Information Communication Technologies for women’s equality: Access and ‘Empowerment’ issues - an NGO perspective
Sarita Ranchod, Women'sNet Project Manager
WomenAction 2000 - Live at CSW


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When we met at Global Knowledge ’97, the reality of a world where gaps between north and south, rich and poor, urban and rural, and men and women were increasing - and the potential of the information age to exacerbate this reality were flagged.

Three years later, we come together again - this time we meet in the south, and many would argue not much has changed - the gaps between rich and poor, north and south, urban and rural continue to widen - and the information revolution is to a large extent effectively perpetuating these gaps.

How do we - some of us as feminists, others committed to pro-poor development working in the ICT sector - continue to work in a sector which exacerbates inequality? Are we fooling ourselves when we argue that we are contributing to positive social change - to a world in which women and men may one day have equality of access to resources, opportunities and dignity?

I'd like to share with you a few experiences based on initiatives I am familiar with. They in no way represent a definitive experience of women's activism on the Net, but I hope they open a window into the world of women using ICTs to change their world.

Women mobilising on the Net

As you are all no doubt aware, the UN Commission on the Status of Women is currently meeting in New York City to prepare for the Beijing +5 conference in June this year.

In 1999 the Association for Progressive Communications brought together 15 women from across Africa to start talking about how to maximise African women’s input into the Beijing +5 deliberations. All of these women were activists in women’s organisations and none of them was an ICT expert.

The women decided to create a website to act as an online repository of information and resources pertaining to the Beijing+5 process, and to create a list serve on which African women could share and exchange information, experiences and strategies. These women who previously did not have technical ICT skills conceptualised the initial design and content of the site. The women activists were trained in web development thus opening up the potential for them to go back to their organisations and act as change agents for ICT usage. This is initiative is known as FLAMME – Feminists Living in Africa Moving Electronically.

This online activism implemented by ENDA in Senegal and Women’sNet in South Africa is ensuring co-ordinated local and regional activity of African women activists which will feed into the global Beijing +5 process.

One of the outcomes of the on-line discussions has been the realisation of a need for research into African women’s usage of ICTs and the effectiveness of that usage. This research is currently ongoing and will be released in time for the Beijing +5 meeting. Contributions from African women participants at this conference are most welcome.

Subsequently a global initiative called Womenaction was launched, in partnership with the APC, the International Women’s Tribune Centre and others, - and currently every geographic region in the world has a similar initiative.

From women acting locally and regionally all over the world, and impacting globally, I wish to share with you our personal experience of working with women and ICTs in South Africa.

The Women'sNet experience:

My world is characterised by inequality - inequality which perpetuates itself in abuse, in poverty and inadequate access to opportunity and resources among others.

It is a well-known reality that in South Africa - inequalities are not only divided by rich and poor, men and women, but issues of race are all important too.

African women are in particular over-represented amongst the country's 53% of people living in poverty. Of South Africa’s IT users, 17% are women. While I don’t have statistics on the make-up of that 17% of women, given other socio-economic indicators, it would be fair to extrapolate that very few of these women are black or poor.

Within this reality, where white men have the largest slice of the pie, Women’sNet (an initiative of SANGONeT and the Commission on Gender Equality) is creating a women’s space and voice in cyberspace. Through extensive training and information development initiatives, we are working with historically disadvantaged women and their organisations to harness ICTs to work as a tool for women’s advancement.

You may wonder how on earth ICTs can begin to change the reality of the majority of South African women who lack access to the most basic services that some of us may take for granted, and where rape and women’s abuse is endemic? At Women’sNet we believe in mobilising women around the issues that are important to them. We do not mobilise around the importance of accessing the latest technology, but rather how we can work together to create a better life for all South African women.

This approach of mobilising around issues and NOT technology has proven effective in our work with women and women’s organisations because starting on familiar ground helps to decrease fears of technology.

In our commitment to producing and making accessible information relevant to the majority of South African women, we have embarked on a number of innovations.

Women and Human Rights site

Our recently launched women and human rights site for the first time makes available context-specific human rights information relevant to women on the Net. Information on how to go about accessing social grants such as the single parent grant, the disability grant, what your rights are in a violent domestic situation, what to do if you have been raped, where and how to access anti-retro-viral drugs such as AZT in the case of rape - this is the kind of information this site makes available to women.

The information which we have developed on the site was developed in partnership with a range of women’s and human rights organisations committed to making this information available to the women they work with in the most appropriate format for their particular context. Downloading information and reproducing it in local languages is one option. Making this information available to counsellors at advice centres is another approach. And then, there is radio.

Community Radio

80% of South Africans listen to radio. More South Africans own radio’s than own mattresses.

The Apartheid State, similar to other repressive regimes throughout the world taught us the power of radio through their very effective disinformation campaigns. We are now using those lessons and using radio as a tool for women’s development.

Women’sNet is currently completing an innovative pilot project which brought together community radio stations and women’s organisations. The women’s organisations and community radio stations together explored how to improve radio content to be more relevant and appropriate to their local context.

Women’s organisations were skilled with the tools to better access media to disseminate gender-sensitive content, while community radio stations were trained in how to produce gender sensitive content and programmes. Both groups were trained in how to use the Internet as a tool for producing and sharing programmes.

This radio exchange contains radio-ready programmes produced by radio stations and women’s organisations which they are able to share and download on the Internet.

We learnt that using the Internet to share gendered radio content is a cheap and effective way to communicate between disparate groups. Using community radio was a strategic choice in that community radio stations reach ordinary women and men - girl and boy children, abused and abuser, home worker and office worker, farm worker and farmer.

Working through the medium or interface of radio means we work through a non-threatening form of technology, we are able to communicate in local languages, and programmes can be adapted as appropriate for local contexts.

In South Africa, like many other developing countries, there are very few barriers to radio. It is free to the user, you don’t need electricity, a telephone line, or literacy to access it – radio is a great equaliser.

We also experienced challenges to using radio - it remains a one-way medium. Many radio stations do not have e-mail access, let alone Internet access, and the speed of connections for uploading and downloading audio files is a slow process. These are challenges we hope to engage with further in future endeavours with community radio stations.

Women’sNet is not the only initiative bridging ‘traditional’ and ‘new’ technologies - the AMARC ( affiliated Latin American women’s group FIRE have been innovating along similar lines for a while now.


ICT skill and capacity continues to be concentrated in the countries where wealth and power lie. The initiatives I have outlined represent a drop in the ocean when one considers the bigger picture. I hope these little initiatives attempting to include those who have been excluded at every step of many failed development processes will point the way towards a gender equitable, socially just and ethical usage of ICTs. Creating a world in which all people - men and women, rich and poor - have equal access to opportunities, resources and dignity can no longer be the rhetoric of development slogans. Winning this battle is all of our moral imperative.

SLIDES 3 and 4


Agenda‘Women of Moutse Capture the Airwaves’,

Agenda 38

K, Dixit, 1999Exiled to Cyberia,

G. Smith, 1998‘New Frontiers for Exclusion’, Agenda 38


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