLAC2010 process?


Magaly Pazello: In eLAC2007 there was no working group on gender because as I said before, there was the story about governments not having the necessary capacity to work on so many fronts, as if gender was a front in itself rather than a cross-cutting issue for the implementation of actions and the design of policies. The gender working group is the result of the efforts of women in the dialogue with governments, to which Argentina and the Dominican Republic responded positively, favouring the elaboration of proposals designed to develop ICT initiatives with a gender approach at national and regional level.


So this is interesting because it is what we should have had in 2005. We have moved forward a little, but we still need to anchor this in a real action plan. The partnerships still need to be established, as do the work plan and the allocation of resources.


Flavia Fascendini: In relation to the policies of funders or donors in this area, which do you think are the current trends in relation to the disbursement of funds intended for women’s organisations in the area of ICT?


Magaly Pazello: I am not a specialist in this area and I do not have experience in dealing with this matter on a day-to-day basis at the level of institutions. As well as having participated in the WSIS process, I followed this issue through the debates organised by AWID [the Association for Women’s Rights in Development].


But certainly financing, in general, has to do with the geopolitical context. There are ups and downs. And what has happened lately in terms of trends has been the allocation of lines of financing in different areas targeted at Africa. Of course there is a great debt owed to Africa and it is fundamental that resources, and not just financial resources, are made available for that part of the world. But what I see in terms of the flow for Latin America, as someone who does not work directly on this issue, is that it has diminished and there have been changes in the strategy and the criteria adopted by the agencies, or at least by some agencies.


So, for funding of social projects, research and so on, I think one alternative which should be considered is to look for new actors/financial partners beyond the international and local agencies, in other words be innovative in this area as well and diversify where the support comes from. I think that a renewal of these actors is already taking place. It is like a big pot with various ingredients that need to be analysed separately. Projects and organisations really need to develop strategies thinking about their capacity to plan for the future, creating innovative projects and establishing new partnerships. There are many elements there which need to be examined individually.


For example, in 2002, the Angela Borba Fund, a women’s fund in Brazil, did not have a funding line specifically for ICT and advocacy, but it decided to support a small project for a meeting about the emerging information society as a political arena for feminist action. And it was this small amount of funding which made it possible for us to be present at a key moment at the beginning of the WSIS negotiations, which were something really new at that time. The Angela Borba Fund made this initial move. Unfortunately, those present were not able to ensure that this agenda gained more visibility in the women’s movement. There were other issues underway which also required attention, and therefore we continue to take tiny steps to ensure that this agenda is taken up by the women’s movement as a political agenda.


Flavia Fascendini: Who sets these trends in funding?


Magaly Pazello: The agencies establish their own policies and strategies, and as I mentioned before, there is also the geopolitical context. The agencies are dealing with money which is also in the financial markets, there are funds which need to be topped up all the time; they need to raise money. Some donors require money to be for a specific action, others do not. I believe that the agencies’ policies are decided on the basis of a series of questions.


Flavia Fascendini: Regarding the governments and their gender budgets, to what extent do you think that women’s access to the information society is really an important issue at the level of states and their commitment to equality?


Magaly Pazello: In relation to Brazil, specifically, I think that there are no budget lines for this, the lines are generally unspecific. The research I did in 2004 showed there was a great deal of confusion between what it means to have a policy in support of gender equality and the specific needs of women, and setting up women-only telecentres.


If you go to any important meeting about ICT in Brazil, there are only men on the panel. Despite this, the issue of ICT was included in the final documents of the two National Conferences on Policies for Women, as was the issue of science and technology. And it is worth noting the efforts of the Special Secretariat on Policies for Women, under Nilcea Freire’s leadership, to organise meetings with research groups from all over the country and non-governmental organisations on the issue of gender inequality and the strategies for increasing the presence of women in science and technology. It is just a shame that these actions are not coordinated with the digital inclusion policies of the Ministry of Culture.


Flavia Fascendini: What do you think could be mentioned as effective funding mechanisms for making progress in achieving equitable gender policies in the information society?


Magaly Pazello: That is a good question. We definitely need to encourage favourable environments for putting an end to gender discrimination. More research needs to be carried out on the issue, and partnerships with universities, local and independent actions and actions related to the wider field of science and technology must be deepened.


Also, very simple things, like portals to provide information on this issue as well as to encourage the presence of women in this field, are good initiatives. Another thing would be increasing the level of transparency and citizen participation in electronic government. Some this can be done in the area of e-government and digital citizenship, others in the area of income generation, others in the promotion and improvement of education and research.


There is also the question of symbolic violence in virtual environments, which is very strong. There is a great deal to be done in this respect, for example, research and promotion of games which encourage mutual respect between genders. There should be a fund for this but first of all we need to get rid of this silly idea that digital games are not a good thing for children’s development.


In Brazil, the Ministry of Culture was involved in such efforts, but just not with a gender perspective. There are many games which develop their narratives on top of numerous violations of human rights, which encourage conflict resolution through the use of excessive violence and above all reward players who kill, rape and torture. This kind of product should receive more detailed attention. However, it is not about rejecting games for being games. There are many people ready to oppose something completely without really discussing the principles which form the basis of this kind of mentality. Not that violence (war or action games, etc.) should not exist, I am not talking about banning them, but rather about questioning what is happening.


Flavia Fascendini: Do you think that women’s groups and organisations which are interested in working in the area of ICT and need funding have the necessary tools to know how to apply to these funds?


Magaly Pazello: One point is that this is a very new issue and most organisations do not know about, or recognise, the field of information and communication technologies as an instrument and as a political arena. There is a lot to be done in terms of how the traditional priorities of the women’s movement connect with these new issues. The problem is not whether they have the tools or not. The problem is the creation of a new political field.


It is very hard to find people who understand the whole extent of this field because there is a whole new area of knowledge which has not yet been accumulated. We are in the process of building a new political field, and this is just the beginning. We still have a long way to go.

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