The theme of this year’s Commission on the Status of Women meeting is "access and participation of women and girls in education, training, science and technology, including for the promotion of women’s equal access to full employment and decent work”. What is the role of information and communications technology in the role of sexual education?
In many ways, developments in ICT has facilitated the availability of resources and information related to the sexuality of women and girls, including their health and how to negotiate risks and dangers including violence against women, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
It has also enabled women and girls to be able to speak for themselves in relation to this often regulated, taboo and restricted subject. Women and girls are amongst the most active authors and producers of content of their own concerns, realities and desires in this subject. And it has been impactful in many ways - enabling them to challenge boundaries and norms that restrict their ability to participate fully and meaningfully in public life, to present counter-cultures and to mobilise for change.
However, much of the debate around the educational role and function of ICT in relation to sexuality has been couched under the framework of "danger". For example, the danger of child sexual abuse online and pornography - where the approach has been to restrict content in a variety of ways, or to promote education that looks at the danger of media. While these are very valid concerns that require careful attention, there needs to be equal and considered attention given to the enabling role of ICT in promoting and enabling women and girls in the exercise of their sexual rights. This needs to include the call for responses that allow this to happen while taking into consideration competing rights and interests.
The EROTICS research by the Association for Progressive Communications look at the connections between sexuality and internet regulation, and how these can either impede or facilitate women's ability to exercise their sexual rights, including their sexuality and sexual health, in five countries. They include Brazil, India, Lebanon, South Africa and the United States.
The findings have been provocative and insightful in many ways. For example, in India, there are heavy restrictions placed on women's ability to exercise or express their sexuality - including from simple things like what types of clothes can be worn without reproach. Women and girls are turning to the internet to challenge these boundaries, while remaining aware and actively negotiating the risks that are present.
In the United States, arbitrary enforcement of measures to restrict information related to sexuality in the protection of children were seen to potentially place young people at further risk, especially when they are unable to find relevant and helpful information about sexual health and rights.
In Lebanon, the queer movement grew in strength in tandem with the development of the internet and its ability to facilitate knowledge sharing and building on information that would be almost impossible to find elsewhere.
In Brazil, a punitive criminal law approach in dealing with restriction of internet content and surveillance of its subjects to address child pornography issues was strongly rejected by civil society, and questions were raised especially on how this might impact on the active investment of a diverse range of users to speak up against homophobia and lesbophobia.
And in South Africa, the research examined the investment of transmen, transwomen and lesbians in the internet to find out and exchange information about sexual health issues, and to provide critical support and affirmation to each other in the face of harsh discrimination.
These are important knowledge and research projects that can inform our approach in dealing with the difficult issue of sexuality and sexual health - in terms of education and development. The following issues brief presents an outline of the key findings.
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