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Volume 11, No. 1, April 2001


Table of Contents

Empowerment and Governance through ICT: Women’s Perspective

(Abridged)

Vikas Nath
London School of Economics
V.Nath@lse.ac.uk

 

ICT when used as a tool for amalgamating local knowledge incubated by the communities, with information existing in remote databases and in public domain, heralds the formation of a new class of society – the Knowledge Society. Knowledge thereby becomes the fundamental resource for all economic and developmental activities in the knowledge society. And women form an equal part of this society. 

Knowledge networking opens up a new way of interactive communication between government bodies, NGOs, academic and research institutions, and the civil society. It helps communities, both men and women, to take appropriate steps to recognize and document the knowledge they possess, and reflect this knowledge through the use of ICT in a wider social domain for directed change. 

Women and Knowledge

The isolation of women from the mainstream economy and their lack of access to information because of societal, cultural and market constraints have led to their distancing from the global pool of information and knowledge. This distance is reflected in the low levels of empowerment and equality of women and men, and has enormously contributed to the slow pace of development in the South. It is now a well understood fact that without progress towards the empowerment of women, any attempt to raise the quality of lives of people in DCs would be incomplete. There is an increasing amount of evidence substantiating the truth that societies, which discriminate by gender, pay a high price in terms of their stunted ability to develop and to reduce poverty. Ironically, the importance of bringing a gender perspective to policy analysis and design of development tools and interventions is still not widely understood, and the lessons for development still need to be fully ingrained by the donors and national policy makers.

In the context of knowledge sphere, the issues of gender equality, equity and empowerment of women become even more significant as women have a strategic role in the incubation and transfer of critical knowledge. This knowledge often forms the blue-print of survival for communities to adapt and minimize their risks in adverse circumstances. Women, because of their biological and social roles, are generally more rooted than men in the confines of their locality. They are therefore more aware of the social, economic and environmental needs of their own communities (Mitter, 2000). Women have been the traditional incubators and transfer media of knowledge relating to seed preservation and storage, food processing, indigenous health practices etc. Such forms of knowledge are often contextual, rooted in experience and experiments, but are non-codified. Therefore it is essential that any knowledge sharing mechanism recognizes the value of knowledge possessed by women and provides space for value-addition and the amalgamation of women’s knowledge in the global knowledge pool. 

Engendering knowledge networks

The most critical development issues relating to ICT and evolution of knowledge societies must be approached from both global and local perspectives through the joint participation of the public, private, and non-governmental sectors and members of the civil society. Gender mainstreaming becomes a cross-cutting theme in all these issues. There is an underlying need to shape the knowledge networks to deliver benefits to all segments of the population so that they are responsive to the poorest and the most disadvantaged communities, which include the women. 

It is significant to reinstate that engendering of knowledge networks rests on an operational framework that values the contextual knowledge possessed by women and recognizes their capacity to take judicious action based on a given knowledge set. Surveys of women innovators in Kenya and the Philippines show that women's inventions tend to have direct application to improving family and community well-being or increasing efficiency. Examples include a power tiller built to women's physical specifications and their agricultural practices, an improved cloth diaper, improved diagnostic kit for leishmaniasis, and a fireless cooker (IDRC, 1997). Support of women's existing technology activities, recognition of their role as possessors of most of the indigenous knowledge in DCs, and support of their potential for contributions to community development therefore becomes a critical requirement. 

Engendering of knowledge networks opens up avenues for women to freely articulate and share their experiences, concerns and knowledge with the possibilities of further enrichment of knowledge as it passes through a gamut of network users. These networks are instrumental in helping women break from the stereotypical structures and narrow outlooks of the society and from the hegemony of male dominated societal structures. Other benefits include objective and targeted information flows, low communication costs, sharing of best practices and solutions, and opening up of alternate communication channels with hitherto unreached or under-serviced women, and accomplish a deeper geographic penetration. 

Knowledge networking models however need not be confined to the closed boundaries of information flows.  They have the potential to evolve as alternate institutional models for developmental promotion. By focusing on the improved use of ICT, women can broaden the scope of their actions and address issues, which were previously beyond their capacity. For example, knowledge networking for influencing decision-making strengthens the democratic processes and brings recognition to the power of women community. This is because it enables the decision-making mechanism to involve women at the grassroots level without being confined to the bureaucratic straitjacketed approach of the more formal institutions (http://www. digitalgovernance.org). Alternative mechanisms to carry out these tasks would take a lot more time, resources and efforts. 

Women's need for information are also structured according to their gender roles and responsibilities, which in turn influences their participation and response to knowledge networking. The strategic need for mainstreaming women’s contextual knowledge in the information highway therefore could not be overestimated.

