Author : Dr Michele Ruiters (DBSA, Research Unit)
Post-conflict societies experience a breakdown in institutions and relations between citizens. Most conflicts in Africa have occurred due to identity politics or politicized ethnicities; resource conflicts; and struggles for political power and representation in formal institutions. Whatever the reason for the outbreak of the conflict, social and political conflicts disadvantage women and children the most. Institutions fail, social networks are torn and governments struggle to disseminate information about services and programmes aimed at repairing the society and the relationships therein. All communication and management of information becomes problematic. In periods characterized as post-conflict, a number of women’s groups have taken the initiative to address issues of knowledge management to ensure that women receive the necessary information they require to conduct their everyday lives, especially in relation to their interaction with the government and social welfare services. Women’s organizations have employed a range of methods to inform women of services and to empower women to work within their communities in effective ways that support social, political and economic initiatives. This paper will firstly provide a theoretical foundation on the politics of knowledge production and management. It also conducts internet research on three women’s organizations in three post-conflict countries that are at various stages of reconstruction, namely, Zimbabwe, Uganda and Liberia. The paper finally will evaluate the ICT structures and networks that these women’s organizations have created, evaluate their levels of success and determine whether there is a distinct model that could be generalized across the region.
We the representatives of the world, assembled in Geneva from 10-12 December 2003 for the first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society, declare our common desire and commitment to build a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society, where everyone can create, access, utilize and share information and knowledge, enabling individuals communities and peoples to achieve their full potential in promoting their sustainable development and improving their quality of life, premised on the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and respecting fully and upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.1
The dictum ‘knowledge is power’ proves to be very apt when knowledge and gender intersect. In reference to this paper, access to and interaction with knowledge creates power. Despite international instruments that protect women’s access to the formal economy, political sphere and other public spaces, often the majority of women find themselves excluded from knowledge production processes because they either work from home; are employed in the informal market as self-employed traders; or are employed in low level jobs in the formal economy. Also, women are being left behind in the race for digital information. The gendered digital divide shows that more women than men have little or no access to information on the internet, world-wide web or through other electronic means. As globalisation connects everyone, women especially are being left behind as the digital divide increases between countries and people who have access to new media and technologies. Consequently, access to knowledge and information becomes a political issue especially since it involves exclusion from the public sphere.
This paper examines the concept of knowledge management through a gendered lens and traces the processes of creating and managing knowledge for women’s empowerment across three case studies from Zimbabwe, Uganda and Liberia respectively and assesses knowledge management tools in relation to their broad objective of empowering women. Most women’s organisations in Africa work on empowering women in their societies to become more engaged in development, political decision-making processes and to become economically self-sufficient. Their mandate is to communicate information that would contribute towards changes in women’s lived experiences and in so doing, change social practices to allow women to participate as equals. Information management and dissemination are therefore key strategies employed by these organisations in their attempts to inform their constituencies and to improve women’s socio-economic status. In post-conflict situations the social fabric of the country has been torn and networks destroyed. Women’s organisations in these fragile contexts then have to fight against hyper-sexism resulting in increased political, economic and physical insecurity for women. Women are empowered through receiving information that informs their decisions and involvement with larger social, political and economic processes.
For decades, feminisms have argued for a particular standpoint grounded in women’s experiences; gender-defined roles cause women and men to view and experience the world differently. The concept ‘gender’ refers to both men and women, but for this discussion, this paper specifically looks at women’s experiences in relation to knowledge production and management. Knowledge production is affected by the concepts of race, class and nation; therefore, a woman’s position in terms of her race, her economic status and geographical location determines whether she has the ability to act as a political, social and economic being. Feminisms practiced by women of colour went further to argue that not all women are equal because of the racialised nature of society and the world economy2 and discourses that spoke about ‘Third World Women’ without their participation also maintain a power hierarchy through which those women are denied agency and re-colonised through knowledge production.3 It is therefore necessary to create spaces in which women can communicate their experiences and generate knowledge, manage that knowledge and pass it on as information to other communities generally and women specifically.
Public spaces are dominated by men and masculine voices who determine action and outcomes. The public space itself is complicated by the urban/rural divide that has a high incidence of poverty and a lack of resources. Historically women comprise the majority of the rural population because men migrated to cities for work, a trend that is evolving as an increasing number of women leave rural areas for potentially better lives in urban areas. However, their access to information and knowledge has not increased even if their location has changed. Political, social and economic marginalisation and the feminisation of poverty and labour maintain women in positions where they do not have the power to speak out, contribute to knowledge production or access information. The advent of new media has heeded the demand for an ‘[i]ncrease [in] the participation and access of women to expression and decision-making in and through the media and new technologies of communication’.4 Representatives at the World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva (2003) and Tunis (2005) affirmed their commitment to mainstreaming a gender equality perspective by means of ICTs.5 These initiatives acknowledge that women are not part of mainstream developments in the ICT field and focus on targeting women and other marginal groups for inclusion and development.
