Gender Equity In ICTs For Development

Gender Equity In ICTs For Development

November 30, 2005 NEWS 0

Source: International Development Research Centre

PAN integrates a gender perspective into many of its projects, guided by a view of sustainable and equitable development in which women participate fully and women and men are represented equally. Recognizing the difference between projects that integrate an element of gender and social analysis to create gender-positive research outcomes and those that place gender equality and women’s empowerment (social, economic, or political) at the centre of the research problem, PAN is working toward building a solid base of research findings in the area of ICTs for development and gender issues.

The inequities facing the general Asian population with regard to accessing ICTs are reproduced and accentuated when we look at Asian women as a group. More specifically, rural women have less access than urban women, women find no content available on the Internet in their own languages, and, given the fact that women’s illiteracy tends to be higher than men’s, women are less able to understand available content. Education and income levels are lowest among poorer women, which means these women have fewer opportunities to develop skills to use computers, e-mail, and the Internet. Moreover, relatively few women have the financial resources to rent time at an Internet kiosk, much less acquire equipment of their own.

For these reasons, PAN’s applied research approach aims to encourage investigation that addresses questions of equitable access, including how to overcome the gender divide. Over the years, PAN has supported research examining such issues as women’s participation in ICT-related fields, the opportunity costs for women to use ICTs, how ICTs fit with women’s dual responsibilities for work and family, and what impact distance education has on learning opportunities for women. In addition to addressing the gender divide within specific projects, PAN has also monitored its portfolio of projects in Asia to ensure there is gender balance in the composition of research teams.

ICT tools to reach grassroots women in Asia and the Pacific

The advent of ICTs has given women the opportunity to share information and interact to counter gender discrimination and improve the lot of women and girls throughout Asia. But in many respects, this potential remains theoretical. In terms of actual participation, women’s use of, and access to, ICTs remains low in Asia. There are barriers to access owing to location (rural or urban), level of IT skills, gender stereotyping, and income levels, among others.

In 2000, PAN supported Isis International Manila through an R&D grant to examine how women’s organizations use ICTs in Asia. The study, carried out jointly with the Asian Women’s Resource Exchange and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, surveyed some 76 women’s organizations. The researchers found that although many organizations had acquired ICTs, they were not being deployed to their full potential. Generally speaking, ICTs were not being used for more strategic functions such as database management, desktop publishing, and website development. According to the study results, “the issues of infrastructure availability, costs and know-how, and the ubiquitous question of women’s multiple burdens suggest the need for policy changes for women to fully benefit from today’s information and communication technologies.”

PAN recently awarded Isis International funding for a project to carry out further research to determine the most effective ICT tools used by NGOs to reach women at the grassroots level in five countries of the Asia-Pacific (Fiji, India, Papua-New Guinea, the Philippines, and Thailand). This research will explore the validity of the notion that access to ICTs and their effective use will lead to women’s empowerment and development.

Among the project components is a survey of the economic, social, and political environment of the countries under study, and their populations, geographies, and ICT infrastructure and access. In addition to new ICTs, study informants will be questioned on the importance of older communication and information tools such as publications, audiovisual media, theatre and performing arts, telecommunications, and indigenous oral traditions. Some 20 organizations from each of the five countries will provide information on the ICT tools they use, their views on development processes and networking, the communication needs of their members, and issues of women’s empowerment and effective tools of communication. The organizations will share their experiences about whether the infusion of new ICTs has effectively addressed fundamental problems in education, health, human rights, and poverty.

Homeworkers and ICTs in Southeast Asia

Women on the losing side of the digital divide are those who are unemployed, physically disabled, chronically ill, spouses or widows of AIDS victims, or those who must care for disabled or ill family members. Because these women are nearly always housebound, access to employment and business opportunities is limited. They could achieve economic sustainability if they had knowledge of market opportunities and were able to access these markets to sell their products and services.

