In Search of “E-quality” in Knowledge-based Economies

High Level Segment of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)

7 July 2000, New York, USA

Esteemed delegates, colleagues and friends,

I want to start my presentation by re-telling a story that appeared in the New York Times several months ago. It focused on a rural community of 2,000 inhabitants in Guyana. Until two years ago, there were no phones. Then, the women revived the ancient art of hand-weaving large hammocks. Guyana Telephone and Telegraph installed an innovative satellite system and gave the Weavers Society $12,000 worth of computer equipment and free internet access. The company paid to have a young member trained in Internet and create a website. And last year, the group sold 17 hammocks worldwide for approximately $1,000 each, generating new wealth and connectivity for the community.

The story goes on to tell how, when the male community leaders found out about this, they took leadership of the project. The internet specialist resigned. As one weaver commented, “We women do most of the work, and the men get rewarded.” The project, and the potential wealth and connectedness that it could create, was destroyed by gender dynamics.

Information and communication technologies have enormous potential to link remote communities to global markets, to make telemedicine and telework available to communities in need, to democratize decision-making, to support distance learning. But if the global community and national level policy-makers are not proactive about ensuring that the benefits of ICTs are equally available to and shaped by women and men, we will fail to reap the full potential of these powerful tools.

We are here today talking about knowledge societies. We need to use the knowledge we have acquired to take into account the implications of failing to include women and girls in major policy decisions and infrastructure development. Of failing to undertake gender analysis as we design regulatory frameworks. It took us too many years to recognize that micro-credit, education, and health – when provided to women – created unparalleled benefits for children, communities and countries. We have learned, over and over again, that the cost of exclusion is too high.

The digital divide threatens to increase inequities between rich and poor, between those with and without advanced education. But, in the absence of concrete strategies, we also face the danger of a digital divide between the sexes. Three issues have been mentioned repeatedly in the course of the dialogue over the past few days: connectivity, capability and content. Each of these issues has implications from the perspective of gender that we need to take into account.

  • We must ensure gender equitable strategies of connectivity or access, which means taking into account the time constraints that women face as the main providers of care and nurturing and the lower levels of literacy for women.
  • We must ensure that strategies to increase capability incorporate the priorities that women articulate for use of information and communication technologies. This involves ensuring that women and girls receive the training and preparation to become users and producers of technologies, and to understand and shape the regulatory frameworks and policies associated with ICTs. Capacity-building strategies need to prioritize use of ICTs for women’s empowerment and rights.
  • Finally, strategies related to content must address concerns about the predominance of information flows from North to South, primarily in English, and the danger that this valuable communications tool could be limited to serving as a vehicle for entertainment and commerce.

Keeping in mind the commitments that agency heads and governments have made over the past two days for partnerships and leadership to ensure equitable development of ICTs, I have three short points to make today.

First, UNIFEM supports the numerous recommendations related to ICTs and gender equality made by the high level panel of experts: eradicate factors that restrict equal access to ICTs by women and men; encourage gender-equal recruitment and retention of women and men in ICT companies; build capacity to produce local and appropriate content; and support women’s organizations so that they can more effectively participate in transformations made possible by ICTs. We also support many of the general recommendations – such as the establishment of a UN ICT task force and a fund. But we want to stipulate how critical it is that gender equality advocates are present in the decision-making about these mechanisms and that gender is mainstreamed into their policies and programmes.

Second, UNIFEM’s work and perspectives on ICTs emerge from a consultative process with NGOs, governments and private sector partners that has been taking place over the past year. Our calls for gender equality in ICT policies and programmes are echoed by the recommendations that emerged from the Global Knowledge II conference in Malaysia in March, the Global Dialogues convened by the Society for International Development in Hannover just last week, by the Beijing Platform for Action and by networks of women’s alternative media organizations. At these venues, concrete recommendations have emerged calling for: gender analysis of telecommunications policies in every country; data disaggregated by sex, as well as qualitative assessments, about use of ICTs; placement of women on boards of directors and in the leadership of information technology companies and in ministries of telecommunications.

UNIFEM, our partners and networks are ready to offer more than just calls for gender equality. We are ready to offer guidance, expertise and insights that will ensure a policy and regulatory framework – as well as a dynamic community of users – that reap the benefits of diverse perspectives and needs. We have countless examples of the efforts and learning of women and men who are working for an inclusive, socially responsible approach to ICTs for development. The work of WomenAction 2000, of the Association for Progressive Communication, of the African Information Society Gender Working Group are examples of global and regional efforts to provide critical analysis, technological literacy and policy advice from a gender perspective. We have learned from the experience of South Africa and Uganda, countries that have taken positive actions to ensure that women participate in the knowledge economy. It is our hope that the United Nations will bring this collective expertise to bear on future work.

As many of you know, it is central to UNIFEM’s mandate to be an innovative and catalytic women’s fund of the United Nations system. UNIFEM has harnessed the power of ICTs to put the pandemic of violence against women on the global agenda and to stimulate coordinated action. We used videoconferencing, electronic working groups, and radio campaigns to bring the UN system together with governments and civil society to create concerted action. Our initial activities have led to strengthened strategies to end gender-based violence within UNICEF, UNDP and countless other UN organizations and governments.

With your support and endorsement, we can use our catalytic mandate to forge coalitions and concerted action on ICTs for development. As a first step, earlier this year, we initiated a Memorandum of Understanding with ITU, and having brought UNDP into it, just yesterday signed the document. We note with enthusiasm UNDP’s establishment of a trust fund to support ‘e-readiness’ at the country level; if the trust fund is also committed to “e-quality”, it will call upon UNIFEM’s expertise, field networks and partners to ensure that its benefits and policies apply equally to women and men.

My final point is that proposals to equitably spread the benefits of ICTs need to be bold and daring. The concrete proposals from this meeting have included some forward looking recommendations: the establishment of a UN task force, the launching of 30,000 technical volunteers, and the deployment of more than a billion dollars to increase connectivity and participation in the new information age. In these and other follow-up actions, it is essential that 100% of initiatives reflect a commitment to gender mainstreaming. Equally important, we should consider allocating up to 50% of funds and programme activities specifically to women and girls until the digital divide between the sexes disappears. We have noted the low participation rates of women in the expert group that was convened for this meeting, and in the panels that have taken place over the past two days, and stand ready to assist so that future deliberations incorporate the perspectives and experiences of women and girls.

The enormous potential of ICTs requires that women’s voices must be heard along with the other stakeholders of globalization. We have seen the serious ramifications of leaving women out of policy and programme formulation.We urge you to make use of this experience and bring women in.

ICTs are the train tracks upon which globalization is moving, often at breakneck speed. We have the opportunity, now, to create an environment in which ICTs also act as a vehicle to support equality and connections between countries, ethnic groups, and men and women. UNIFEM offers its full support and cooperation in this regard.