Location is important in many ways. The representer’s political location in relation to the subjects she studies is imbued with the politics of representation. The insider/outsider dichotomy presents a myriad of complications as knowledge producers grapple with how they represent their subjects and whether they can speak for the ‘other’. Gayatri Spivak asks ‘Can the subaltern speak’ and answers no because often they speak through others through what Leela Fernandes refers to as a ‘colonial process of “information gathering” from “informants”’.6 The strategies of representation and knowledge production of ‘the other’ are vitally important as it bounds information within particular discourses of subject/object, informer/informant and reproduces relations found within larger systems of power.
For feminists, knowledge production involves new discourses that ‘sensitize us to the interconnections between knowledge claims ... and power’.7 Knowledge is thus integrally connected to power. In a critique against postmodern feminisms, Philomina E. Okeke argues that ‘intent on defending subjugated voices, dominant voices do not seem conscious of the relations of power that position them as “gatekeepers”, defining the insider and outsider even as postmodernism appropriates the voices of the latter’.8 This raises the question about who can speak for whom and how because ‘how what is said gets heard depends on who says it, and who says it in turn affects the style and language in which it is stated, and will in turn affect its perceived significance’.9 In this regard, postmodern feminists argue that women should speak for themselves and that each woman’s experience can be aggregated into a shared experience that is used for advocacy and rights-based action. Consequently, knowledge about African women should therefore be produced by African women in collaboration with each other and in the interests of a movement that could bring about social change. However, feminist knowledge is also embedded in class debates about what constitutes knowledge and where and how that knowledge is disseminated. Okeke argues for feminist scholarship that ‘affirms, even as it contests, particular knowledge claims’.10 If this does not happen, women’s voices are then sublimated in a discourse about what is allowed into feminist scholarship rather than creating the space in which women can speak freely about their daily lives.11
It is generally assumed that if an individual has access to information, she is empowered to make informed decisions about her life. Political scientists refer to this as making a ‘rational choice’. However, women were not deemed ‘rational’ or ‘objective’ because due to them being ‘irrational’ and ‘emotional’ were not capable of making informed decisions. Women were thus kept out of the deliberations about society, the polity and the public sphere. Voice and representation continue to be mainly limited to men in power, be it in the family, society or government. Social norms and values maintain women as the ‘silent majority’ on whom laws and policies are enacted. Despite many international instruments that promote gender equality and access to the public sphere, to mention a few, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) provides international benchmarks for gender equality12; the Millennium Development Goals advocate for an intensified focus on increasing education levels of women and girls by 2015; and, the UN Resolution 1325 that has resulted in the inclusion of women in peacekeeping and peacebuilding initiatives in conflict-torn areas, women are still excluded.
On the continent, when the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (also known as the African Union’s Women’s Protocol) was ratified in November 2005, it committed signatories to protect and promote the rights of women in Africa. Each region on the continent has specific gender protocols, for example, the Southern African Development Community’s (SADC) Protocol on Gender and Development13 and the Economic Community of West African States’ (ECOWAS) Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance14. These provisions allow for programmes that target women’s development and also ensure that women are party to decision-making processes that influence the way they live their lives. In reality, despite all the instruments, women still continue to be excluded and, as a result, do not know about these milestone decisions that are taken at national and international levels because they do not have access to information or are not adequately informed.
Education has been targeted as an entry point for women’s development programmes because more women than men are un(der)educated. As Charlotte Bunch explains, reading and writing skills are vital to effect social and individual change:
First, [writing and reading] provide a means of conveying ideas and information that may not be readily available in the popular media. ... Second, reading and writing help develop an individual’s imagination and ability to think. ...Third, an individual’s access, through reading a variety of interpretations of reality, increases that person’s capacity to think for herself, to go against the norms of the culture, and to conceive of alternatives for society – all of which are fundamental to acting politically. Fourth, reading and writing aid each woman’s individual survival and success in the world, by increasing her ability to function in her chosen endeavours. And finally, the written world is still the cheapest and most accessible form of mass communication.15
Formal education is intricately linked with women’s empowerment as so many women are excluded from formal education programmes. In sub-Saharan Africa, the girl child and women are three-times more likely to be infected with HIV and AIDS than their male peers due to cultural and religious systems that prevent them from negotiating safer sex. Education and information have reduced the risk of infection by informing girls of their choices in intimate relationships; but, girls are still less likely than boys to finish formal schooling.16 Enrolment rates have increased since the adoption of the MDGs and National Action Plans that emphasise education as a tool for development, but in many cases, girls lag behind boys and, by implication, girls are most likely to be unemployed, silent and powerless in social and economic spheres.
