Over the past several years, ENAWA (European North American Women’s Action), with co-operation from women groups in Eastern Europe, developed a training program to use ICT’s (Information Communication Technologies) as a strategic tool for activism. Based on this training experience it became obvious that there was a continued need for ICT trainings and resources for women in the region. Slowly the idea of and the initiative for an ICT center for women developed into actuality, WiTT – Women’s Information Technology Transfer.
The development of an Internet women’s initiative is fuelled by local needs, imagination and ingenuity. So far, ENAWA has given ICT training to women from the Balkans and is currently expanding. This new initiative of an ICT center will offer ICT and gender training program a sustainable base, that is, a resource where women can be trained in ICT skills. Every year, 35-40 women activists will learn and share skills around different ICT themes, such as group-shared web publishing, open source technologies, database management, and ICT policy, etc. The themes will change each year, reflecting new needs or critical emerging issues.
The project looks realistically at women’s needs, desires, work, life, and activism to achieve a culturally relevant and participatory approach for the development of the first women’s ICT center and resource pool in the region. This has been achieved via phone conversations, SMS messages, e-mail communication, on-line reading, fax, face-to-face discussion, and the completion of an in-depth questionnaire translated into Russian, Albanian, Croatian, and Macedonian. The questionnaire was distributed to women’s organizations throughout Eastern Europe and CIS countries (Commonwealth of Independent States). Approximately 80 replies came from Albania, Armenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Georgia, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia-Montenegro, Slovakia, and Uzbekistan.
From communication and results from the questionnaire, decisions have been made in inclusive and transparent manner. From the outcome of the questionnaire and dialogues about logistics, women determined the structure of the center, which will be a virtual one with several regional focal points. Focal points are people who represent this project in their country while cooperating online with others involved with the project. They are the bridge between the main coordinating body and online work. The focal points at some point will receive training in ICT courses, mentoring, and methodological trainings. In addition, the team of selected focal points from the region will work as ICT trainers. In other words, the initiative will be a network of women trainers that will communicate via the Internet (e-mail and web page, for example) from the respective country. We recognize the need to have a physical presence as well, hence the local focal points, but creating a physical head office is not likely at this time. We will reassess this structure if a physical center becomes logistically possible.
The access to computers is relatively new to the region and is increasingly becoming mandatory for any work. Whether it be on-line conference registration, downloading PDF documents, or creating e-petitions for example, women’s organizations need to have ICT skills in order to function normally.
The regional ICT initiatives that the women are developing obviously have many challenges. Although some regions may have poor telecommunications infrastructure, this is not the biggest obstacle. Women in Eastern Europe and the CIS, when speaking of lack of access, also mean lack of awareness of the potential of ICT use, lack of access to Internet training, poverty, and cultural barriers. As one woman from Serbia-Montenegro explained, “I did not have the money to pay for them [ICT courses], so I learned from the children.” Most women look for any opportunity to learn new skills, and work out a complex system of self-education. This initiative looks into the needs of women and the social-cultural-political context to provide skills, resources, general communication skills and education in ICT.
Poverty greatly reduces access to ICT skills, as does communication infrastructure. Overcoming poverty and the other remaining challenges specific to women is the task of may women’s organizations in the region. What most Eastern European and CIS countries have to some degree in common is an economy and society in transition. Therefore, for example, elderly women are first to lose jobs, but rarely have the ICT experience needed to find another job.
Most, if not all the women’s groups are involved with work to address poverty or the effects of poverty, gender discrimination and instability. These women’s organizations request ICT skills to effectively address the issues they work with in their activism; this is vital both for the countries themselves and for peace and justice in the region.
Social and cultural aspects also influence how women are able to use the Internet effectively and appropriately. Are women discriminated against with new technologies? Have women internalised discriminatory values, subconsciously or consciously, only to reinforce stereotypes, as a form of self-censorship? Do countries from Eastern Europe and CIS countries have a culture of sharing information? The culture of communication is deep rooted in society’s political-social, and even religious, structures. From the questionnaire developed to research into the need of women in relation to ICTs, only 22% of women say they actually have a culture of communication. Other indirect barriers can include the way mass media portrays women in relation to ICTs. From the survey, only 12% think that mass media portrays women in an affirmative and emancipated way. The first on the list of ways women are portrayed is the concept of “children-kitchen-church” (27%), followed by portrayals in a pornographic or offensive manner (25%), to no portrayal at all (24%).
From the research, we see that women do have access to a computer and Internet at work, but on average share it between several women. At home, women also share the computer with several other family members.
“... since most of them [women] only have access to a computer at work, which means that they can do something for themselves only when the boss is not looking. If they do have a computer at home, the father and the children always get to go first, and spending time at the computer always comes after cooking and ironing. If they are with an NGO, they share the same computer with five to 10 other women. I think that a place where a woman could come and spend time on the computer without interruptions is necessary, and that this is the only way she can really learn something.”
“I attended the ENAWA training in Zagreb and I liked it very much. I would like to learn more. I have been trying to learn on my own at home and have asked friends ... There is no training available in Istria, neither free nor otherwise, to say nothing about training for women :-)) I have asked about courses and learned that only courses for operators were available (whatever that may mean), and their programs include "Word, Excel, and some Internet." Croatia
This ICT virtual center addresses these issues by providing culturally relevant and gender sensitive ICT training to women in Eastern Europe and CIS countries. Despite certain obstacles that this project can not address, such as countries lack of telecommunications infrastructure, the center will aim to provide what 97% of women feel is missing and needed: ICT training for women.
Some of the comments on the necessity of ICT training for women include:
“We support the creation of ICT center for women. At first it will provide information passing to each other in developing countries as well as a connection with women’s organizations for sharing experiences, will create new opportunities in developing countries for women. They will get more skills on ICT.” Armenia
“I would like to start as soon as possible and be supported by all women because it is very useful.“ Kosovo
“All professional obligations are necessarily connected with computer using and Internet, the modern way of work and communications cannot be imagined without continuous following and use of new ways in computing and information and communication technology.“ Macedonia
“There is a [Russian] proverb: when we exchange apples, both of us have one apple. When we have exchanged ideas, we each have two ideas. If we can adjust such exchange ... we can we can avoid set of mistakes, we can carry out that female solidarity which becomes a force in our countries.” Russia
The following preferences were chosen by most women who filled out the questionnaire that had been established for developing an ICT center.
- To enable all women and girls to use ICTs comfortably and knowledgeably
- Strengthen women’s networking
- To train women in the effective and appropriate use of ICTs to advance and enhance their work within the women’s movement
- To encourage women to purse careers in ICTs
- To strengthen civil society, the women’s movement, women’s originations, and those that work towards gender equality, through the use of ICTs
- To increase the capacity of women’s organizations
- Increasing women’s access to ICT opportunities and provide network opportunities
- Increase the capacity of ICT skills for women & girls
- To raise awareness on the benefits of ICTs
The initiative to focus on
- Providing practical ICT skills
- A combination of lectures, discussions, exercises and practical work
- Teaching about ICT tools for activism, advocacy, and/or networking
- Alternative programs & applications