Gender and ICT policies: it's time to reorder our forces and understand what is happening

Magaly Pazello is the only Brazilian feminist who’s been active in the WSIS process since its inception. A member of the WSIS Gender Caucus, she is also the focal point in Latin America of the DAWN network - Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era and member of the CRIS Brazil network. In the Latin America and the Caribbean Regional Preparatory Conference, held in June 2005 in Rio de Janeiro, Graciela Selaimen interviewed Magaly Pazello, speaking about the participation of Latin American women in the WSIS process and the initiatives that are being implemented to bring the feminist NGOs and women’s movements and organizations to the dialogue on ICT policies and gender. The conversation also addressed core issues feminists must face in the construction of an equal and inclusive information society – different from today's information society, where patriarchal paradigms are still being reproduced.

Graciela - Would you tell us a bit about the Buenos Aires workshop that was held right after the ECLAC meeting in Quito? There were women from several countries of Latin America gathered, what were the main outcomes regarding the gender perspective within the WSIS?

Magaly – The Buenos Aires workshop was a continuation of an initiative promoted by Gloria Bonder, coordinator of the Regional UNESCO Chair on Woman, Science and Technology and is member of the steering committee of the WSIS Gender Caucus since its beginning. As part of the strategy of building and organizing groups of women who are actors and multipliers of the gender and ICTs issues in the different regions, Gloria Bonder is the person in charge of promoting the creation and animating the Latin American group. There was a first workshop in 2003, as a result of a consultation among women in the region mainly through an online forum, regarding the issues of gender and the information society: the impacts, the consequences, the obstacles presented by this new conformation of society. After the online forum a report was produced and discussed in the 2003 workshop. The workshop that was held last May, right after the technical meeting hold by INFOLAC (Information Network for the Latin America and the Caribbean) and ECLAC in Quito, aimed at retaking what was done in 2003, but not only focusing on the WSIS itself – this time we focused on a strategy of creating arguments, theoretical studies on gender and ICTs and also trying to identify what are the bridges that can be built in order to bring the feminist NGOs and the women’s movements and organizations to the dialogue on ICT policies and gender.

Graciela - And did you get any answers?

Magaly – In this workshop held in May, we got a bit more resources and could bring one feminist from each country, a person that we were able to identify as already being involved somehow in this issue. We also brought a young woman from Brazil who is involved with the WSIS youth caucus. Our aim was to compose an informal working group whose activity doesn’t need to be systematic; it can be intermittent, respecting each one’s time and multiple agendas. One of the greatest difficulties we find today in bringing the women’s movements and organizations to discuss ICT policies is the fact that there are innumerous agendas and priority issues that demand political action, advocacy work and critical and analytical work from feminist activists. Also, the scientific and technological field is a tough field for women to participate – it’s a field where many patriarchal paradigms are reproduced, there is too much sexism.

In the May workshop we aimed at recapturing these obstacles and difficulties – the old obstacles are always repeating and renovating themselves, the conservative world keeps up to date and is really effective in creating new obstacles to progressive movements. Also, we worked to identify and map the reasons why it’s urgent to address the gender perspective in the information society.

Graciela - So, in your opinion, why is it important?

Magaly – I think there are three levels we should consider where ICTs play a critical role: the level of women's empowerment - women’s quality of life, opportunities, horizons, options. When you look at the scientific and technological field as a space for professional opportunities for women, for example, you understand what the obstacles are. It’s a field for white men – a good example of that is the recent declaration of MIT’s (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) director saying that there are few women working with technology because a woman’s brain is not able to think “scientifically”. He brings back a crystallized idea, created in the beginning of the 18th century, which is the paradigm that men are rational and women are emotional. This is something that illustrates how the forces of patriarchy reorganize and manifest themselves in different contexts – you can find examples from high level institutions such as MIT to basic and simple local projects, here in Rio de Janeiro. In a recent investigation I’ve worked on, while interviewing ICT project coordinators, I’ve heard from a woman who coordinates a project with poor youngsters (most of them girls) that she believes that girls have less capacity in using ICTs than boys, because they are more emotional and distracted. That means, this paradigm is being reproduced in every level – from the MIT director to the people who are working with grassroots projects. It’s not far from our reality. The technological development area is a sphere of power in our world. We need women taking part on it – many women, all women – black women, indigenous women, women from urban and rural areas, etc.

Graciela - You mentioned that there were three levels, can you tell us more?

Magaly – The other level is what I call an intermediary level that comprises ICT public policies– local, national, regional policies. It’s urgent that we face the development and construction of these policies – who are the managers, who are the decision makers, who is making the policies? We need to change the approach regarding ICT policies, focussing on the frameworks behind the policies in discussion. There is very little discussion about the impact that ICT policies have in people’s lives, most of the time policy makers want to be up-to-date and so include ICTs in health policies, education policies, it seems that everything must have an “e-something” component. These polices are made without reflection on the impact they may have. Also, this way of developing policies can radicalize inequalities – of gender, of race, between generations, etc.

The third level I see is the macro level – the geopolitical level. In the macro level we are [the feminists] struggling for assuring the self-determination of women, the empowerment of women against the patriarchal forces - and these forces intervene strongly in the WSIS process, for example. Look at the interest of the Vatican in internet governance; they have an entire team of specialists working on this issue. What is the reason for that? It’s urgent that we be aware of this, here again the conservative forces are reordering themselves – and we, the feminist, must also reorder our forces and understand what is happening – critically analyzing this process through gender lens.

Graciela – So, from the LAC Gender Caucus Meeting you came here to Rio, to the regional prepatory meeting for the second phase of WSIS. What is your opinion about what’s going on here?

