Poor and rural women need to see that ICTs can assist in bringing food to the table
Panelist Ruth Ojiambo Ochieng of Isis-WICCE, Uganda said that many women are unaware of what ICTs are as the control and use of ICTs is largely in the hands of men. Ochieng pointed out that when she attended the African Preparatory Committee for the World Summit on the Information Society in Ghana in February, she only saw men on panels.
The needs of women are not being included and will only be included if gender activists get involved and lobby policy makers on what the critical gender and ICT policy issues are. Women and in particular poor and rural women need to see that ICTs are relevant to them and that ICTs can assist in for example bringing food to the table and in promoting a reproductive rights agenda.
As women we can use ICTs to enhance our communication strategies and consequently our agendas. Women are telling their own stories using tape and video recorders and cameras. Isis-WICCE has been training women in documenting their lives and found that women are keen to move from learning about tape and video recorders to learning about the use of computers, the internet and email and mobile phones. But for women to use these tools effectively they have to be affordable and accessible. This is where getting informed about and involved in gender and ICT policy becomes critical to the women’s empowerment agenda.
Gender equality in the Ugandan national ICT policy
Ochieng spoke of how on paper, the Ugandan government looks like they are being successful in getting ICTs to all Ugandan citizens and have even set up a rural development fund to encourage the rollout of ICTs in rural areas. But feminists see that this is not working as there is not a clear commitment to gender equality in the Ugandan national ICT policy.
For example, even though Uganda has exempted ICT equipment from taxation, the kinds of ICTs that are most useful to women such as radio and translation equipment are not exempt from taxes.
In the 1990’s Uganda liberalized telecommunications and gave licenses to over 100 FM radio stations based in capital cities. But these radio stations stereotype women and promote content that is of little relevance to the lives of rural women. In response to this 101.7 MAMA FM was established. It is a community radio station set up by Uganda Media Women's Association (UMWA) to address the plight of women. The taxes the station had to pay to the Ugandan government exceeded their total budget and thus challenged their ability to promote women’s content and voices.
Gender activists need to know what women’s need are in relation to ICTs in order to lobby policy makers around gender transformative ICT policies that take into account women’s specific needs.
Women need their own media and communication channels
Maria Suarez of Feminist International Radio Endeavor (FIRE), a women’s internet radio project, started her presentation off by asking where people first heard about the Beijing Platform for Action. All respondents had heard about the platform through community media, women’s organisations and networks and not through mainstream media. This, Suarez said means that it is crucial that women have their own media and communication channels.
Suarez is based in Costa Rica, which unlike Uganda has nationalized the telecommunications infrastructure. This means that 96% of the population has access to telecommunications and consequently to electricity, health and education. Although local access to telecommunications is cheap, access to international telecomms is expensive. This policy has encouraged a healthy process of national development and has witnessed the flourishing of local examples of communities using ICTs for social change. This underscores the need to ensure that governments implement development focused ICT policies rather than an agenda that promotes privatization and private sector monopolies. That gender is included as a critical development objective in ICT policy will promote women’s voices and women’s access to the benefits of ICTs.
A study, which FIRE has undertaken to look at what their international audience has to say about FIRE services, showed that women’s community media initiatives such as FIRE amplify the voices of women. Radio used over the internet is an interactive and multiplying medium and is able to build bridges between social movements and promote the feminist agenda to other social movements. The production of feminist content makes the stories of women visible and subverts the male dominated content of the internet.
Suarez emphasized the importance of feminist media initiatives using ICTs as tools to promote women’s voices and agendas. Women need to build their own content and harness technology for mobilization. This would be more effective if ICT policies included a gender and a rights-based perspective.
Cultural pluralism is a prerequisite to a healthy and inclusive information society
Mavic Cabrera Balleza of the International Women’s Tribune Centre looked at UNESCO Convention on Cultural Diversity and the need to promote creativity and safeguard cultural diversity. She highlighted that cultural pluralism is a prerequisite to a healthy and inclusive information society. Balleza said that the civil society position on the convention is that it must not be made subordinate to other conventions e.g. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and that specific links must be made to conventions such as CEDAW to avoid the threat of homogenization of women in the media.
UNESCO is working with civil society to promote the declaration adopted in November 2001. Civil society groups are promoting the right to communication of all people, which is a fundamental human right as it is a women’s right.
Advocacies need to be grounded in practice
Women need to be involved in all aspects of media and communication policy development as the media has the power to shape what is the accepted reality said Karen Banks of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) has been involved in lobbying for the inclusion of gender in the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). WSIS is a United Nations driven multi-stakeholder process, which aims to address the “digital divide” (those who are connected to the digital revolution in ICTs and those who have no access to the benefits of new technologies.
Banks pointed out that in the WSIS process people are not interested in gender and ICT policy makers have a superficial relationship to gender in media and ICTs. At Beijing+10 there is almost no focus on Section J on Women and the Media of the Beijing Platform for Action.
She went on to say that women’s organisations need to ensure that the agencies involved in ICT policy need to be accountable, democratic and transparent and include a gender and women’s empowerment agenda.
As all major United Nations World Conference process will be coming to an end soon as the focus is now on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs include in their goals “to make available the benefits of new technologies, especially information and communications.” As gender activists we need to ensure that gender is taken seriously, taken onboard and made real.
Banks pointed out that there are many stories of women using ICTs to influence policy, which impacts on their lives. She reiterated the need to support national level participation by women in ICT policy processes and to support the training and capacity building of civil society organisations in ICT policy issues. Advocacies need to be grounded in practice and women should document their successes in order to assist policy makers in including gender in the ICT for development agenda.
Audience members expressed concern over government control and censorship of the internet that should be challenged by civil society activists particularly women. Censorship of the internet can seriously hamper the use of ICTs by gender advocates. Participants agreed that their needs to be more of a focus on media and communication issues in the Beijing process in order to get women’s organisations to understand and commit to the important role of media and communications in enhancing the women’s agenda. We need also to ensure that the Beijing Platform for Action and CEDAW are included as critical interventions in the WSIS process where ICT policy is being defined.