Access to Knowledge in Emergency situations: Looking at the situation in Jordan and in the Democratic Republic of Congo


Access to knowledge is
vital at any time. This is especially evident in times of emergency
where a lack of knowledge can be disastrous, as graphically
illustrated during the Asian tsunami of 2004 when meteorological
services were aware of an impending disaster, but were unable to find
channels of communication to warn affected communities. Also graphic
in this instance was the gendered nature of the disaster – in Aceh,
up to 80%1
of those killed by the tsunami were women. Reasons given for this
range from the nature of women's clothing, that women were more
likely to be at home at the time of the tsunami and that women were
more likely to put the safety of their children before their own
safety.


This is not an isolated
case. Natural disaster statistics are rarely disaggregated by gender,
although anecdotal evidence suggests that women are
disproportionately affected. In addition, analysts argue that
disasters occur by design and that the impact of natural disasters
shows a bias towards the socially excluded. According to Elaine
Emerson:


On balance, those most socially excluded and economically insecure in any society or community are least able to access or control resources needed during and in the aftermath of a damaging cyclone or lengthy drought. Women, the frail elderly and children, members of subordinated cultural or racial groups, the chronically ill, undocumented
residents, the pre-disaster homeless, and other socially marginalized populations are least likely to have the social power, economic
resources, and physical capacities needed to anticipate, survive, and
recover from the effects of massive floods, long-lasting drought, volcanic eruptions, and other extreme environmental events.2



This has led to aid and
relief agencies such as Oxfam attempting to counter previous
gender-blind policies that worsened the impact of disasters on women.
The lack of gender disaggregated information on the impact of natural
disasters is a key problem in addressing the gendered nature of their
impacts.


This article will
compare two very different situations, that of a comparatively
developed nation in the Middle East and a nation that has been
ravaged by over a decade of civil strife and war. Jordan in the
Middle East has one of the lowest internet penetration rates in the
region, but almost a fifth of people have internet access3.
The GDP per capita, in purchasing power parity of Jordan is over 10
times that of DRC4.


The Democratic Republic
of Congo has an average life expectancy of just 45 and internet
penetration of under 2 percent. While urban areas are relatively safe
from conflict, over 2 million people have been displaced in the
Eastern part of the nation, and violence continues to claim around
1,200 people per day, either directly in conflict, or indirectly
through deaths due to a lack of clean drinking water or other easily
avoidable health problems.


The similarities
between Jordan and the DRC are few. But in both societies the status
of women remains low, when compared with other countries in the
region, and internationally. The Global Gender Gap Report 2006 ranked
Jordan as 105th out of 115 countries in terms of closing
its gender gap in economic participation and opportunities5.
, while there are few Jordanian women in leadership positions in
either politics or business, the number of Jordanian women enrolled
in ICT courses has outstripped men, since the mid-00s6.
Nevertheless, and despite the Government's key role in ICT policy,
women make up less than a fifth of the core ICT workforce.


One of the main
problems women have in accessing knowledge is directly related to
poverty and illiteracy. In both countries, the interviewees said the
problem of access to knowledge in an emergency situation is only part
of a general problem of women's access to knowledge – although
women's literacy rates in Jordan are among the highest in a highly
literate region.


This is further
worsened when it comes to issues of sexual and reproductive health
due to cultural taboos surrounding the discussion of sexual violence
– issues that are particularly crucial in DRC where sexual violence
is increasingly seen as an acceptable method of subduing one's
perceived cultural or racial enemies. In one month in 2008, 1,200
women were reported to have been raped.


Literacy and
education


The
main problems facing women who need to access information in an
emergency situation are those they are faced with daily. Key among
these is low levels of literacy. While in the short-term, such as in
a natural disaster, word of mouth or radio are usually key providers
of information; in the aftermath a lack of literacy can severely
hamper women's ability to respond to situations or absorb new
information quickly and effectively.


This
is related to women's access to education. In DRC, there are few
women who attend university, and it is seen as an impediment to
making a good marriage – educated men prefer wives with little
education, according to Lulu Mitshabu. There are few educated role
models for women to emulate, either in government or private
enterprise, and if a family has the choice between spending resources
to educate a boy child or a girl child, the boy child will receive
preference. In conflict areas, children of both sexes are faced with
the problem of losing several years education due to displacement,
and there are few facilities to help those in such a situation –
the already over-stretched aid agencies are concentrating on ensuring
the short-term survival of the refugees. Considering both the
long-term nature of the conflict and that there are no apparent
solutions in sight, this problem is acute. Ms Mitshabu also says that
the impact of this on access to knowledge is disastrous – not only
are children unable to read or write, this also hampers their ability
to assess information, making them vulnerable to manipulation,
particularly dangerous in a conflict that is fuelled by racial
tensions.


In
contrast, women's access to education in Jordan is comprehensive.
There are more girls enrolled in primary school and secondary
school7.
Yet, according to Daoud Kuttab, this disguises regional (and
generational) differences in literacy and access to knowledge. And
while Jordan has made vocal commitments to ensuring that it is
considered a prime destination for ICT investors, particularly those
looking at outsourcing operations, there was nothing that
specifically addressed gender inequities in ICT access until May
2007. The new policy says “Government
notes the importance of the ICT sector with respect to women’s role
in Jordanian society and the Jordanian economy. Accordingly,
Government will work with stakeholders to ensure the continuous
promotion of women’s participation in the IT sector through the
support of women’s empowerment.”8


This
does not mention any specific commitment to not only ensuring women
have access to ICT education, but also that there are appropriate job
opportunities for them once they leave tertiary education.