Magaly – The document with proposals to the eLac presented by the Argentinean delegation is very interesting – they have incorporated the text presented by APC and the text we [the feminists who were present] produced in Quito, regarding the gender perspective. The Dominican Republic also supports a gender perspective. What is regretful is the Brazilian position, a country that has a National Secretary for Women’s Policies but its delegation in the WSIS process is completely closed to gender. Even though they receive our contributions, they don’t defend them, because the Brazilian agenda is focused on free software and internet governance. If other countries propose the incorporation of a gender perspective in the documents, they do not oppose, but they also do not support. So, I can only say it’s regrettable.

Graciela - In regards to these themes – internet governance, free software and also financing – is there any specific contribution from women's organizations and movements?

Magaly - From the women who are participating in the WSIS process, not only the Gender Caucus, but all women who are active in the WSIS, there are women working on this. Most of them are women from the North that are represented in several spaces, including the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG). In Latin America, we don’t have a systematic and articulated discussion on these themes within the context of the WSIS.

Graciela - Even though there is strong participation of women in the free software movement in Brazil, for example…

Magaly – But these women's groups that work with Free Software, such as developers like LinuxChix or users and multipliers, such as Gnurias and the Women Free Software Project [that gathers both developers and users] they are not involved in WSIS. In this case, the global and the local are connected within other processes, they are in communication with the free software movement in the international level, not with the multilateral processes where there are the decision makers who will impact the national legislations. The women’s free and open source movement should be there, in my opinion. But here again we face the challenge: we are very few and there is too much to do, while no financial support is given to the activists who are really connecting people around these issues. My work in this field, for instance, is totally volunteer.

Graciela - And how about the participation of women in this Rio meeting?

Magaly - I think in this conference we had the opportunity to have a bigger group of women, but due to financial constraints – a serious problem, in my opinion – this did not happen, even though some women were mobilized to be here, and these women mobilized other women in the LAC region and…the promised resources to bring them were cancelled two weeks before the conference. This is a very serious situation. Anyway, we had the luck to have Jacqueline Morris, from Trinidad y Tobago, here. She is in the Gender Caucus and is part of the WGIG and is following up with this theme. Yesterday she was in a panel on connectivity costs and she intervened, pointing out that there were nine white men speaking on the panel. This lack of gender and racial balance is a step back even in comparison to the Bavaro Conference [regional conference for Latin America and the Caribbean, preparatory for the first phase of the WSIS], in 2003. Here, we don’t have any balance, as if there weren’t any women specialists, or black people, indigenous people, able to tackle these themes and bring their political perspective. These specialists exist – although they are few, due to the enormous difficulties that we already mentioned. Looking at this conference, the organizers treated as extremely normal the fact that a panel is formed only by white men – as if this were the ‘default’.

In my opinion this is the worst problem – when people don’t care about diversity and gender and racial balance, this invisibility is extremely oppressive. It’s an intangible problem, and we have to face it. Most people absolutely ignore your intellectual capacity if you are a woman, if you are lesbian or gay, if you are indigenous, if you are black.

Here in this meeting we have a throwback in regards to diversity and in regards to the recognition of the different political subjects that are active in the ICT policies field. And this is one of the major difficulties in our negotiation with the Brazilian government and the new ECLAC’s team – to guarantee the participation of people who are acting in this process – women, men of different races. The work that has been done up to now has been completely ignored by the Brazilian WSIS organizing committee. The bureaucracy to propose a name was huge, we had to justify by innumerous means the reason why we were proposing a person to be on a panel as speaker, and although I know this is part of the process and agree with it in a certain extent, I think it’s amazing that the actors who are working in this process for more than five years were not recognized and incorporated in the conference programme. What happened to the NGOs who were in Bavaro? Nobody questions their absence in this conference. There is no gender perspective in this conference and part of the efforts we made to have more women here was useless – once we didn’t have the financial support to guarantee their presence. The constraints for feminist participation are huge and many times unexpected.

Graciela - What are your expectations about the Tunis Summit?

Magaly –In terms of the political situation in Tunisia, several recent reports produced by, among others, organizations such as IFEX, Rights and Democracy, the International Federation of Human Rights, Reporters without Borders, and OMCT (Organisation Mondiale Contre la Torture) have documented that activists in Tunisia are harassed, threatened, intimidated and imprisoned . The Tunisian authorities contest the reports and assure that everything is fine in the country. There's a clear difference of opinion - who do we believe?

Well, at the recent Prepcom II, this past February in Geneva, members of the Gender Caucus were followed and had their movements controlled by well known Tunisian government operatives. This intimidation was reported to national delegations. If intimidation is taking place in Geneva, in United Nations territory - then it is likely that the same, or worse, will take place at the summit in Tunis.

What will be interesting about Tunis is the coming together of different women's groups that are working on gender, ICTs and women’s empowerment: the DAWN network, APC WNSP, ISIS Manila, IT4Change from India, and the grassroots caucus ; which will bring women's groups with different perspectives of race and ethnicity, of rural women, of young women, of poor women… This can produce interesting outcomes in WSIS and beyond. I think what is important is that these women can go to the Summit and we can meet and establish alliances. I hope there will be resources to bring all these women together.

My personal expectation of Tunis is that we have an interesting solution for the debate on internet governance and a wider visibility if ICTs as a political field. However, I don't have high hopes regarding the consolidation of a people-centered information society perspective.

Related links:

- WSIS Gender Caucus

- ECLAC - Economic Comission for Latin America and the Caribbean

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