The triumph of technology as a radical and revolutionary change over traditional social institutions and concepts is the reality of our digital age today. The world changes tremendously with developments in information and communication technologies (ICTs), especially through the lens of the postmodern ‘global village’, economy and communication. Computers and computer networks are taking the lead role in restructuring of societies and social performances.
The internet and virtual reality are not only blurring the boundaries of space and time, private and public, masculine and feminine, but point to the potency of ICTs in fostering the idea of participatory democracy on an enormous scale. It has become apparent that this new environment creates new “political filters” through which we can see the world “in hues of red, green, and ultraviolet”, as remarked by reknown feminist theorist, Donna Haraway.
While new revolutionary consciousness is underway, reflected through the activities of pioneering women and men who are expanding the potential of ICTs as a tool for economic and social development around the world, the situation in the developing countries and countries in transition is still facing great challenges. Without proactive strategies that will contribute to increasing awareness about the relevance of ICTs in development, particularly in terms of the gender equality agenda, countries in transition are encountering many obstacles in producing active forces necessary for the objectives of women’s and human rights groups’ to be realised.
Nonetheless, it is within this arena of connectivity through ICTs that we, advocates for women’s rights, must engage with the projects that aims to eliminate all gender disparities and promote gender equality and the empowerment of women. By recognising emerging ICTs as effective instruments for creating and implementing such projects, we are already moving forward into the realm of political interventions and begin our struggle within current technocultural contexts. The question that remains open - and this question applies particularly to us who live in “countries in transition” - is the very question of recognition.
Bosnia and Herzegovina – a “country in transition”
For Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) analysis and understanding of the impact of ICTs upon women and men is far behind others in the Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CEE/CIS) region. This is caused by several factors. One, the country could not follow the initial development of ICT technologies because it was interrupted by the atrocious war in the early 1990s. Secondly, BiH is a whole decade behind the time when development of ICTs was at its peak. Since throughout this time, the country has been struggling with post-conflict reconciliation and reconstruction as the two main factors shaping development processes, it is not surprising that BiH missed its chance to experience the real potentials of ICTs.
In addition, traditional conceptions, such as “boys invent things and girls use things that boy invent”, are still taken as undeniable truths in the BiH society. It seems that technology instructors and educational system operate on the same principle, which greatly diminishes the potential and interest of young Bosnian women in technology.
Consequently, BiH has very little female role models in the field of technology, which can also be one of the causes of women’s disinterest in and/or fear of technology. All of these, coupled with other relevant issues (i.e. parental influence), shape the current situation in Bosnian society – the situation where gender is seen to have little relevance to ICTs. Participation of BiH women in ICT advocacy networks and projects that should support local and national ICT strategy formulation is, thus, fairly insignificant.
A need for change
Such a state of affairs poses alertness and calls for change. If we are to change the current trajectory and see an increase in women’s participation in ICT networks, one of the core tasks is to institute and develop capacity of female technology experts within primarily male-dominated BiH ICT-provider organisations. According to some experts, strong female role models can significantly reduce the gender gap in technology . However, prior to any institutionalisation of female experts (potential role models) in technology, there are certain steps that need to be taken.
One of these is to conduct trainings of experts in the field of gender and technology. Gender equality “train-the-trainer” project that is currently taking place in Sarajevo at the E-Net Center and in the organization of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) BiH and the BiH gender mechanisms could serve as an example of successful contribution to the increase of the awareness of the relation between gender and technology. More such projects would certainly help BiH female experts (in any field) to not only get a greater chance of recognising the importance of ICTs in reference to the gender equality agenda, but to share this recognition through advocating active participating in and benefiting from developing programs that would ensure gender-balanced participation.
Despite the critical issues surrounding ICTs, such as a slow pace in technological development due to economic reasons, and lack of women’s groups’ involvement in ICTs networks, the country did achieve certain steps that could count as initially productive when it comes to the national ICT policy.
Next steps: development of national ICT strategies
According to the BiH ICT policy monitor , UNDP BiH as a key regional actor in promoting ICTs within CEE/CIS and BiH Council of Ministers in Sarajevo hosted an international conference on ICTs for development named “The Next Step – The Challenges of Embracing Information Society”, in May 2003. At this event, they signed a Memorandum of Understanding on joint development of a National ICT Strategy. This served as a foundation to begin the process of formulating a national ICT strategy for the country, and was followed by the Council of Ministers’ (CoM) adoption of the Policy, Strategy and the Action Plan for the Development of an Information Society in Bosnia and Herzegovina in November 2004.
