Nancy Hafkin is a pioneer in the field of ICT for Development, working on issues of information technology in the developing world since 1980. Her work with the Association for Progressive Communication in the 1990s helped bring email connectivity to nations otherwise unconnected to the Internet. One of the most prestigious prizes in the ICT4D field is named in her honor and given each year by APC.
Hafkin has recently focused her work on issues of gender in ICT for Development, co-editing a book titled “Cinderella or Cyberella: Empowering Women in the Knowledge Society”. Speaking over lunch today at Berkman, she acknowledges, “it’s a bit hokey, the title,” but explains that there’s a real point to it: “Cinderella works in the basement of the knowledge society – if she works at all – and waits for her Prince to decide the benefits she’ll receive.” Hafkin wants a future of Cyberellas, empowered women who have the ability to devise new uses for information technology, find and create information and act as designers, not just users.
Historically, scholars of ICT haven’t paid much attention to gender barriers in the dissemination of technology. Hafkin believes this is, in part, because there’s an (incorrect) assumption that technology is gender neutral – give people access to technology and it will spread equally to men and women. This doesn’t appear to be the case, from the small bit of data available.
In 2003, for the first time, ITU started breaking down some statistics on Internet penetration by gender – prior to that, the only time gender came into ITU statistics was in terms of employment in telecommunication (i.e., how many women are telephone operators in Dubai…) The data so far is pretty incomplete – it exists for only 39 countries, only one of which is in sub-Saharan Africa and includes no Arab League nations. But it so far shows no correlation between internet penetration and gender equity in Internet use. In other words, in the US and Canada, there’s widespread internet use and basically equal use between men and women. But in many other nations – including the UK, France and the Netherlands – there’s high levels of Internet use, but strong disparities between men and women in net use. Italy has as large a gap between male and female Internet use as does Kyrgystan, which has a much lower level of net adoption.
This disparity, Nancy argues, demonstrates that technology is not, neccesarily, gender neutral – if it were, we’d see gender equity in all high-net use countries. But access to technology isn’t gender neutral – there’s a complex set of factors that make it less likely that women will get access to technology. In most developing nations, access to the Internet is from public centers, not from the home. In some nations, cybercafes end up being little more than digital pornography shops. (I’ve seen this in countries with as low connectivity as Rwanda, where one popular cybercafe mounts monitors flush with the surface of tables, so that users surfing pornography can have more privacy…) Because of the poor reputation of cybercafes, parents discourage girls from going to cybercafes.
The factors can be even more subtle. Nancy tells the story of one school where seats in a computer lab were given to the students who arrived first. The boys ran from the classroom to get seats, but the girls – who’d been trained to be polite and ladylike – walked and didn’t get a single seat. She points us towards a video produced by WOUGNET (Women of Uganda Net) which documents some of these subtle factors.
There’s some discouraging research in Zambia and also in Francophone West Africa that suggests that the spread of information technology can be connected to a rise in domestic violence. Some men are threatened by women gaining access to mobile phones and net connections, asking whether women are accessing these technologies to meet other men. But she strongly believes that access to information technology for women is key in realizing Amartya Sen’s vision of “development as freedom”, an increase in economic circumstances that open more choices in the lives of poor people.
Because there’s so little information on gender and ICT, Hafkin is seeking funding to do a set of country studies. I ended up suggesting the Philippines, where some middle-class women are finding themselves using cutting edge videoconferencing technology to stay in touch with family members who live and work abroad. Hafkin observed that the Philippines has a very high level of gender equity in Internet usage – it would be interesting to see if there was a correlation between the two.
Rebecca asks a good question based on an example Hafkin gave of a Ugandan grandmother who became a cyberadvocate in her village, travelling with a solar-powered laptop to show a Luganda-language literacy CD-ROM – Rebecca wonders whether there have been any programs designed to fiscally empower grandmothers. To a certain extent, Grameen Phone/Village Phone works on this model, and Hafkin notes that many Internet kiosks in India are women-run and owned.