It feels like until fairly recently, the potential of new media and digital technologies was discussed in an almost utopian manner, couched in the grandiloquent terms of a ‘4th Industrial Revolution’. And it seemed only inevitable that greater access to ICTs and information around the world would surely also lead to the spread of greater gender equality.
Enshrined in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, “gender equality and empowerment (of) all women and girls” became an international priority, a focal point of international development policy, and a KPI to soon be ticked off in an age of techno-positivism. But if the last few years online have taught us anything – from the rise of ‘fake news’, to online lynch-mobbings and Cambridge Analytica – it is that only a fool would believe today that all modern technologies will ultimately be positive, and “equally useful to all humanity”. 
For activists working to advance gender equality around the world, such idealism falls by the wayside as they carefully strike balances between cultural and traditional values, and the aspirations of women seeking greater agency and opportunities through ICTs.
In the most recent edition of Gender and Development, two enlightening articles highlight the successes and limitations of promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment through ICTs; “‘I don’t care about their reactions’: agency and ICTs in women’s empowerment in Afghanistan” by Faheem Hussain & Sara N. Amin and “‘We want that for ourselves’: how girls and young women are using ICTs to counter violence and demand their rights” by Sara Baker.
The 4 A’s of ICT4D
In her recent blog, Agnes pointed to the ‘digital divide’ uncovered by the recent Mobile Gender Gap Report, which found that women in in low and middle-income countries are about 10% less likely to own a mobile phone than men, while in South Asia, this figure rises to 38%.
It is therefore reasonable to assume that development organisations working to enable and empower women should focus on the so-called 4 A’s of ICT4D: awareness, availability, accessibility and affordability”. After all, women cannot be expected to become empowered online if are not aware of, have no access to, or cannot even afford the bare essentials of ICT, namely mobile phones and computers.
Yet Hussain and Amin’s study found that in Afghanistan, “the majority of women’s ICT activities do not realise that vision” of empowerment. Without having a focus on increasing agency, they found that “ICTs usually only enable women to meet their existing needs, and do not enable them to challenge patriarchal power relations.”
Of course, in any strongly conservative and patriarchal society, challenging established power structures through ICT is particularly challenging, particularly in places where women do not have access to phones and computers, or are restricted by men. However, in her analysis of the Take Back the Tech! campaign, Sara Baker finds many interesting examples from around the world where ICT has truly transformed social relations for the women and girls involved.
Selfies and Safe-spaces
The Philippines is well known as the world leader in terms of social media usage, with users spending just short of 4 hours-a-day on social media sites. Yet, in spite of this astounding amount of online communication, Baker finds found that women online are still expected to be “well-behaved”, and those who do not conform are considered “women of ill repute’”.
When faced with online harassment however, rather than disappearing and deleting accounts, the girls and women trained by Take Back the Tech!-style campaigns instead posted selfies calling out the incidents, and followed strategies to ensure their experiences are recorded, from reporting violations and filing complaints, to preserving evidence and blocking offenders.
Baker also documents the Kenyan “Socially Keen Individuals Redefining Tech Spaces (S.K.I.R.T.S) campaign, founded by Yvonne Olouch. After being driven from her social media platforms, Olouch established S.K.I.R.T.S to fight back against online harassment of women, holding “#SafeSpace Digital Security trainings” to empower Kenyan women to control their digital footprints, be aware of online predators, create feminist content that encourages solidarity, and use tech tools to make their voices visible’”.
These cases highlight the importance of “taking up space”, both in public spaces, and in the digital landscape, and refusing to submit to “policing” by men. Resources for handling harassing and illegal behaviour is shared through the organisation networks, such as the ‘blackmail’ comic below.
Disguising progress as protection
In the cases above, the women and girls involved were able to take a public stand against harassing and violent male behaviour, something which would certainly not be possible in many countries around the world. However, ICTs can also be introduced on the understanding (or guise) of maintaining traditional values.
Returning to the case study in Afghanistan, Hussain and Amin found that some parents would allow their daughters access to mobile telephones through the idea of “maharam – the watchful and protective eyes of the male relative”. In practice, having a mobile phone meant that family members could know where they are, while also giving the women the opportunity to contact other people and gain greater freedom.
Similarly, in India, Baker finds that young women feel empowered to venture out more into public spaces when they use taxi apps with SOS emergency buttons which alert their friends to their whereabouts.
Ultimately though, there are some barriers which may take generations to overcome. In Afghanistan, ICTs and internet access are unlikely to have much effect while literacy rates for women remain under 20%. Elsewhere, as in India, some campaigns may succeed in some respects, but lead to backlashes when pushed further. Baker found, for example, that women’s rights campaigns in India which involved their families led to “harassment and abuse for some participants”
So, what makes a success?
In short, there is no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ campaign. Every country and context will be different, and this must be reflected at all stages – from planning, to implementation, and follow up. But considering the collective experiences of Hussain, Amin and Baker, ICT4D projects pushing forward a gender equality agenda will stand on solid ground if they ensure:
- Access to ICTs are only “an important first step, rather than the only goal”;
- ICTs for gender equality should be “designed with the user”, and be in line with the Principles for Digital Development;
- Actions and interventions should “speak to the local needs” of the girls and women involved, and consider potential risks relating to the local culture and traditions, and finally;
- At all costs, actions should work to help girls and women “taking up space”, either in public or online, and push back against attempts to silence or remove them.
For more information, read the two quoted articles here:
Faheem Hussain & Sara N. Amin (2018) ‘I don’t care about their reactions’: agency and ICTs in women’s empowerment in Afghanistan, Gender & Development, 26:2,249-265, DOI: 10.1080/13552074.2018.1475924
Sara Baker (2018) ‘We want that for ourselves’: how girls and young women are using ICTs to counter violence and demand their rights, Gender & Development, 26:2, 283-297, DOI: 10.1080/13552074.2018.1473229