Politicising ICTs in the Women's Rights Movement - Interview with Lydia Alpízar Durán

2 June 2010

Lydia Alpízar Durán was a founder of ELIJE, a youth organization for women’s rights in Mexico, and is now AWID's Feminist Organizational Development Program Coordinator. I met her at the 2002 Women’s Global Leadership Institute (organised by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership), and have since held her as one of the most inspiring feminist friend I have made. Although our meetings are infrequent due to our geographical locations (her in Mexico and Costa Rica, me in Malaysia), we had many conversations through internet chats about countless topics. I have explored much in terms of feminist activism through these dialogues, and learnt much from Lydia's experiences in the women's movement. Finding out that she was at the Beijing +10 process at the 49th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women, I caught up with her thoughts on the relationship between ICTs and movement building in women’s human rights.

Jac: Do you think that there’s any relevance in terms of ICTs and movement building?

Lydia: Ya, I think that somehow, access to information and communications technologies is one of glue that helps us put together the movement at the global level, and at different levels. Because it allows exchange of information, to understand each other’s issues, to build solidarity, and to have a sense that we are part of a movement that goes beyond the local work or the national we do. So I think ICTs have always been – even when we didn’t have as advanced technology – some of the most important part of movement building, because it is a very important tool for doing it.

Jac: But at the moment, in terms of ICT policy at the international level, it barely recognises women’s perspectives. Trying to put gender into the agenda or language of ICTs as a political issue has been quite lacking, and there has been not much engagement from local women’s movement. The civil society movement that is taking up this issue is also not really looking at gender. Do you think there is a need for women’s movements to actually look at ICTs as a political issue?

Lydia: I think so because if we assume that it’s a very important tool for us for mobilising and building… But I think generally, in society, ICTs have become very relevant, because so many things go to the web. Like the internet for example, all of the information that is communicated to women, and other kinds of ICTs as well. I think, as with other issues, we really need to have a strong presence there.

As any tool, they can be really good or really bad. We need to be sure that ICTs are responsive to women and they can serve us for empowerment and movement [building] and for advancing women’s human rights. Otherwise they can be used as a way, somehow, like mainstream media for example, where images portrayed continue to be discriminatory, where regulations sometimes prevent women from accessing technology, particularly groups that are more excluded or marginalised. I’m talking for example of really poor women, or indigenous women who don’t have that kind of access. So I think the way the policies on ICTs are developed could be good for us. But as we know with everything else, if we are not there, they are probably not going to be very useful in our struggle.

Jac: Why do you think that women’s movement are quite resistant in engaging so far?

Lydia: Because I think technology has been an issue that has been portrayed traditionally in this patriarchal society as a male arena. So sometimes people kind of fear technology because they feel they cannot handle it, or they don’t have the capacity to do it; and I’m not saying that most women are like that, because I think we have changed a lot of the culture and I think there is more and more women who are empowered and are really using technologies to mobilise.

But somewhere in this unconscious, I think we still have some kind of resistance to technology. I see that increasingly, there are more women accessing them and doing philosophic development around technology and science and all of that. But still, it’s quite a male dominated field. They somehow define these courses around their policies [andperspectives]. So, I think there is resistance because I think maybe we don’t see it as a traditional women’s issue.

Jac: Yes…Strangely in this entire Beijing + 10 process, Section J [of the Beijing Platform for Action], which deals with media and communications, has been dropped out. It has been more or less completely invisible in the entire process.

Lydia: It has always been a struggle. I think it has something to do with what we were talking about yesterday, the movement is too fragmented, and somehow we have lacked a more integrated approach. If you think for example, violence against women, ICTs are key. Or if you think about economic empowerment, ICTs are key.

So I don’t think that women don’t have it on their agenda, but they don’t see it as a very specific issue sometimes. We kind of rely on women journalist or women working on ICTs to put it on the agenda. I think in that regard, we are kind of victims of the fragmentation of the movement. If some people that are working on the issue don’t put it on the agenda, then other people wont. And also there is this funny thing that only people who are working on the issue can put it on the agenda, so it’s both ways. I think it’s a big strategic mistake we are doing, because at the end what we should be doing is reinforcing each other’s issues and each other’s agendas because they compliment each other, or they can hinder each other too. So I think it has to do with those things, no?