Knowledge Networking: Spaces for Women

The pertinent question is not whether women stand to benefit from the inroads laid by ICT but how they benefit. What are the mechanisms to ensure that the benefits accrued to the women community do not remain restricted to mere trickle-down effects?  At the very conceptual level, ICT has the potential to digitally link each and every woman in the world in a star topology network, which opens up endless possibilities for information exchange. This mechanism could be used by women in creative ways, both to communicate with other people who are online, and also to disseminate information to people in the outside world who are not online through the use of convergence and hybrid technologies such as community emails, community radio broadcast, tele-centres, newsletters, videos etc. This mechanism forms the skeletal process through which women communities could overcome the constraints of seclusion, mobilize resources and support, reach out to new markets, and open up avenues for life-long learning. 

We could broadly classify the spaces in which women stand to gain under the spheres of Empowerment and Governance as given. 

(i) Empowerment Sphere

Empowerment of women in the context of knowledge societies is understood as building the ability and skills of women to gain insight into actions and issues in the external environment, which influence them. This will in turn build their capacity to get involved and voice their concerns in these external processes, make informed decisions, participate in the economic and political processes, and bring about an overall improvement in their quality of lives.

A range of ICT models has been used to support the empowerment of women all around the world. In Africa, groups such as the Africa Women’s Network of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) have conducted training workshops to support electronic networking among women’s group. In Uganda, the Forum for Women in Democracy uses the Internet and email to research issues for the country’s women MPs, and Women’s Net is a similar initiative in South Africa (World Bank, 2000). Knowledge networking catalyses the process of women’s empowerment, through approaches elucidated in the subsequent paragraphs.

Alternate communication channels and information providers

It is common for women in DCs to be little aware of information relating to market economy and local governance processes, which impedes their empowerment. With ICT opening up a direct window for women to the outside world, information now flows to them without distortion or any form of censoring, and they have access to the same information as their male counterparts. This leads to the broadening of perspectives, greater understanding of their current situation and the causes of poverty, and initiation of interactive processes for information exchange. Further, such forms of networking open up forms of communication alternate to those offered by the conventional or the government controlled media sources, and therefore catalyses the empowerment process. 

Connecting women to the external world

The role of knowledge networking is not limited to extracting information from the global pool but is becoming increasingly significant in broadcasting information pertinent to individual women or women communities in other parts of the world. In Bangladesh, the Internet became a principal tool for advocacy and garnering support, when women students from a university began a campaign against campus rape. Pressure that was exerted internationally and nationwide added to the massive physical protests by the students, forcing the establishment to conduct an enquiry (Alam, 2000).  These processes open up a range of options for women to deviate from the conventional media for information transfer to those which offer a greater control over the information that they wish to broadcast to the global civil network, in the least possible time. Women for the first time have realized that they may be isolated or barred from participation in processes within their immediate community but that does not prevent them from communicating to the outside world. 

Empowerment through employment of women

ICT makes the role of time and distance less significant in organizing business and production related activities. As a result of the technology, a high proportion of jobs outsourced by big firms is going to women. Women can work from anywhere and at anytime and raise that extra income to become more financially independent and empowered. Recently, companies like Ford and General Electric have moved their back-end operations to Asia and employ a large number of women workers having basic IT and data management skills. New areas of employment such as tele-marketing and medical transcription have also opened up tremendous job opportunities for women. These jobs are under-paid and fall at the lower segment of ICT jobs. Nevertheless, they are opening up avenues where none existed before. 

Significantly, the process of initiating knowledge networking by itself is creating jobs in DCs. Knowledge networking requires skilled and trained knowledge workers who can perform specific tasks of understanding, compiling, analyzing, searching, providing value-addition and disseminating information etc. and a number of women get employed in such jobs. 

Creating a class of women entrepreneurs

The advantages offered by ICT and its potential in opening windows to the outside world has given women a greater control over the activities performed by them, laying the foundation for entrepreneurship development. 

In Lethem, a village in Guyana which has a community of only 2,000 people, an organization -- “Rupununi Weaver’s Society” formed by women of two tribes revived the ancient art of hand-weaving large hammocks from locally grown cotton -- took their exquisite wares online (http://www.gol.net.gy/rweavers/). They hired a young member to create a website. And last year, they sold 17 hammocks to people around the world for as much as $1,000 - a gigantic sum in these parts (Simon Romero, The New York Times Company, 2000). The path after this has not been a cakewalk for this women’s group and the group has been struggling since then to sustain itself as their success aroused new gender and social equations which were not in there favor. Nevertheless, a space has been cast for women to emerge as entrepreneurs and use the ICT tool to their advantage. 

