Has the seventh IGF brought breakthrough for gender equality?

It is my pleasure to introduce this volume of essays on gender issues at the IGF. The seventh IGF, held in Baku Azerbaijan during 2012, saw several milestones. The IGF showed that it was a maturing forum that was able to tackle important issues, some of which had been taboo in the past.



For the first time Human Rights was discussed openly, with many workshops being dedicated to aspects of Human Rights and the Internet and even going so far as to mention Human Rights in the titles – something that could never have happened, even one year ago in Nairobi. The forum was even able to discus issues bearing on the freedoms that were being denied in the host country, an important step forward for the IGF that in the past had been silent on the rights situation in the host countries.



Another distinction of this IGF was the most extensive discussions on gender issues to date. In the past, while there had been workshops where gender was discussed, it had never achieved the focused level that was seen in Baku; with a significant workshop on “Technology, Economic and Societal Opportunities and Women,” serious discussions of women’s access in the Access and Diversity main session and a Dynamic Coalition meeting that explored the many aspects of gender and the Internet and that included many women from Azerbaijan.



Though gender issues are a significant component of human rights consideration on the Internet, they are rarely discussed, even when Human Rights are explicitly discussed. In developing regions Internet access is often a gendered issue. Yet very little attention has been paid to Internet governance directed at gendered issues.



In many countries, especially those where women are segregated from the rest of society and denigrated, ICT developments that are meant to bridge the digital divide are focused in male spaces, places like cyber cafes, where a woman cannot enter without being shamed or worse. The effect of this has been to increase the gender gap in these countries while decreasing the digital divide.



Given the role of the IGF in understanding the governance policy issues that contribute to and affect the millennium goals, it is important to consider the subject of achieving these goals for women. This is something that Internet governance must address under the themes of Access and Diversity and under Internet Governance for Development.



In many countries, activists for women’s rights are harassed online. Those women who are brave enough to enter telecenters, e.g., are often bullied. In many cultures the Internet is becoming a weapon used in the war against women. In the IGF we focus much of our efforts on cybersecurity and cyberwar, but the gender aspects of that security and of that war are rarely ever mentioned. This is something that Internet governance must address under the themes of Security, Openness and Privacy.



Internet governance gender issues go beyond the role of women in society and extend to everyone in society who does not meet the gender role expectations of that society. Whether it is women integrating into a male only workplace, gender expression or sexual preference, the Internet is a critical component of the search for freedom of expression, freedom of association and the freedom to live one’s life with the honor and dignity that is due to all people.



In many countries, the only place that people are free to express their gendered selves is the Internet. Yet with the inability to protect one’s identity or one’s associations, this expression often comes with a serious and sometimes deadly price. People should not be tortured or die for what they express on the Internet. The right of anonymity is a gender issue, and this is another topic that the IGF needs to explore in its role as the forum for discussing Internet governance problems and for finding possible solutions.



The issue of gender and the IGF goes beyond the substance of the discussions. In order to integrate the discussion of gendered issues in the IGF, we have to learn that gendered issues are not just issues for women to discuss. We have to understand that discussions of gender needs as many men in the room as women. After all, men have gender too. We also have to understand that the need some men have to comment, somewhat lasciviously, about being surrounded by women on a panel means we have a long way to go yet in our quest for genuine gender balance.



Gender roles are also not only for civil society. As was seen in Baku, especially in the Dynamic Coalition, the majority of participants were often from civil society with only a few participants from the private sector and even fewer from government. The multistakeholder model includes not only allowing all stakeholders at the table, it includes bringing all stakeholders to the table. In the future we need to get more participation from the private sector and from government. It is to their credit that the BASIS Initiative of International Chamber of Commerce and the Government of Kenya are leaders in this respect.



When we look closely, it is apparent that the issues relevant to gender at the IGF cover just about everything that the IGF does. Gender should become a cross cutting thread that is recognized as important, alongside the currently accepted cross-cutting themes of capacity building and development. In fact gender is a thread that weaves its way through these cross cutting issues as well.



Though there is a ways to go, the IGF12 in Baku saw a lot of progress, progress that we need to build on in the approach to IGF13.



Avri Doria is an itinerant researcher, working on contract on issues aligned with her advocacy and technical interests. She was chair of the ICANN Non-Commercial Stakeholder Group Executive Committee and was chair of the ICANN Generic Names Supporting Organization (GNSO) Council . She spent 5 years working for the IGF Secretariat and currently is Vice President of Policy and Governance at dotgay company and a volunteer research associate for the Association for Progressive Communications (APC). As a technologist she has been involved in the development of Internet protocols and architectures for over 30 years.

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