Jac: Do you have any suggestion for future strategies? Where do you think advocates on ICTs and advocates various other issues, can or should go from here?

Lydia: I don’t know, I think that the movement still needs to get a lot of capacity building around ICTs. Like for example, putting information on the website, accessing computers, how do you actually build website, how do you upload documents… Right now it is a very useful tool for dissemination of information and sharing experiences, and I see that many groups are not very good at communicating and using those tools.

I see people working on ICTs as doing several things. One is helping women to interlink, how ICTs relate to the different issues they are working on. How do you open dialogue with women working on economic empowerment, with women working on political participation and so on. At the same time, how do you work in capacity building with those groups. So it is an exchange, and I think it’s a very strategic partnership.

I guess somehow the goal may be that ICT specific groups won’t be needed in the future because everybody will have them so integrated that they won’t need to have them. But meanwhile, I think it is very important that ICT specific groups are here.

Jac: Strategic spaces for dialogue?

Lydia: Yes. I think it’s an issue that has to do not only with ICTs, but new technologies generally. Reproductive technologies, nano-technologies, surveillance technologies that are completely about this, because women’s bodies are the centre of so much control and dispute. And it’s clear here in the UN that the issue around sexuality and women’s capacity to control our bodies, our reproductive capacities and so on, are the ones that stuck the process!

We need to draw all issues related to that agenda, and build the links with new technologies also… reproductive, surveillance, nano-technologies and all that, because they’re going to have a big impact on women and I don’t think we put enough attention to that.

It’s kind of a forward looking issue. We don’t see their urgency now, probably like how we weren’t seeing the urgency of why women need to have access to ultra-sound test in India twenty years ago. And now we are so clear that access to this new technology in a society that has all those discriminatory behaviours is important – I’m using India, but we can use other places as well.

Jac: It’s difficult though because ICTs is always such a ‘privileged’ discourse to enter into. Only places that have access, where people are connected and so on, who can even think about technologies; [these] are places that are privileged to a certain extent, or individuals who are positioned in privileged locations. And that makes it very difficult to have a dialogue. Because when you bring the issue on the table, and then for example, a grassroots or community based organisation who is working on issues of poverty for women will say, “hey, we don’t even have food, we don’t even have housing, why are you talking to us about communications technologies?” That makes it very difficult to forge that connection, that whether we are connected [to new ICTs] or not, it still affects us, somehow.

Lydia: Ya, I mean the lack of connection into the globalised system of information increases people’s exclusion and discrimination. The way that society’s developed, that’s working right now, access to ICTs is one of the ways in which people are being excluded or marginalised. But also, we need see ICTs as providing very traditional forms of communication as well; because I think we have gone too [much] into the internet, and sometimes I think we’re not being as easy to understand anymore.

One really groundbreaking work that was done in the 80’s mostly; the road to Beijing was done by the International Women’s Tribune Centre, and they used to produce all those really amazing, very simple materials. I remember when I started doing work in the Beijing process in ‘93 with young women, I used to use those materials, printed materials that we could photocopy very easily, that were easy to understand, that you could get access to.

Even though society is getting more and more into the internet, to PDF and so on, I think we should not forget that there are a lot of people who are not accessing internet, particularly women. I would think that in terms of talking on those issues with discriminated communities or really marginalised groups, you have to somehow go step by step; and you cannot jump into big communication and information technologies but give access to other forms of communication and information that can build their capacity.

For example, people working on trade. I see programmes that are being used in Mexico right now where farmers have access to computers and they can access all those information about how market their products or things like that. There is a use that they can make, but in order for them to have that, they need to be literate and have all these sorts of skills as well. So it’s tricky, it’s really tricky. Whether you give access or popularise it, it’s a big issue. Even though we can broaden access, we might still somehow contribute to further exclusion.

Jac: Yes, it’s a complex issue. Thanks very much for sharing your thoughts. It’s at least clear that there are a lot of dialogues to be had, and careful examination of these differences when thinking about ICTs and gender. But hopefully this can be the one of the many small steps in making these dialogues happen.

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