Significantly, a number of non-profit organizations have diversified their services to provide support to the class of women entrepreneurs. PEOPLink (http://www.peoplink.org/) is one such non-profit organization which has been helping women communities traditionally involved with handicrafts to put their products online in the world market. It is building up a global network of Trading Partners (TPs) that, in turn, will provide services to several community-based artisan producer groups. It equips the TPs with digital cameras and trains them to capture images and edit them in a compressed format suitable for transmission via the Internet. The images of the crafts are placed on the PEOPLink web page and efforts are made to promote them to retail and wholesale buyers in the industrialized countries. 

Value- added services to women

Knowledge networks could be harnessed in a number of innovative ways in areas such as sustainable agriculture, tele-medicine, distance-education etc. for the benefit of women communities. 

The SEWA Bank in India uses the development communication wing of Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) to reach remote villagers. Discussions on topics like Panchayati Raj (village governance institutions), women in development, nursery raising and forestry management, savings and credit are beamed to different villages through the use of satellite cable. The viewers can phone in their inquires, which are answered promptly by a panel of experts. 

In the village of Villianur in Pondicherry, India, people are connected through an online database which helps them access required information in their vernacular language. This novel experiment organised by the M.S Swaminathan Research Foundation (www.mssrf.org) has transformed Villianur into the centre of a local area network. The villagers congregate around the centre to get connected with the latest local news. Women get information about the wholesale and market prices of vegetables. Those wanting some health-related information get all the details about any particular ailment and the name of the doctor who can attend to them. 

Grameen Telecom is enabling women members of the Grameen Bank's revolving credit system to retail cellular phone services in rural areas. This initiative enables rural women to re-sell GSM cellular phone services in rural Bangladesh. 

Distance education through internet and television broadcasts opens up avenues for women to continue with their education at their own pace and from the confines of their homes even after having discontinued it due to family or social responsibilities. Learning and training continues throughout women’s lives as new skills and competencies gain value, and this ensures that avenues for women to expand their roles from household economy to a wider market economy remain open. 

Changing stereotypic roles

The unrestricted flow of information through ICT processes opens up avenues for men and women to view each other from a different perspective. The sharing of views between communities living in different geographical and cultural spheres will lead to broadening of views and changing of mindset over time. 

(ii) Governance Sphere

A key element to better governance is to "democratize" people's knowledge and understanding of complex social, economic and welfare mechanisms and processes, and to "demystify" the political choices available to their elected representatives (www.digitalgovernance.org). Knowledge networking is impacting the governance processes by reshaping the current socio-political equations and revolutionizing the way government does its business. Till now, Southern governments have been making sporadic efforts in fostering the involvement of women in governance process through reservations, creation of separate departments to handle women issues etc. Nevertheless, it is seen, that even in their official roles, women function in a pseudo manner and they do not have the real power or the capacity to take decisions. A women headperson in a village may not be able to effectively render her duty as she may not be able to attend village meetings which are held at far-off places or during late hours or require direct communication with men. In such cases, ICT tools open up alternate and easier channels for women to communicate without moving outside their home or village.

Comparison of Women’s Participation in Governance Processes through Conventional Media, and through ICT Media

 

Conventional Media 

ICT Media

Mode of Participation

Representative 

Individual/Collective

Forms of Participation

Passive/ Reactive 

Pro-active/Interactive

Impact of Participation 

Indirect

Direct

 The marginalization of women in political processes and governance in general has been both the cause and effect of slow progress made in the advancement of women. By their virtual potential to connect every woman in a network of information exchange, knowledge networking offers endless possibilities for women to play a pro-active role and impact governance processes at the local and global level. The new networking technologies are eliminating the boundaries between the various branches and also between the different levels of governing institutions. The ICT governance models are marked by a shift towards community based approaches. And these models  will see widespread growth and adoption in the coming years as people come to realize the control that ICT-models puts into their hands to influence the governance mechanisms. 

The models open up avenues for direct participation of women which so far has been limited to representative forms of participation in which women were insufficiently represented. They would lead to a more interactive and pro-active form of communication with officials in the local governance spheres – a process which will lead to greater transparency and accountability. The notion of distance and time would become meaningless as the technologies have the capability of working at all times and from all geographical locations. It also means that rural women for whom time is a scarce commodity and it is absolutely impossible to commute to public offices, would be enabled by new technologies, to leap-frog to an altogether different platform providing them the means  to communicate and voice their opinions. The women themselves have been exploring ways and taking independent initiatives to promote diverse, gender-entrenched approaches to play a more influential role in the governance processes.