Research has shown that women homeworkers have the least access to ICTs and little control over decisions that affect their lives, both within the public sphere and at home. As a result, inequalities in opportunities and participation arise both between men and women, and among women – between the haves and have-nots – with respect to ICTs.

eHomemakers is a Malaysian organization that encourages homemakers, especially the disadvantaged, to generate income through home-based activities. In 2003, PAN provided eHomemakers with an R&D grant to conduct research on what combination of ICTs would be best suited to the needs of homeworkers. It allowed eHomemakers to explore the possibility of helping women use ICTs and, in the process, strengthen their individual skills, explore the option of teleworking, improve their chances of operating home businesses, and become socially empowered.

A year later, PAN supported eHomemakers in a larger research project to document the situation of homeworkers and contribute to policy development for this largely overlooked sector. The project includes a participatory study to identify issues surrounding home-based work. The information collected will contribute to a knowledge portfolio on homeworkers that will create opportunities for home-based communities to harness ICTs for their benefit. The study will be carried out in the urban areas of Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Interviewees will be drawn from among agencies promoting women’s issues, family and community development, ICTs, entrepreneurship, and human resource development, as well as from among independent contractors and “homepreneurs.” The research is intended to examine gender-specific issues faced by women homeworkers in deploying ICTs for work within the public sphere and in their homes. It will also identify ways in which women homeworkers can use ICTs to improve production capability and quality and reach and create new markets. A key objective will be to bring the research results to policymakers in the three countries.

In the process of scaling up from the small R&D grant to the larger research project, a new and richer understanding of the ICTs and homemakers research problem has emerged. It became clear that this area of research deals with gender relations at different levels (intra-household, community, policy). Therefore, a fuller understanding of women’s use of ICTs requires gender analysis in both the public and the private spheres.

One early result of this project is a trilingual website (”) that provides information and resources to improve the efficiency of home-based work, embark on entrepreneurship, share knowledge, and ask questions of experts about working from home or starting an Internet business.

ICTs for rural development in Northern Pakistan

Pakistan’s northern areas contain some of the world’s highest mountain ranges, including the Karakoram and the western Himalayas, the Pamir mountains in the north, and the Hindu Kush lying to the west. Since the opening of the Karakoram Highway in the late 1980s the region is better served, but the population remains isolated from economic opportunities and political activities in the rest of the country. Understandably, this dramatic and forbidding glacier-ridden territory poses many difficulties for communication, including installing the infrastructure for ICTs.

In the late 1990s, PAN supported the Commission on Science and Technology for Sustainable Development in the South (COMSATS) to establish an ISP facility in Gilgit, Pakistan. This facility allowed many organizations and enterprises to connect to the Internet and allowed many students to get training in computer skills.

The million residents of Gilgit, Hunza, and Baltistan survive through subsistence agriculture, even though only about a fifth of the land is suitable for cultivation. For many of these people, quality health care, agricultural information, and formal education are simply unavailable. Women face further disadvantages owing to a strict gender hierarchy, low literacy rates, and limited participation in the public sphere.

In 2004, PAN support was renewed to COMSATS for a collaborative project, ICTs for Rural Development in Mountainous and Remote Areas of Northern Pakistan. Along with COMSATS, the Karakoram Area Development Organization (KADO), the Baltistan Health and Education Fund, and the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme are project partners.

A fully functional telehealth centre was established in Skardu, allowing for consultations with medical specialists in Islamabad. In a study done from April through June 2005, 153 patients were served – 51 men and 102 women. The figures reveal almost twice as many female patients as males. The fact that the general physicians at the telehealth centre in Skardu and the coordinating doctor at the resource centre in Islamabad are all women significantly boosted the confidence of both women doctors and patients in telehealth consultancies.

According to Javed Iqbal Barcha, chief executive officer for KADO, girls and women in the region’s villages depend on male family members and relatives for information about educational institutions and scholarships. “In most cases they do not get timely and adequate information and support and many talented girls do not benefit from such opportunities. As a result of the ICT4D project funded by IDRC, both men’s and women’s access to useful information and knowledge on the Internet is increasing every day. The project is making focused efforts toward capacity building and improving the access of women even in remote villages by establishing village resource centres and capacity building efforts,” says Barcha.

A very practical benefit noted by Barcha is that girls now have access to their school results immediately through the Internet. “In the past they would have to travel to Islamabad and back (34 hours each way) or wait for the ordinary post, which takes up to a month, to get their result cards. Now, with Internet access, girls search for educational opportunities – even in universities in the United States.”