ICT4D for Women: Opportunities and Risks

As digital technologies open up new spaces and possibilities, there is a lot of optimism about empowerment of women, and alleviation of gender disparity. According to the ITU, the UN agency for ICT issues:

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) can be used to close the gender gap by creating new jobs for impoverished women. Women, for example, have been at the forefront of the village phone movement, selling airtime to rural people too poor to own their own phones. ICTs can also be used to promote basic literacy and education for women and girls, provide job training and prepare women for careers in the ICT sector as well as to ensure health and safety.

As far as women’s empowerment at the bottom of the pyramid goes, the buzz has been more centered on mobile phones than computer-related ICTs.

This video about women and ICT by Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) gives us some insights into the probable reasons why.

In an article for the IDRC, “Women’s use of information and communication technologies in Mozambique: a tool for empowerment?” Gertrudes Macueve, Judite Mandlate, Lucia Ginger, Polly Gaster and Esselina Macome point out other important reasons why the mobile phone has been relatively more gender responsive than the computer-related ICTs.

We find that women have already started appropriating the mobile phone, finding their own ways to overcome difficulties of literacy, language and costs, working together and using it as a tool for expanding their assets and capabilities with no need for technical training or back-up. Perhaps this is the best example of self-empowerment through utilizing new ICTs…

… If computer-related ICTs were providing a real solution to rural women’s immediate problems, they would have appropriated them and used them to strengthen their ability to solve problems, make decisions and choices, and take desired actions.

Strategic uses of ICTs are being made in other key areas of empowerment, such as combating violence among women. A recent Stanford University Study report by Dayoung Lee indicates [pdf] that mobile phones lower a woman’s tolerance of domestic violence significantly by giving them greater connectivity and access.

Lee writes:

Phones may empower women by giving them better access to social services. Given the privacy of talking on the phone, women can more easily report domestic violence or consult family planning agencies

However, that is not to say that ICTs are a panacea for gender discrimination. The world of ICT and gender remains a complex one. Where we have seen positive strides towards gender equality, we have also seen ICTs provide another space for the further marginalisation of women, and scope for exerting greater control, power and perpetrating violence against them.

Lee writes that though the benefits of a mobile phone was indisputable, they depended ultimately on having access to a mobile phone in the first place. According to her:

Household ownership of mobile phones does not indicate that women have access to them, or that women own them. Because mobile phones can be carried around, husbands may have more complete control over them than over landline phones. If they take the mobile phone to work, for example, women have no means of taking advantage of it.

In their GenderIT.org paper “Violence against Women and Information Communication Technologies: Uganda Country Report: Strengthening women’s strategic use of ICT to combat violence against women and girls”, the authors Aramanzan Madanda, Berna Ngolobe and Goretti Zavuga Amuriat highlight the tenuous relation between ICT and violence against women.

Privacy invasion through SMS stalking and monitoring and control by spouses is growing. Men control women’s use of mobile phones and give or withhold permission to their wives to use them, when and how. The link between mobile phones and killing of women are not incidents in isolation. Some women have acquired two SIM cards to forestall domestic violence. This is a sign of women’s empowerment as telephones provide a means through which to break male control by opening contacts to the outside world. Women use mobiles to contact police officers in the event of domestic violence. Women’s organisations use the internet in combination with TV, radio, newspapers and other print media to highlight violence against women.

The Blank Noise Project is one such initiative we have seen in the recent times – to raise awareness and voices against street sexual harassment of women. Examples of other initiatives are a) a Bangladesh national campaign for strategic use of ICT to end violence against women from 2008 and b) Texting for Social Action in Africa organised by the Gender Based Violence Prevention Network in collaboration with Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET).

Berna Twanza in this blog post, wonders if ICTs can further marginalize women in society. Berna writes:

Women’s lower levels of literacy and education relative to men as well as negative attitudes towards girls’ achievement in science and mathematics, largely contribute to the gender dimensions of digital divide. Women’s lower degree of economic security than men and gender-related constraints on their time and mobility also limit their access, use and participation in shaping the course of ICTs compared to their male counterparts.

This calls for deliberate efforts to enable women benefit from ICTs, these include creating awareness about the benefits and opportunities offered by ICTs among women, building women/girls’ capacity in ICT use, setting up projects or initiatives aimed at increasing women’s access and use of ICTs, encouraging girls to take up science and IT courses as well as eliminating gender stereotypes and factors that prevent women taking up ICT opportunities.

In this video below, Kutoma Wakunuma from Sheffield Hallam University (UK) talks about mobile phones in Africa and their impact on gender relations. The interview was filmed at MobileActive08. Kutoma talks about how control over the ubiquitous mobile phone has become symbol of control and power in traditional families of the developing world such as Zambia.

