Anne Webb, research coordinator at the Gender Research in Africa and the Middle East into ICTs for Empowerment (GRACE) Network, explains that ICTs 'can contribute to women’s empowerment and more equitable development and change when the contextual economic and social power relations are recognised, and when these relations are made more equal'.
You are one of the editors and authors of the book, African Women and ICTs: Investigating Technology, Gender and Empowerment. Can you summarize the most important conclusions?
One important conclusion is that the use of ICTs can contribute to women’s equality and empowerment, but for this to happen we need to critically examine, take into account and change a range of commonly held assumptions and contextual factors. How ICT is integrated is influenced by social, cultural and economic circumstances and relations, and therefore also by existing inequalities. We cannot expect these tools, and the changes they bring, to somehow undo long-standing relations of gender inequality, even when equal availability is ensured, unless there are conscious and effective efforts made to remove or change the sources of that gender inequality.
What are the conditions in rural Africa in which women access ICTs?
Some GRACE researchers have focused on how rural women can benefit from ICTs. For example, a researcher called Saneya Neshawy looked at what it takes for women landowners in Ismaïlia, Egypt, to increase their own say in the management of their land. Kazanka Comfort and John Dada’s research team explored how rural women in northern Nigeria use cell phones to meet their communication needs. It appears from the research that significant constraints for women are the values and systems normalized by gender inequality and accepted by men in women’s lives, and often accepted, or at least adhered to, by the women themselves as well. For instance, gender inequality can result in illiteracy being disproportionately a women’s issue, and this is a factor in rural women’s use of ICT. Text-based ICTs at rural telecentres in Mozambique remained less relevant than community radio and mobile phones for women facing heavy daily workloads required for family survival, according to Gertrudes Macueve, Judite Mandlate and their research team. Economic constraints also play a significant role in limiting access to the potential benefits of ICT. For example, in situations such as northern Nigeria, where up to 70% of the rural poor are women, this issue affects how women access and use ICT.
Further exacerbating the situation is the reliance on private and multinational ICT companies seeking to maximize profits. With limited or no public access to phone services, for instance, cellular costs can be a financially punishing option that heightens problems arising from inequalities. Adherence to current free market thinking predominates over a focus on the potential of ICT advances to enhance community resiliency, individual capabilities and sustainable development.
ICT can contribute to women’s empowerment and more equitable development and change when the contextual economic and social power relations are recognised, and when these relations are made more equal. Thus, from my perspective ICTs contributing to development and change is both context specific and dependent upon broader socio-economic relations and values.
Is it not time now to focus in research on the circumstances in which women can benefit from ICT?
GRACE researchers have repeatedly found that availability is assumed to mean access, but often access is more complex than mere availability. Even when ICT is made available, women’s social roles, cultural norms and economic position may limit the time and place, and amount of use they can claim, even when it is highly apparent to women how they can benefit from ICTs. My sense is that a limitation of the focus on women’s exclusion is a decontextualised emphasis on ‘access’ and ‘use’, decontextualised in the sense of not fully recognising the issue and complexities of inequality.
In our forthcoming book, the researchers write about their understanding of what works, as shown by their research: what it takes for women to benefit from integrating ICT into their visions for themselves, their families and their communities. As indicated by the title, Changing Selves, Changing Societies, what it takes is not a matter of specific products or identifying special needs. It is more about identifying barriers, constraints and supports within our societies, communities and ourselves, and finding solutions that take these layers of our realities into account.
You have mentioned some of the limitations of ICT interventions. Do you know also success stories?
The example I’m thinking of brings out the multiple layers involved in questions of access, relevance and usefulness of ICT in contributing to change. A CD-ROM entitled ‘Rural women of Africa: Ideas for earning money’ was developed and made available at scheduled times along with a facilitator at three telecentres in rural and peri-urban areas of Uganda. The programme was in the local language, and the content was determined through prior discussion with rural women about what would be relevant and useful. The GRACE researchers explored what it was that facilitated or curtailed the use of the information on this CD-ROM after three years of use.
The CD-ROM offered new ideas and information that the women could use to improve their subsistence farming and small businesses. Subsequently, according to Susan Bakesha and her co-researchers, “most women moved away from personal or family subsistence to marketing their goods. They developed into confident citizens and one, who was widowed, won an elected political position within her community”. However, although the information accessed was useful, most married women found they could not reinvest the majority of their profits in the business due to family needs. In some cases, husbands abandoned their family responsibilities when they saw their wives earning an income. For those who were widowed, they attained new perspectives on their capacity to be independent, improve their businesses and take care of their families. Furthermore, gathering at the telecentres to use the CD-ROM and receive training gave rise to women forming supportive informal and formal groups. Thus, women benefited both to different degrees, and in unexpected ways, depending on their circumstances and mediated by their sense of agency and visions for themselves, their families and community.
What approach is needed on the ground in rural areas in local ICT initiatives and projects to facilitate ICTs contributing to women’s development?
What we found particularly effective in understanding if and how ICTs can contribute to women improving their lives was centring the research inquiries around the women research participants and their visions for themselves and aspects of their societies, while bringing into focus what they expected from ICT use, what their actual experiences with ICT were, and how the use of ICT could contribute to the fulfilment of these visions. This involves the women becoming self-conscious of their own intentions and the barriers they experience within themselves and within their societies, while also increasingly recognizing their own capabilities and agency. At the same time, we took into account that women would have ‘adapted’ what they think of as realties and possibilities to the norms and images of their specific contexts.
Perhaps because of the many layers of reflection and analysis involved, this approach used by GRACE brought to the fore what is needed and what works in terms of ICTs contributing to women enhancing their capacities and taking their place in the process of building more sustainable communities. The potential of ICTs to contribute to human-centred, equitable and sustainable development becomes apparent through its intentional application to reducing current socio-economic, cultural and political inequalities.
Anne Webb is research coordinator at the Gender Research in Africa and the Middle East into ICTs for Empowerment ( GRACE) Network and co-editor and one of the authors of the book African Women and ICTs: Investigating Technology, Gender and Empowerment (ZED Books, 2009)
The project that produced African Women and ICTs, Gender Research in Africa and the Middle East into ICTs for Empowerment, is managed by The GRACE Project Voluntary Association and funded by the International Development Research Centre www.idrc.ca. For further information, see www.GRACE-Network.net