The adoption itself created one step towards a more serious development of the information society in BiH. However, as stated in the Gender Action Plan of the Gender Equality Agency of the Ministry for Human Rights and Refugees of Bosnia and Herzegovina (GEA of the MoHRR BiH), Chapter 15, it is only with the inclusion of gender dimensions in the existing state policy, strategy and action plan for information society development that it will be possible to
“create the setting that stimulate and provides equal opportunities for access, training and use of information and communication technologies, as well as balanced representation of both sexes in managerial and leading positions in ICT sphere” .
As a political document that at the state level defines bases of activities on introduction of gender equity and equality and application of legal obligations in all important fields of society, including ICTs, the Gender Action Plan (GAP) of the Gender Equality Agency was adopted by the CoM of BiH on 14 September 2006. Chapter 15, which directly and specifically targets ICTs, includes obligations and recommendations from international and domestic documents in force in BiH.
As stated, the BiH ICT Policy has,
“to be considered from the perspective of the existing international standards, with accent on the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW); the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action; Article 2 of the European Commission Agreement; Articles 141 (3), 13 (1) and 137 of the Agreement on the EU Legislation on gender equality; Directions of the International Telecommunication Union ITU (TFGI-4/5E) of 14 September 2001; the Law on Gender Equality in Bosnia and Herzegovina; the State Action Plan; the Mid-term Development Strategy of BiH (MTDS); strategies, policies and action plans for development of information society in Bosnia and Herzegovina and South-eastern Europe, as well as the existing good practices in this field in the EU.”
Thus, with the emphasis on obligation of the international standards, the main goal of the Chapter 15 is to define strategies and develop programme objectives for realisation of equality between women and men in the BiH information society. Main actors in defining strategies for reducing gender discrepancy in the ICT field, as indicated in the GAP, include governmental bodies, such as the Ministries of Transport and Communications, the Ministries of Education and Culture, as well as nongovernmental organisations and international organisations, such as UNDP, CIDA, UNIFEM, etc.
Taking into account that the GAP was just recently adopted by the CoM, all of the proposed activities, such as harmonising laws, bylaws, and other regulations from the filed of ICTs with the Law of Gender Equality in Bosnia and Herzegovina, integrating gender into the existing policies and action plans for information society, as well as planning the process of gender integration into new areas like e-government, e-education, and e-business, are still in their infancy. The designated period for their accomplishment is one to five years after its adoption.
Elma Spahic, a representative of the GEP of the MoHRR BiH, stated that it is too early to expect any implementation and evaluation of the proposed goals and activities. The BiH ministries, the Regulatory Communications Agency (CRA), the future Agency of Information Society and other holders of responsibilities for each activity proposed in the Article 15 of the GAP now have the task to develop their own strategic projects that would incorporate gender dimension. So far, the Agency has no data whether any of the state actors started with designing their projects.
Rethinking ICTs in implementation
As the present situation illustrates, Bosnia and Herzegovina still has years to wait for incorporation of gender dimension in its ICT policy. Nonetheless, initials moves on the state level have been made, and while we are waiting to see the implementation and the evaluation of the GAP (expected to be realised in the next five years), BiH women’s groups and non-profit organizations in the sphere of human rights have a task to undertake a more alert advocacy for women’s participation in ICT networks.
OneWorld – Platform for South East Europe (OWPSEE), a non-profit foundation based in Sarajevo, is one of those rare organisations in BiH that is already actively engaged in the promotion of gender equality and of women’s empowerment through gender and ICT advocacy. OWPSEE began to tackle the question of gender and ICT in 2004, and just recently, together with their partner, Foundation for creative development, started with the project “Network for change”. The project focuses on capacity building of women’s and youth associations through training in policy and advocacy using new technologies, and stands as a unique opportunity for rising awareness of necessity to include gender dimension in the BiH ICT policy.
As Valentina Pellizzer, the OWPSEE director, said: “the capacity building will be conducted through implementation of trainings, local campaigns and seminars,” and one of the main objectivities of the project is to strengthen the network of associations and local groups on the regional (South Eastern Europe) as well as national level, through the intersection and systematic exchange of skills, experiences and practices relating to civil society. Pellizzer, who has been an activist for women’s rights for many years now, indicated that, to her experience, women’s non-profit organizations in BiH are still not considering ICTs to be of any relevance in their work.
However, with the OWPSEE’s activities and the “Network for change” project, the path in changing the current situation is being opened. This may be a small step forward, but it is still a step that will bring us closer to understand the complex relationship between gender, information technology, and development, which again may help us to overcome the digital divide and become a part of the global information society. Thinking ICT may be the imperative of our digital age, but only re-thinking it through gender is looking through new “political filters.”