Enabling access to government information

One of the main functions of the government is to provide information regarding policies, rules and regulations, administrative and service delivery matters. This information forms the basis of informed participation of the civil society in matters relating to governance. 

Women because of their isolation from mainstream activities do not have easy access to government issued information and therefore are unable to take part in governance issues. Knowledge networking however changes this situation and enables information to perpetuate right below till the last digital node of the society so that women can access government websites. They can then know more about issues such as name of the local officials and their roles and responsibilities, working hours of government offices, application forms available for download, latest rules and regulations, etc. 

Enhancing service delivery

Knowledge Networking paves the way for interacting with the government on-line for various issues such as grievance redressal, demanding a service and seeking status of a service.  Enabling application forms to be filled up on-line could be one of the simplest ways to initiate online-service delivery and their utility could be advanced by setting up services to keep track of the status of application and the reasons for delays in grievance redressal, if any.  

Connecting to Help Line

In Trichy, in India, an NGO has created a helpline for women in distress to handle issues such as rape, sexual harassment, battering and dowry harassment, and eve-teasing. The complainants can disclose information anonymously, which is routed to the All Women Police Station for further action. The service has initiated active interest among the women as they avoid the social stigma of having to go to a local police station, which means most often having to encounter redtape and corruption. For other kinds of complaints, there is also an option of e-mailing the police control room.  (http://www.oneworld.org)

The online service delivery approach could also be applied outside the government institutions for the benefit of women. For example, the computerization of SEWA Bank in India – the largest women’s bank - has helped to expand the self-help groups involved in financial services at the village level. Use of computers in district level organizations in India has helped expand business by maintaining up-to-date records and increasing productivity.  It has opened up new markets for craftswomen in Banaskantha and Kutch, both districts in Gujarat. The wares of these skilled artisans are displayed on the Internet, generating a lot of interest and bringing in more business. This has helped the women command a better price for their products and has benefited more than 40,000 women in these areas.

Facilitating monitoring of governance

Citizens and consumers of government services now demand that the government be more open in their dealings. On the face of it, the core principles of a democratic set up are violated when people, especially women, are excluded from the decision-making processes. If the strategic information relating to governance such as fund dissipation, policy on key issues, taxes generated, budgetary spending, overhead costs etc. are stored digitally and made available in public domain, women can analyze and conclude from the available information on their own and can make informed choices about their selection of candidates and parties for the electoral process.

By employing innovative ICTs, women could be included in all aspects of governance. This can be achieved through on-line polls, and their views solicited through emails, bulletin boards, discussion groups etc. Opinion polls conducted over multi-media have the potential to make known the decisions favored by a large section of the women to the policy-planners and decision-makers.  

WomenAction 2000: Influencing Beijing Platform for Action

The WomenAction Global website is a pioneering initiative to develop a communications network and information-sharing strategy that allows women in every region to participate in and impact the 5-year review of the implementation of the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action. The website provides women's organizations with a platform that links regional activities strategizing around the Beijing Platform of Action review process. It has a special focus on Women and Media with information on how NGOs can get involved in online critical discussions, create an alternative global report and highlight the work of women's organizations.

Aiding mobilization and public advocacy

Knowledge networking helps build alliances and develop issue-based solidarity among the women’s groups, which is a pre-requisite for concerted action. A women’s group raising a voice against environmental degradation caused by unethical practices of the government or a transnational company no longer finds itself waging a lone battle but strikes an ally in groups located across the continents raising their voices against similar unethical practices.

Virtual communities are yet another powerful, upcoming force in the knowledge societies. Knowledge networking could help women groups to come together digitally and form virtual communities, which support a common view point and value-framework. The virtual communities movement is directed at giving individuals, local communities and regional groupings the chance to advocate policies which protect their interests and promote better governance at all levels. The thrust is on creating spaces for decision-making within the existing governance mechanism that would be democratically governed by welfare and human rights principles, sustainability and social development objectives. Formation of such virtual communities could be very effective in influencing polices and debates which are transnational in nature and need strong and persistent lobbying at the international level. 

To conclude, expectations are high when it comes to ICT opportunities for women in DCs, including new forms of learning, education, health services, livelihood options and governance mechanisms. However, on a cautious note, it needs to be realized that ICT by itself cannot be an answer and elixir to all problems facing women’s development but it does bring new information resources and can open new communication channels for the marginalised communities. It offers new approaches for bridging the information gaps through interaction and dialogue, building new alliances, inter-personal networks, and cross-sectoral links between organizations. The benefits include increased efficiency in allocation of resources for development work, less duplication of activities, reduced communication costs and global access to information and human resources. 

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