In her 2008 case study on “Mobile Cell Phones and Poverty Reduction: Technology Spending Patterns and Poverty Level Change among Households in Uganda”, Kathleen Diga from the IDRC noted :

Certain household members rarely made use of the mobile phone while the household head maintained possession of the tool. Women, for example, have calls completed on their behalf as partners fear the overuse of their airtime. The fear may also develop from a perception of breakdown in head authority within households of this conservative community. These negative perceptions appear to re-enforced asset control particularly with the mobile phone within the household.

In a highly informative post on MobileActive.org, “Deconstructing Mobiles: Myths & Realities about Women and Mobile Phones”, Anneryan Heatwole highlights some positive impacts of mobile phones and gender-neutral programs.

Of course, there are documented positive impacts of mobiles; programs such as Text To Change, BridgeIT and Souktel, while gender-neutral, offer great opportunities to women – from anonymous sexual and reproductive health information, to the reinforcement of positive professional female role models, to fair access to job opportunities. And indeed, mobile phones have been shown to be a successful source of personal and professional growth for women in many instances. In Steven Klonner and Patrick Nolen’s 2008 case study “Does ICT Benefit the Poor? Evidence from South Africa,” the authors show that mobile phones can have a distinctly positive economic effect on female users

(But) this is a key issue in the debate: are the women who most need access to mobile phones getting it? In the poorest areas, cell phones are scarcer than in richer areas, and cost and literacy improve greater barriers to women who tend to be poorer and more likely to be illiterate than men. While we lack any kind of reliable data on access to phones by sex globally, women who are most at risk for domestic abuse or isolation are often the ones who are most likely to be unable to access mobile phones. Similarly, it is often the poorest, most rural women who could most use information about market prices, civil rights, and female health care.

In fact, Lee’s study recommends that the government consider offering mobile phones at subsidized costs to women to enhance their access.

There is a growing voice among activists and bloggers to pressurize policymakers into integrating gender in ICT policy processes. In this context, Anita Gurumurthy writes in the UN GAID [Global Alliance for ICT and Development] blog:

The issues for gender and development are not only about women in the IT sector, but about the global economy itself and what ICTs have done to alter for instance the social contract between labour and capital… Discussions for what is good for gender justice in the information society are thus relevant to women's rights and citizenship in multiple spheres – in geographically situated communities, within nation states and in a global, transnational space…

Berna argues that we need to consciously include gender in ICT policy, if we want to tap into the benefits of ICT in the area of bridging the gender divide. She writes:

Available evidence indicates that without explicit articulation of gender in policies, gender issues and concerns are not likely to be considered during implementation. Moreover, policy making in technological fields had been noted to ignore the needs, requirements and aspirations of women unless gender analysis is included. As such, without specific attention and action, there would be no equitable distribution of benefits for men and women, with women often disadvantaged.

However, even if these policies would be put in place in the near future, how will we be able to evaluate the progress made in this arena? Well, APC WNSP’s GEM is an “evaluation methodology that integrates a gender analysis into evaluations of initiatives that use ICTs for social change. It is an evaluation tool for determining whether ICTs are really improving or worsening women’s lives and gender relations, as well as for promoting positive change at the individual, institutional, community and broader social levels.”

Are women passively waiting for policymakers to decide their fate with respect to access to ICTs? “No” says Helen Hambly Odame, Associate Professor at the School of Environmental Design & Rural Development at the University of Guelph in Canada. She writes, “Women are not ‘waiting’ for access to ICTs, but rather using ICTs when they are available to get around the constraints they face in politics, society and economy.”

Necessity is the mother of invention, they say, one can only hope the desire for a safer, better quality of life will ensure that more and more women will come forward for ICT4D initiatives.


  • Thanks for this great article. Please note that the work “Women’s use of information and communication technologies in Mozambique: a tool for empowerment?” by Gertrudes Macueve, Judite Mandlate, Lucia Ginger, Polly Gaster and Esselina Macome is actually a book chapter in “AFRICAN WOMEN AND ICTs” edited by Ineke Buskens and Anne Webb

    URL: http://www.idrc.ca/en/ev-135944-201-1-DO_TOPIC.html

  • Indeed, this is a great article, really pulls together in one fell swoop a lot of the analysis available on gender and mobile phones – and makes that difficult bridge with the IT policy issues. Great read.

    The Uganda paper on violence against women and ICTs is one of 12 country papers carried out in the framework of an APC WNSP project to achieve MDG3 (http://www.apcwomen.org/projects/vaw_ict). Other country papers in Latin America, available in Spanish, unveiled similar results of mobile phones being seen both as a liberating tool and as an instrument of harrassment. In Argentina, domestic violence shelters reported that the mobile phone is the first artifact destroyed in a violent relationship. In Uruguay, the “a computer for every child” programme discovered that computers were getting broken at home due to domestic violence. There, rather than following the usual protocol of making the family responsible for repair costs, the program opted to cover repair costs if their was a formal complaint filed by the abused spouse. But there is no doubt that the ICT as a tool of communication and information for women (at the very least) represent a serious threat to abusive men.

  • […] if this is taking place in Europe, what are the consequences for emerging countries? A recent Global Voices article, focusing on Information Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D), caught my […]

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