'Wanting to' versus 'Being able to': The rhetoric of access to the information society

Uruguay is rather unusual among its neighbours in South America with regard to information and communication technologies (ICTs). Fixed basic telephony services are still provided by a state monopoly, and it is the only country in the region without a connectivity agenda. But Uruguay also has one of the highest internet penetration rates. Yet statistics provide only a part of the picture, and can do little to illustrate the day-to-day realities of the individuals they represent, especially when the statistics are gender-blind.


This article presents a general overview of Uruguay’s integration into the information society, as well as specific cases of women’s experiences with new ICTs in different parts of the country. It looks at the three basic dimensions that should be addressed by any digital inclusion initiative: connectivity, education and infrastructure. None of these three components takes priority over the others, since they are all equally essential for reaching a common goal.


The invisible divide


In Uruguay, access to ICTs varies depending on the technology in question. High percentages of the population are fixed and mobile telephony users, but while the internet access rate is impressive in the context of the region as a whole, it is still not high in real terms. 


Not many studies have been carried out on the impact of ICTs on the Uruguayan population. The few that have begun to timidly emerge usually lack a gender perspective cutting across the categories of age, income, educational level and place of residence, which makes it difficult to arrive at solid conclusions.


One recent study found that among the population sample surveyed [1], women made up 51% of internet users, which would seem to back up the idea that there is no gender digital divide in Uruguay. Nevertheless, the same study offered some revealing and even contradictory figures when the users were divided into categories based on the number of hours they spend online. The group defined as “high users”–those who spend more than ten hours online weekly–was 60% male. Meanwhile, the “low users” group–those who are connected to the internet less than two hours a week–was 56% female. The report concluded that “the concentration of the total hours of use continues to be similar to 2005: 13% of users (some 150,000 people) account for 62% of the total hours. The ‘typical’ high user is male, lives in Montevideo, is between 30 and 39 years old, university educated, and has been a user for more than four years.”


Although it is difficult to pin down in the specific studies that have been carried out in Uruguay, the gender digital divide is a global reality that has an impact on women’s real possibilities of development. Its causes stem from a complex web of historical inequities that are being reproduced in the information age. The worldwide trend of the feminisation of poverty – to which Uruguay is no exception[2] – in terms of both the distribution of income and access to material, social and cultural resources, combined with other structural inequalities in society (the division of family responsibilities, reconciliation of work and family life, gender roles and stereotypes, etc.) largely determine the amount of time and effort that women can invest in accessing and appropriating technology .


Multiple divides 1: Gender and age


The digital divide can be seen as a many-sided and multidimensional object in which different social, economic and cultural factors take on varying weights and determine the obstacles or opportunities for access, use and appropriation of ICTs. As a result, universal access policies are bound to fail if they offer the same solutions to groups with different needs, difficulties and demands.


Uruguay has only recently embarked on a process of formulating strategies to achieve the principles of the information society. The downside of this is the fact that these efforts have begun rather late in the game, considering the extent of ICT development. The upside however, is the possibility of shaping a national policy informed by the successes and failures of others. In the meantime, the absence of public policies and their implementation has given rise to a scenario in which different actors have undertaken dispersed, ad hoc efforts to bridge the digital divide, bringing new technologies to the sectors of the population that face the greatest obstacles.


Women have played a leading role in a number of initiatives aimed at fostering digital inclusion, either already carried out or currently underway in Montevideo and other parts of Uruguay, often facing considerable challenges along the way.


Access, meaning the opportunity to make use of ICTs both in terms of technology and information and knowledge, can be viewed as “the first level of empowerment.” [3] Thus the possibility of using a computer with an internet connection is no small thing.


In 2006, the Uruguayan NGO Cotidiano Mujer carried out a pilot training project in basic computer skills with an explicit gender perspective. The participants were fifteen women representatives of the neighbourhood where the project took place, most of them over the age of 40. One of the objectives of the training was to encourage the women to take advantage of the potential offered by technological resources for their community participation work. Once the initial “fear” of computers had been overcome, the question arose of how the participants could continue to use what they had learned when the infrastructure provided for the training was no longer available. Cybercafés, which provide internet access for 51.6% of the country’s internet users [4], seemed to be a good solution for those without a computer or internet connection at home. But cybercafés are not a particularly welcoming place for mature women, since they tend to draw a very young crowd and usually do not offer any sort of training or support for internet beginners.


There have been several initiatives undertaken in recent years to set up community access centres that also provide training–and women have been at the forefront in these efforts. The Uruguayan branch of the Committee for Democracy in Information Technology (CDI), an NGO that supports local community organisations in setting up “information technology and citizenship schools”, has reported high levels of participation by adult women who regularly attend courses and use the facilities [5]. The same holds true for a similar initiative known as “Webcinos”, promoted by the Department of Decentralisation and Citizens’ Participation of the Municipality of Montevideo (IMM) [6].


For its part, the IMM Women’s Secretariat is planning to promote ICT training and access for women community leaders in the framework of “Women Transforming Cities”, a project being implemented under the URBAL Red12 Programme. The new initiative involves providing computer equipment to the Comuna Mujer women’s community centres located in various Montevideo neighbourhoods [7], as well as facilitating the necessary training for future users. It will be undertaken in coordination with Cotidiano Mujer, which is currently implementing the “ICTs for Social Change” ICT and gender training project with the support of the World Association for Christian Communication (WACC).