Infrastucture


In
both Jordan and DRC, a lack of infrastructure was seen as a key
impediment to the generalised lack of information dissemination. In
DRC, for example, in the earlier days of the conflict, one of the key
means of transmitting information was via community radio. Community
radio was key in informing people of possible attacks and in
providing information on rehabilitation after attacks.


In
addition, the ability of people to receive radio signals has been
severely eroded. Many refugees have been forced to flee their homes
repeatedly. In many instances, a person with a radio may become a hub
for a community anxious to learn news.


Lulu
Mitshabu says that community radio was particularly important to
women, as it was not only more interested in the concerns of women
than state-sponsored media, it gave women a chance to be heard on
radio. This was an effective means of empowering women, and helping
women leaders in the community to spread information. However, given
the scarcity both of transmitters and receivers, this is no longer an
effective means of transmitting information.


Even
less effective is internet and computer technology – even in the
comparatively developed state of Jordan. In both countries, the
technology is confined to an urban elite. In DRC, single women may
access the internet through cafes, mainly to communicate with
relatives overseas – but even this is curtailed by their husbands
once they are married. In both countries, access to the internet in
remote areas, and in DRC in the conflict areas, is severely limited,
both by the infrastructure and by the levels of computer and internet
literacy.


It
is an area of policy development that has been lacking, not just in
Jordan but in the region. While Jordan both hosted the World
Association of Community Radio Broadcasters
(AMARC)'s Ninth General
Assembly and has approved community radio licences within university
campuses, AMARC has recommended improving legislation to allow more
community radio licences9.
Daoud Kuttab says it is the best way to help women take control of
information, “A community radio station in Jordan is the perfect
communication tool that will provide people of all ages and social
backgrounds of vital information that they need whether it be related
to daily needs or farming needs.”


Credibility of
information


In
DRC, the ability to disseminate vital information rapidly is also
hampered by the skepticism of recipients of information. Having been
victims of conflict for over a decade, people will only believe
information from trusted sources, often those known to them
personally such as village chiefs. Women's subordinate position in
society and their lack of education can limit their effectiveness as
providers of information, reinforcing men in their position as
gatekeepers of information.


This
tendency for men to be gatekeepers is a situation that has
been worsened in the conflict years in DRC. This in turn means that
information that could save women's lives, such as simple information
on hygiene and health-care, is often not transmitted to the women who
need it, as men do not see the transmission of this information to
women as being important.


However,
when educated women return to their villages, they can play this role
– but few choose to do so. According to Lulu Mitshabu, this is
partly because of the limited opportunities at the village level and
partly due to migration of educated women overseas, where they are
more likely to find educated marriage partners and greater
opportunities.


Effective Technology


Unfortunately,
the experience in DRC seems to indicate that all effective means of
accessing knowledge are controlled by men. In Ms Mitshabu's
experience there are two major effective ways of communication, that
can help in disaster preparedness and recovery. The first is mobile
phone technology. The infrastructure for mobile phones is difficult
to target, and has been largely unaffected by the conflict. SMS
messages can be used to effectively disseminate information to a
large audience in a short period of time. Unfortunately, mobile
phones are largely the province of the men. There is no perceived
need for women to own a mobile phone, and even if they did, the low
literacy rates make SMS services largely useless.


The
second way of effectively transmitting information is through
traditional leadership roles – chiefs spreading information on how
to deal with potential or existing threats. Once again, this largely
excludes women from a role in either disseminating or receiving
information. However, it is useful in ensuring that information
transmitted is perceived as credible. This is also a network that has
proved resilient in the face of conflict. It has the major downside
of reinforcing existing gender roles.


Ways forward


In
Jordan, where the Government is behind an initiative to put a
computer in every home, emphasis needs to be given to making sure
relevant information is available and to improve women's computer
literacy. However, Daoud Kuttab emphasises that this is not enough.
He says, “Women need to take charge of the entire informational
cycle that affects them from the source of information to the
platforms that are available in which women are in editorial and
senior managerial positions as well as ownership in the case of
community media.”


He
also points out the need to undo the impact of the filtering process
of the male-dominated media and policy.


In
DRC, Lulu Mitshabu says the need is to focus on low-tech solutions to
disseminating knowledge, such as using posters and t-shirts. These
need to be highly pictoral to ensure that they are effective
regardless of literacy rates. In terms of emergency information, she
stresses the need to set up parallel structures to mirror the
informal networks that exist among men, helping to cultivate
leadership among women and to encourage educated women to return to
their communities to take up a leadership role. The main problem in
the DRC remains not just that aid is provided in a gender-blind
fashion, but also that there is not enough aid to provide for the
humanitarian disaster of the region.



1. According to data from Oxfam, cited by Smyth, I in 'More than silence: the gender dimensions of tsunami fatalities and their consequences', paper presented at WHO Conference on the Health Aspects of the Tsunami Disaster in Asia Phuket, Thailand, 4- 6 May 2005


2. 'Gender and Natural Disasters', working paper for ILO, Recovery and Reconstruction Department, September 2000.


3. Www.internetworldstats.com, figures for March 2008


4. According to data from the CIA factbook, compiled at www.indexmundi.com, figures for Jan 2008.


5. Cited in Study on Tracking the Progress of Jordanian Women in the ICT Space, UNIFEM (the DRC is not included in the Gender Gap Report as of 2007)


6. Study on Tracking the Progress of Jordanian Women in the ICT Space, UNIFEM


7. Statistics from UNICEF, http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/jordan_statistics.html


8. Quoted in Study on Tracking the Progress of Jordanian Women in the ICT Space, UNIFEM, p 94.


9. AMARC statement, AMARC deeply disturbed by refusal to license community radio in Jordan Valley, 6 February 2009

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