Women activists and internet governance: let's open the debate

17 October 2011

Women activists in different countries and regions are paying attention to information and communication technologies (ICT) and internet development as tools to exercise their rights and participate in political discussions to drive social change. During the past decade, these tools have helped them to spark a fluent exchange of ideas that has granted a fresh impetus to women's activism in diverse global social movements. Just before the 2011 Internet Governance Forum (IGF) , around 20 women from different countries and backgrounds came together to share their experiences in policy advocacy and to strategise around putting women's rights in the internet governance agenda. The workshop was organised by the APC Women's Networking Support Programme (APC WNSP).

As participation and social and political activism grow in cyberspace, government and corporations push to gain control over the internet, be it for business, political reasons or to perpetuate traditions, rules and control over the population. Women´s activists know well that it is particularly important to ensure that freedom of expression and democratic participation in the internet is not overshadowed by restrictive legislation or practices nor censorship of any kind.

In some countries, cybercrime laws have become a vehicle to control freedom of expression, of information and association. These laws enforce repression, censorship and withhold access to sensitive information on issues such as sexual education, reproductive rights, abortion, LGBT movements, gender justice, etc. Women consider that these are complex issues to address and that the internet offers spaces to meet, exchange and consolidate ideas with an open mind and understanding that are not always present in many societies.

That stated, there are different matters around internet regulation that women need to identify. Some are more controversial than others, but the general feeling is that there's a lot more happening around the violation of women's rights using ICTs and the internet than what can be seen at the surface. This should motivate women to become interested in these matters and to start building leadership within the women's movement to put forward a women's rights perspective when discussing internet governance issues.

“My challenge as a feminist”, said a participant, “is to use my expertise to redefine all concepts related to freedom of expression, political rights and citizenship, including digital citizenship, and consider how to protect women's rights to enhance their empowerment in the cyberspace and in the real world.”

How critical is it for women to participate in leadership in the internet governance debate? For the majority, internet governance issues are just technical matters, and as such they are gender neutral. To question that concept of neutrality will generate opposition and women's rights activists have to be ready to endure the controversy. If they have a clear agenda, bring in their understandings and push to change working methods and culture, they could start contributing to shake the tone of power relations in this debate.

Women's organisations should take stock of the type of tasks and lobbying they do when working for change in other areas of international global governance, like trade, finances, investments, war and peacemaking, the environment, etc. In these discussions, activists want issues of women's rights to be explicit in all new agreements. These objectives are priorities when budgeting, making commitments, designing policies or signing statements. Why shouldn't they apply all this experience when considering internet governance issues?

Participants at the workshop agreed that it is time to promote the participation of women's human rights organisations in the discussion, building alliances to influence policy development and the review of present practices. Their experience in advocacy work in UN matters and main meetings could be a substantial contribution.

What could be the main strategies? As with other major issues discussed at international levels, women should dedicate time to produce knowledge on the different developments and situations from a gender perspective in order to influence policy and practices. ICTs and the internet will surely be of great help to guarantee involvement of
women's organisations around the globe in the discussions, processes and actions.

Workshop participants consider that women activists should dedicate time to build strategic alliances and partnerships with other organisations committed to issues of freedom of expression and internet rights and seek multistakeholder cooperation with a human rights approach. Critical engagement is crucial to raise awareness around how internet rights issues influence women's movements' and civil society's agendas. The message needs to get through. Frequently new ICT surveillance methods and practices are implemented around the world and citizens' rights to public participation, including the internet, are threatened, if not eliminated.

Read also an account of one of the workshop participants at GenderIT.org's Feminist Talk:

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