“Providing individuals with access to information about science and technology is a matter of human rights, as well as human capital. In different ways, scientific and technological literacy constitute a cornerstone of our participatory democracies. Such knowledge empowers citizens to make informed decisions relating to the many implications that these advances have in national life, including the ethical dilemmas, which arise as we deploy new knowledge. In a practical sense too, as ICTs are used as tools for social transformation, providing government services electronically to citizens and disseminating vital information about health, access to technology can quite literally mean the enjoyment of full citizenship.”

Women’s and Girls’ Access to and Participation in Science and Technology

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)

Expert group meeting on Gender, science and technology

28 September - 1 October 2010, Paris, France

Gender, science and technology. This theme will be analysed, dissected and evaluated at the 55th session of the Commission on Status of Women. Government delegates, non-government representatives and activists will troop to the United Nations headquarters in New York, braving the coldest winter in decades, to assess how women and girls are faring in education, training and employment in scientific and technological fields. To a large extent, this is a foregone conclusion. Science and technology continue to be incredibly gender-biased.

UNESCO’s background paper and the United Nations’ final report of the Expert group meeting on this theme cite trends of “persistently low participation of girls in science and technology education through all levels of schooling”. They also say that the pipe that carries women and girls towards careers in science and technology remains leaky. What accounts for the persistence of this trend? The UN report says that decreasing retention rates in most countries echo familiar gender themes of multiple burdens, discrimination and gender inequality. These can be anything from domestic roles, child labour, teenage pregnancy or early marriage to armed conflict and gender-based violence in and outside of schools. Barriers also include illiteracy, disability and poverty.

While these findings are not surprising, they should be a cause for worry when we live in a world that is dependent on science and technology. The ability of women and girls’ to shape their future is limited by their marginal participation in shaping how these technologies are used and developed. Unless this condition is reversed, our scientific and technological future will entrench gender disparities rather than help break them down.

How can we reverse this trend and imagine a future where scientific design and technological innovation are directed at finding solutions for women’s multiple burdens and oppression?

At the CSW meeting, delegates will look to policies, programmes and best practice of government, multilaterals, academe and industry that seek to increase women and girl’s access, participation, and employment in science and technology. I think delegates need to set their sights on early adopters1 of technology who are trying to make a difference in women and girls’ lives on the ground. These early adopters need support to reach a tipping point to attract more and more users until it overwhelms late adopters and resisters. This is the natural flow of innovation.2

We see this clearly on display in the ubiquity of cell phone use and adoption of social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook. Imagine social networking tools designed to stop sexual harassment or GPS applications that provide information for women’s safety or even if millions of gamers all over the world could be mobilised to solve epic battles to end violence against women.

These are not impossible scenarios. Innovations of this kind exist and are flourishing because of the participation, talent, dedication and creativity of women and girls. In the US, there’s Hollaback!, a movement dedicated to ending street harassment using mobile technology designed by young women. For Hollaback! street harassment is one of the most pervasive forms of gender-based violence and one of the least recognised in legislation. The movement is using the explosion of mobile technology and creating a crowd-sourced initiative to end street harassment. Hollaback! started in 2005, very unassumingly, by volunteers. Today, the movement has reached 15 cities in the US and 5 other countries. One of its initiators calls Hollaback! a blessed project with wings.

APC’s own Take Back the Tech Fund is supporting 61 local organisations in 12 developing countries3 in using information and communication technologies in strategies to end domestic violence, sexual harassment, rape, and other forms of violence.

In Congo, five organisations in technology enabled activities such as using mobile phones to send messages about sexual harassment among high school girls; and training of women and young mothers living with HIV/AIDS and survivors of violence in counselling and the use of internet and radio. Through these activities, they are removing barriers to technology and providing opportunities and access to resources for local women’s rights organisations.

In the Philippines, the Fund is supporting an SMS SOS Helpline that responds to Filipino women migrants in distress. SMS reports of physical and sexual abuse from migrants working in middle eastern countries or Hong Kong are referred to service providers, embassies and migrant organisations for action. The software application for the helpline was developed by local programmers and is hosted locally. Since it started about 4 years ago, the service has received thousands of SOS messages and referred hundreds of women for help.

In Colombia, Mexico and Pakistan, survivors of violence and women’s rights organisations have been trained to use social networking tools and digital stories to document abuses. In Malaysia, the Fund is supporting three young women create awareness on violence against women using stop motion animation4.

With a modest investment of USD 240,000 from APC’s Take Back the Tech fund, these technology-related strategies involve thousands of women and girls. They are the early adopters who can reach out to more and multiply the number of adopters among women and girls.

There is immense interest and demand for capacity building in using ICTs among under resourced organisations and communities. Our small grants program that support work at the grassroots level on gender-related issues in ICTs for agricultural and rural development in the African, Caribbean and Pacific regions 5 have received over 800 applications over the last four years. A total of 200,000 Euros have been awarded as seed grants to 34 grassroots organisations. Rural adopters have used these ICT grants to promote successful gendered outcomes for livelihoods, food security and food sovereignty. Radio drama, mobile phone and open software applications were some of the original approaches that have been particularly inspiring.

More stories about women and girls who have adopted information and communication technologies to address intractable problems of gender discrimination and inequality and advance women’s rights are told in this edition of As the CSW focuses on finding solutions, I urge decision-makers to pay attention to initiatives on the ground. Support local adopters to upscale, help create the tipping point and let the flow overwhelm us all.

Photo by Rotmi Enciso. Link:


1 The term originates from Everett M. Rogers' Diffusion of Innovations (1962). Early adopter is generally a local missionary for speeding the diffusion process. Potential adopters look to early adopters for advice and information about the innovation. The early adopter is considered by many as the "individual to check with" before using a new idea. Because early adopters are not too far ahead of the average individual in innovativeness, they serve as a role model for many other members of a social system. The early adopter is respected by her or his peers, and is the embodiment of successful and discrete use of new ideas.The role of the early adopter is to decrease uncertainty about a new idea by adopting it, and then conveying a subjective evaluation of the innovation to near-peers by means of interpersonal networks.


2 Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman and Michael Patton, Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed, Vintage Canada, 2007.

3 APC’s Take Back the Tech fund is supported by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs under its MDG3 Fund. Grantees come from Cambodia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Philippines, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, South Africa, Uganda, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico.

4 Stop motion (also known as stop action) is an animation technique to make a physically manipulated object appear to move on its own. See more at

5 The Gender, Agriculture and Rural Development in the Information Society (GenARDIS) small grants fund was developed in 2002 and is a joint initiative by Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation ACP-EU, HIVOS, International Institute for Communication and Development, International Development Research Centre and the APC.

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