Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are key tools to
transform the way women live, and the way development takes place. Their development, implementation and use, however, has been difficult, if not impossible, for the majority world and especially for women – a phenomenon commonly known as the digital divide. It is for this reason, that the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) was conceptualised and convened –
to formulate a common vision and understanding of the so-called
’information society’. The objective of the WSIS, which was held at various Summits and conferences over a period of two years in both Geneva and Tunis, was the adoption of a ’’Declaration of Principles and an Action Plan to facilitate the effective growth of the Information Society and to help bridge the digital divide ’’. It was also regarded as an effective means to assist the United Nations in fulfilling the goals of the Millennium Declaration.
But now that the WSIS process is over, and gender and rights were given extremely marginal considerations in terms of the digital divide, what happens next?
Gender at WSIS: Separate from the core debate
The WSIS ’’multi-stakeholder’’ format, was developed to ensure maximum participation from all sectors of society, such as national governments, civil society and the private sector. The location of the final sessions – held in Tunisia – provided a complex backdrop and atmosphere for rights-based discussions, however, with violence against civil society groups and journalists participating in the Summit, and the cancellation of
the parallel ’’Citizen Summit on the Information Society’’, which was organised as a civil society event to take place at the same time as the official WSIS .
Women’s rights groups featured prominently at WSIS, particularly during the first phase, and the WSIS Gender Caucus was created specifically to highlight the gendered construction of technology and communications, and that an integration of gender perspectives is required in all areas of ICTs. Comprising a network of stakeholders from different sectors, the Gender-Caucus lobbied for gender-inclusive language in the WSIS documents, and for gender to feature more predominately in the implementation and follow up after the Summit. As one Gender Caucus e-discussion highlighted
during the Summit process, ’’in the WSIS documents as one moves on from the preambles and opening statements through plans of actions and to actual implementation, the references to ’lofty ideals’ of gender equality rapidly diminish.’’ .
Unfortunately, despite two years of lobbying and all of the energy directed towards making gender a key issue at WSIS, the final document was largely a disappointment for women. In fact, when searching for the word ’gender’ in the Tunis declaration, the only match is ’’gender-disaggregated indicators’’. Even the word ’women’ is only mentioned twice in the 20-page document. This is far behind what women imagined when the process began, and is much more watered-down regarding gender concerns than what was included in the Geneva Plan of Action at the Geneva Summit in 2003, in
part, due to the fact that members of the NGO Gender Strategies Working Group decided to mainstream their approaches and work through dispersed membership in other caucuses on specific issues , rather than through the Gender Caucus.
A ’whole of movement’ approach to gender and ICTs?
Communications expert David Souter exclaimed at the close of the Summit: ’’The big relief is that the debate around the information society no longer needs to be tied to the WSIS process’’ . This can also be related to the debate around gender and ICTs. The lack of gender-related language in the final WSIS documents is a set-back of sorts, but does not discount the fact that the Summit provided an important platform for women and ICT advocates to come together, network, exchange and build on each other’s knowledge and experiences. One of the grievances within the WSIS was that ICTs are not taken up and regularly engaged with as an important issue by wider women’s movements across the world.
The WSIS Gender Caucus dissolved at the end of the Summit in November 2005, and even their website has temporarily closed, due to a lack of funding and (ironically) communication breakdowns. But the legacy left behind by the Gender Caucus and the NGO Gender Strategies Working Group is that technology and communication intersect with all of the other issues that affect women’s rights in development on a daily basis, such as health, education, independence, and as one journalist describes, ’’the right to
create our own narratives about the world we live in’’.
What happens next for gender and ICTs will hence depend on how women organise in the future, and how we further analyse the intersectionality of ICTs with rights. An information society does, after all, have stealthy, hidden tentacles. It is linked to food security in Africa via the application of technology to genetically modify living organisms in America, and it is linked to a Chinese woman’s knowledge of her own rights to religious expression via the control of internet content in China. Bridging a digital divide and providing access to ICTs without focusing on
a rights based approach will not result in greater equality. Making ICTs a central part of feminist organising and campaigning in the future can result in significant gains.