On the first day, I was so desperate to see women at this

space because of the overbearing presence of men, especially those in uniformed
and are armed. When I scanned around, I saw mainly (apart from the participants)
women in pink who were cleaners and usually hauled big bags of rubbish with
them. There was also women who were usherers and information officers in
serious shades of maroon suits as the exhibition centre became more active.
Today, there was another class of women, courtesy of the private sector, namely
Alcatel. Women dressed in satin-like off-shoulder sashes sparkling in their
stand. They were all young (I would guess early twenties), all beautiful, and
mostly in – yes, once again – pink.

It was certainly eye-widening. I stopped to speak to them,
and they were friendly and informed, whose task was to sell Alcatel mobile
phones. They were actually students at a local university, undergoing degrees
in Management and English. Young, articulate,
bright women. I am tempted to even claim them as the future shapers and movers
of the Information Society. What are they doing here? Are they participating as
stakeholders in the negotiation process, or at the very least, as members of
the WSIS Gender Caucus? Uhm.. no, they are dressed in off-shoulder pink satin
dresses, looking beautiful, and attracting potential customers for Alcaltel.

All universities have been closed for the entire period of
the Summit (5 days), for reasons I
can only guess at (another time maybe). But it would seem clear that what is
NOT the reason is so that students can participate at the Summit
as a group politically invested in the process and outcomes. Entry to the Summit
is heavily policed, and unless it is for employment – security personnel,
usher, cleaner, mobile phone seller, map pointer etc – it seems that engagement
is very much dictated by immediate and short term fiscal gains.

Which are not bad actually for those at the Alcatel stand.
They are paid 100 dinars per day, which is really good money when a kebab can
be purchased for 1 dinar, a SIM card for 10 dinars, an SMS message sent for 0.6
dinars, and taxi ride of about 20km is about 8 dinars. When asked if they use
the internet or own mobile phones, they said yes, but the complained about the
speed of the connection. Wouldn’t it make sense for them to dialogue with their
information minister, or other representatives in the government, about their concerns
and perspectives at this rare space where there is a possibility to meet?

Perhaps the conversation did happen, but if so, it is a
happy chance rather than through carefully considered design.

Nonetheless, they still fare a little better than the
cleaners. Again, it is frustrating that I am not able to converse in Arabic or
French, but Frederic Dubois who spoke French managed
to help me out in translation. There are apparently two different shifts of
work: from 8:00am to 3:00pm, they are paid 8 dinars, and from 3:00pm – 12:00am, they are paid 12 dinars. To
be able to afford one meal from the Summit
restaurant, they would have to work for four and half (daytime shift) or three
days (night shift). When asked, the cleaner I spoke (via Frederic) to did not
own a mobile phone – though she knows how to operate one – or have access to
the Internet. I guess, once again, the “All” in ICTs for all seems to be
selective in its application. 

A little reminder of the Geneva/WSIS Declaration of

“1.        We,
the representatives of the peoples of the world, assembled in Geneva from 10-12 December 2003 for the first phase of the
World Summit on the Information Society,
declare our common desire and
commitment to build a people-centred,
inclusive an
d development-oriented Information Society, where everyone can create, access, utilize and
share information and knowledge, enabling individuals, communities and peoples
to achieve their full potential in promoting their sustainable development and
improving their quality of life, premised on the purposes and principles of the
Charter of the United Nations
and respecting fully and upholding the Universal Declaration of Human

More specifically on women and the hard-earned Paragraph 19:

12.     We affirm that development of ICTs provides
enormous opportunities for women,
who should be an integral part of,
and key actors, in the Information
Society. We are committed to ensuring that the Information Society enables
women's empowerment and their full participation on the basis on equality in
all spheres of society and in all decision-making processes. To this end, we
should mainstream a gender equality perspective and use ICTs as a tool to that

I didn’t realise that development-oriented meant conforming
to tired gender-stereotyped roles in employment as the fringes and accessories
of a black-suit event. What a surprise to see
‘enormous opportunities’ for women meaning earning slightly more as a cleaner
in the WSIS event as opposed to the normal garment manufacturing job that the
woman I spoke to held. Silly of me really, to think that key actors meant a
little more selling mobile phones with a university degree in line.

Something has seriously gone wrong somewhere in the
equation. We seem very capable of talking the talk, and in fact feel almost
compelled to have images of women whenever there is mention of the potential of
ICTs for XYZ, but when it comes to reality, the gap is jarring.




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