Multiple divides 2: Gender and geography


“Our two biggest obstacles were technical problems and internet access. If a computer broke down we had to wait forever for someone to come and fix it, or lug the tower or monitor to the nearest town,” said Kika Casas, a woman dairy farmer in a small rural town 120 kilometres outside Montevideo.


Kika is a member of the Network of Rural Women’s Groups of Uruguay (RGMRU - Red de Grupos de Mujeres Rurales del Uruguay), founded in 1991 as an association of rural women producers. Since then, the network has earned recognition for its tireless efforts to raise awareness about the situation of women in rural areas, often through political activism. In 2003 it obtained funding to train a representative from each of the 20 groups that make up the network to recycle a shipment of donated computers that were installed in the groups’ headquarters. “In the beginning everyone wanted to learn… There were high expectations about getting other women involved. But after all the problems, interest dropped off,” explained Kika. One of those problems was the internet connection available to the network’s members: a dial-up connection that was extremely slow (2400 bps at the time), as well as more costly than ADSL service, and thus could only be used for limited times.


The population of Montevideo has higher rates of computer use and internet access than those living in other Uruguayan cities, and much higher than in small towns and rural areas [8]. When asked about countrywide ADSL service coverage, Daniel Iglesias, the community relations manager at ANTEL (Uruguay’s state-run telecom provider) said that there are technical obstacles to providing the service in rural regions, and that some rural areas “will never have ADSL service.” He further noted that while the areas cut off from the service represent a significant percentage of the country’s total land area, they account for only about 10% of its population.


The president of the RGMRU at the time, Verónica Gómez, met with Iglesias in Montevideo in search of a solution for the internet connection problems faced by the project. During this period, ANTEL had begun implementing a digital inclusion initiative that involved the installation of so-called “Social Internet” services, providing free internet connections for community access computer centres, particularly in areas of the country outside Montevideo. But this only offered a temporary solution, since the free internet concession ended one year later. Verónica reported that the RGMRU now plans to take part in a call launched by ANTEL for applications from social organisations who want to host an Information Society Access Centre, or CASI. The organisations selected will be provided with computers and an internet connection at no cost for a determined period of time. 


An evaluation report on the RGMRU project found that the women involved viewed access to ICTs as “an instrument of empowerment for the full exercise of their citizenship,” as well as something that helped them “break the isolation and routine of their daily lives,” normally spent between their homes and farm work, by providing them with ongoing access to information. The project was also judged to be helping to “improve living standards through its effects on the employability of the members of the groups and the communities in their area of influence.” Nevertheless, Verónica recognised that not all the women’s groups stepped up to the challenge of training the same way. “It’s a question of culture, because there’s still this prevailing belief that this is something women aren’t interested in,” she explained. She also maintained that an internet connection “is not essential,” since “a computer can be used for so many other things that women’s groups can do.”


For the future


Digital inclusion is a key aspect of social insertion, and internet access is considered the primary gateway to the full enjoyment of the potential of ICTs. Ideally, internet access should encompass high capacity (broadband service), continuous connectivity, and wide-scale availability [9].


National strategies for digital inclusion face the challenge of viewing the population as individuals with equal rights but different needs. Above all, this calls for contemplating gender relations in the framework of the new technological context, and fostering “the development of measurement standards, the implementation of indicators with a gender perspective, and the promotion of analysis and studies on the relation between ICT use and access and gender, as a strategy for following up and monitoring the processes leading to the integration of Latin American men and women in the information society … to feed into an Integrated System of ICT Indicators that is internationally comparable and facilitates regional dynamisation from a strategic viewpoint.” [10]


This article is translated from the original version written in Spanish genderIT.org




Notes


[1] “The total sample was made up of 1,786 people and is representative of the population over 12 years of age living in the Montevideo metropolitan area and all towns and cities in the rest of the country with more than 10,000 inhabitants. This represents a total population universe of 2,102,000 people, 63% of them in Montevideo and 37% in other parts of the country.”


[2] According to a recent UNDP report on gender indicators in Uruguay (Uruguay: indicadores de género 2001-2004), the unemployment rate among poor women is double that of poor men, and domestic work (typically precarious, informal and badly paid) is almost exclusively a female occupation.


[3] Nicol, C. (ed.) (2003) ICT Policy: A Beginner’s Handbook. Johannesburg: Association for Progressive Communications.


[4] National Institute of Statistics. Encuesta Nacional de Hogares Ampliada 2006. Flash temático Nº11.


[5] Interview with the executive director of the Uruguayan branch of the CDI, Florencia Flores.


[6] Telephone interview with Laura Salbarrey of the Webcinos programme.


[7] These centres are a product of the decentralisation process initiated by the Municipality of Montevideo in 1990, when it divided the city into zones in which it promotes community self-management and the active participation of local residents in local government bodies. Over time, spaces were established to deal with issues like domestic violence, sexual and reproductive health, recreation, and others, with the active participation of women.


[8] National Institute of Statistics, see note [4]


[9] Criteria cited by Rogelio Santana (Ministry of Planning, Budget and Management).


[10] Alméciga, Carlota (2005) “América Latina hacia la Sociedad de la Información con equidad de género. Análisis y mediciones con perspectiva de género”, paper presented at the panel “From Margin to Center: Gender Equity in Building the Information Society in Latin America and the Caribbean”. Organised by the WSIS Gender Caucus and UNESCO-FLACSO during the World Summit on the Information Society, Tunis, 16 November 2005.

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