Worldwide, women are under-represented in all decision making structures on information communication technologies (ICTs); even in regulation and policy institutions, ICT ministries and management boards in private companies. This is also the case for Congolese women. Several factors explain this relative absence of women in this sector.
Women Have Limited Access to ICTs
Though all people and groups have the right to access and effectively to use information and the knowledge required to address their developmental needs and concerns, this is not the case for Congolese women.
Access to ICTs remains a luxury, except for the mobile phone, which is accessible in rural areas thanks to private GSM mobile phones companies. In 2003, 94% of associations in rural areas did not possess computer equipment. In one rural area, a telecentre reported that women were busy with work related to agriculture and as such, did not have free time to visit the telecentre. The situation is not much better in the cities, where women are predominantly occupied with the majority of housework responsibilities.
Training, Skills and Illiteracy
Women are generally trained in technological fields for two years at mostly private colleges and universities. Courses taken by women are usually on management and computer studies, secretarial and basic ICTs skills.
There’s also the problem of economic capacity. Training colleges in communications that are highly rated are found in Kinshasa, in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where many engineers are trained. As such, those who do not have the means to travel to West Africa and Europe for their studies usually opt for crossing the river to study in DRC.
Women seem to be less attracted by specialised telecommunications fields, judged too technical. There’s also the significant issue of illiteracy, in particular for women who live in rural areas, who are not skilled to use a computer even when there is access to the internet. Even when women are trained in the field of computer science, such as in programming, they receive only partial and incomplete training, and their skills are not updated.
Women also find the dominance of content in French and English languages as a barrier, because unfamiliarity with the language means that they are not able to fully benefit from information published on the Web that may be of use.
Employment, stereotypes, too much women in secondary positions
Women find themselves constrained to fill secondary positions such as secretaries, cashiers and accountants in companies. This resonates with the sex segregation that occurs in the employment sector all over the world. Women fill jobs that have lower wages and are less secure. For example, there are almost no women in teaching positions, and only a few women leading computer departments in telecommunications companies and services.
Women are often judged as being incompetent, unavailable, and are often relegated to limiting gender roles such as being "mothers".
Relative absence of women’s leadership in mixed Organisations: a heritage from Tradition?
To understand the absence or poor presence of women in decision making process in ICTs, it is useful to look at their roles in civil society, particularly in organisations. Few women have the opportunity to occupy high level positions in mixed organisations where they collaborate with men.
They are constrained to play peripheral roles in associations, and are not socialised or trained to affirm themselves. When they have roles with large responsibilities, it is hard for them to affirm themselves as leaders and to be accepted by men. This may be due to strong traditional beliefs that relegate women to being confined to solely that of a “mother”.
ICTs: The Complexity of Stakes for the Congolese Civil Society
To date, there is no national network that gathers women working on ICTs related issues in Congo. Thus, at the level of civil society, women are not organised to address the needs of an information society. Nonetheless, several activities have been initiated by women’s organisations such as AZUR Développement that targets women specifically. Mixed organisations also work on ICTs such as Association des Informaticiens Professionnels, Coptic, CACSUP and others.
Such organisations are not well sensitised on ICT related issues, particularly from a gender perspective. More efforts need to be made for women’s involvement in using ICTs for their empowerment.
Deregulation and privatisation of the telecommunications industry also result in the lessening of public accountability on decisions made in this sector, further compounding the problems experienced by women in gaining access to decision making and control of resources.
Disposal of the National E-strategy
In order to reduce poverty and to ensure entry to the information society, a national e-strategy was elaborated for Congo at the end of 2004. This strategy recognises that one of the indicator of its successful implementation is the involvement of women, along with youth and the Diaspora.
This strategy is composed of four strategic points:
- information and communication infrastructure and access to;
- judicial and institutional framework;
- human competences development ;
development and penetration of products and services.
Using ICTs to Promote Governance
The national e-strategy plans for the use of ICT in the country to lead to administration reform, better information dissemination and sharing, and improvement of data, indexes and indicators along with a greater participation of the population in national decision making processes. Although women’s involvement in the administration reform process it is not expressly mentioned
Efforts remain to be furnished to reduce barriers that prevent Congolese women from fully benefiting from the advantages of an information society, and their greater involvement.
Making internet accessible to women in rural areas
Favouring access to internet in impoverished urban and rural areas by opening community telecentres will increase women’s access to ICTs. However, this needs to be followed up by sensitisation on ICTs and specific trainings related to women's needs.
At the infrastructures level and access to ICT, the e-national strategy plans to:
- favour access to ICT for grassroots and NGOs ( equipment, training and internet connexion;
- give access to internet (cyberclass) to all schools and colleges and research centres;
- open community telecentres in departments.
Gender sensitive training and skills development
There should be efforts at building women’s capacity to control the decisions that affect their lives. Training programs for women should focus on how to find, manage, produce and disseminate information and how to develop policy and strategies.
Programs that encourage science and technology education for girls and women should be implemented in both urban and rural areas.
Strengthening women’s leadership in ICT
We need a civil society that is more involved in defending women’s rights related to ICTs. Women’s organisations should be trained in ICT use for empowerment and how they can provide their input and influence policy at all levels.
The creation of women networks on ICT proves to be essential in developing women’s leadership in the decision making processes on ICTs. If women work together, they could bring changes at judicial and institutional levels. This is as promised by the e-strategy for Congo, which plans for the creation of a strategic advisory board on ICT (CSTIC), a dialogue framework between the administration, civil society and the private sector.
Women’s Leadership in the Implementation of the E-Strategy
Women should themselves, take the leadership to gather and contribute to the implementation of the national e-strategy in Congo. There should be a gender perspective included in all ICT initiatives.
Decision-making in the field of ICTs is usually treated as a purely technical area, assumed typically as the domain of male experts. However, women have the right to contribute to the development of ICTs policy and provide their input on specific women needs.
Though Congolese women could organise themselves and affirm their leadership in the ICT sector, and then influence the implementation of the national e-strategy, « the national e-strategy objectives could only be reached if the Government and higher authorities are ready to implement the present action plan and to proceed to a re-evaluation of priorities.
The way towards control of decision making in ICT for Congolese women is still long. We are working on.
The use of ICT by Congolese NGOs. Sylvie Niombo, The Panos London Institute. 2003
Telecentres in Congo survey report. Sylvie Niombo, AZUR Développement. April 2006
ICT Policy. A beginner’s Handbook. APC 2003
e- strategy for Congo. 2004
e- strategy for Congo. 2004