Marcelle's advice needs to be heard in Central and Eastern Europe, where the gender dimension is a missing element in most national ICT policies. Unfortunately, as Marcelle points out, this doesn't mean that such policies are gender neutral.
Albania among the leaders
Albania's national ICT strategy is one of its kind in the region, with a marked effort to include women's needs and views. Gender incorporation in ICTs is part of Albania's attempt to address growing disparities in income, gender and geographical location. “Information and communication technologies were seen as powerful tools that can assist to bridge these disparities and support the socio-economic development of Albania” – says Yevgeny Korneev, an ICT policy expert currently working with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Albania**.
Analysis of experiences around the world shows that ICTs can have a dramatic impact on achieving specific social and economic development goals when used appropriately and with a people-centred approach in mind. Therefore, in order to take advantage of the potential of ICTs, countries need to elaborate a national vision or strategy that reflects the needs of various stakeholders, including traditionally marginalized groups.
Long way to gender incorporation
A national ICT strategy is best developed through a consultative process involving a wide range of stakeholders. This principle was applied in Albania, where during 2002–2003, the UNDP, with the assistance of the Open Society Foundation, supported government and other national and international stakeholders in the formulation of a comprehensive national ICT strategy.
The Government of Albania launched the participatory ICT strategy process at a national conference. Following the conference, several expert working groups were established, with the participation of a few well-known women from the IT sector.
Government-assigned facilitators of the strategy process used UNDP guidelines for "gender mainstreaming"*** They also looked at specific examples of other countries' ICT policies, mostly from Nordic countries where gender-mainstreaming is a more common policy making practice . These provided the basis for ensuring non-discriminatory and equal access for all stakeholders involved in the process of ICT strategy development. Policy makers approached stakeholder inclusion from a broad human rights perspective. Therefore in addition to ensuring women's participation, representatives from ethnic minority groups, the elderly, and people with disabilities were invited to contribute to the national ICT policy framing process.
Whenever possible, policy makers also tried to attract civil society organizations' full participation in the consultative process. ICT policy makers involved a women's organisation in the review to ensure an appropriate approach to gender issues. The Albanian Association of Professional and Business Women examined the national ICT strategy for proper formulation of gender and equality references. They also reviewed the action plan and indicators for monitoring and evaluation of the national ICT strategy.
Even though the national ICT strategy development group made an attempt to incorporate gender, the final version of Albanian ICT strategy refers to women only once, in reference to universal access.
Lessons from Albanian ICT strategy development
The Albanian experience can inform other countries' attempts to incorporate a gender perspective in ICT policy processes.
Governments should form working groups with diverse stakeholder participation, including gender mainstreaming experts as well as representatives from local women's movements, in order to draft gender sensitive ICT strategies. Women's NGOs should be included early-on. Timing and sustained presence of women's representation was a critical factor in the Albanian case, where gender issues faded away by the time of the official submission of the strategy framework to the Council of Ministers for final review and approval. Involving local women's groups in all stages can lead to more efficient incorporation of gender into ICT policy and ensure more tangible national results.
Also as highlighted in the “Bridging digital divide: A Report on Gender and Information and Communication Technologies in Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States” report published by UNDP and UNIFEM, awareness of regional and local women's organisations on gender and ICT issues is very limited. Capacity building for local women’s organisations and gender advocates in ICT policy issues is necessary in order for them to actively participate in the process and to understand the change associated with ICTs on such critical issues as women's access to jobs and business opportunities, political participation, or sexual exploitation. Indeed all individuals involved in policy development and analysis have an important responsibility to ensure that government policies, programmes and legislation are equitable for both women and men.
To fully carry out these responsibilities, those involved in policy development and analysis should have an understanding of gender issues. The skills and knowledge to do this effectively could be developed through training, life and professional experiences, or specifically designed tools. Gender sensitivity training for all actors involved should be an integral part of the policy framing process, especially in such areas as ICT, which is seen as gender-neutral. Perhaps the Albanian national ICT policy could have fulfilled it's aims of gender inclusiveness if the policy makers involved had gone through gender sensitization sessions in the beginning of the process.
* Gillian Marcelle is a gender activist and an author of the book 'Gender and the Information Revolution in Africa” (IDRC, 2000).
** Yevgeny Korneev is an ICT Policy Expert currently working with UNDP Albania. He has more than eight years of ICT experience working for UNDP and other international organisations in Central Asia, South-Eastern Europe and the US and specialises in National Strategies for Information Society and e-Government applications.
*** UNDP Gender Mainstreaming Framework is intended to ensure effective mainstreaming of gender issues in both overall Government planning and UNDP programming. The expected results are 1) increased responsiveness of national and local plans towards the reduction of gender gaps; 2) National machinery in place for the policy and strategy formulation on the advancement of women and gender equality; and 3) improved understanding of Gender through its links with the MDG framework.