It is widely assumed that knowledge gleaned through formal education would correlate with increased levels of agency among women. The 1988/9 World Bank Development Report regards knowledge as a necessary requirement for development to occur.17 As more women than men live in absolute poverty, especially in sub-Sahara Africa, more women need information and knowledge to be able to improve their socio-economic status in the region. By transferring information to women and closing the gendered knowledge gap, agencies and governments can involve more women in development work and in the public sphere and thereby contribute to more inclusive development outcomes. Organisations, movements and countries have to grapple with the ‘twin challenges of knowledge for development’, namely knowledge gaps and information problems.18 The WDR also talks about ‘beneficiary participation’ in the design and implementation of projects that would inform future World Bank operations.19 However, the concept of knowledge in the report engages with the production of indigenous knowledge through experience, but it does so inadequately without taking into account the power structures that are inherent in knowledge production: who produces knowledge; who has access; and how is it distributed.
For the reasons discussed above and the growth of new media, women’s movements around the world began to use Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) that they could access to create, manage and distribute knowledge. New ‘knowledge practices’20 began to evolve that were more representative of women’s lives. Janeway refers to the evolution of a new power as ‘the refusal to accept the definition of oneself that is put forward by the powerful’ while bell hooks later entreats women to ‘exercise the power of disbelief’ to create new realities.21 As mentioned above, knowledge production has occurred in places many women do not occupy: the academe, policy think-tanks and other public sphere organisations. In post-conflict states the public sphere is starkly devoid of women despite United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325. Those who produce knowledge in universities, colleges and other formal institutions often raise their theoretical endeavours above those whose work is practical. The theory/practice dichotomy stems from a false distinction between intellectual and non-intellectual work that has plagued feminist scholarship for decades. What constitutes knowledge is determined by mainstream debates on what qualifies as knowledge; exclusive attributes that are defined by those who are involved in fields of knowledge production. Women engaging in ‘non-intellectual’ work therefore have to become the producers of knowledge that is defined in more inclusive ways.
In this regard, women in non-governmental organisations that target women’s empowerment have the opportunity to engage with issues and to produce knowledge for their members and themselves. The practice of knowledge production therefore changes as the nature of the re-presenter22, the mode of representation and the audience change. New media has provided women with new modes of representation and often without a mediator as one sees in the case studies below. Criticism could be meted against new media for being exclusive as many rural women do not have access to or time for the internet, television or other electronic forms of communication. A counter argument to that criticism is that knowledge dissemination comes in many forms and ICTs are only one mode that on-line organisations are using. Women’s movements have to ensure that knowledge practices encompass all forms of knowledge production, management and dissemination to reach all their constituencies. What is important is that women receive the information, through dialogues, pamphlets, ICTs and so forth, that will lead to their full participation in the production of knowledge and decision-making processes, especially in post-conflict contexts.
ICTs are only ‘one tool among many required to support efforts towards women’s equality’ but regard it as a ‘critical site of intervention’.23 Other tools include infrastructure development; the provision of social services; access to the formal economy; gender equality, and so forth. ICTs have to complement other integrated development approaches. Often development is piecemeal and women’s needs are considered as an addendum. If development is meant to be successful, gender needs are to be considered in all stages of programmes and projects; thus, ICTs should be integrated as a means to convey information and to build community voices around important issues in communities.
Women around the world ‘face serious challenges – economic, social and cultural – that limit or prevent their access to, use of and benefits from ICTs.24 New technologies such as computers, the internet and established technologies like radio and television have a significant effect on who has access to information in a 21st century state. Cellular phones are yet to be used as mobilising tools in Africa but are very successfully used in global social movements. An international initiative known as the Know How community has assisted women leaders ‘to close the gendered digital gap, design social politics and produce information that can be transformed into knowledge by the appropriation of the ICTs’.25 ICTs work particularly well in post-conflict societies because they reach a greater mass of people than the conventional media, despite limited resources.
By and large, women are not involved in the decision-making processes of governments, companies and organisations. One notable exception, other than a marginal increase in the numbers of women in decision-making posts in these spheres, is in organisations that target women’s issues. These non-governmental organisations are run by women, led by women and for women, which makes them unique spaces in which women are fully engaged in all levels of decision-making. The apparent equality in women’s organisations does not remove the power dynamics that manifest in all organisations in general and women’s organisations specifically based on the position held, class, education levels, language, ethnic and other differences. Knowledge production and management therefore are affected by the culture and the philosophy of decision-making in the organisation.
Post-conflict countries provide a unique context in which gender relations are further skewed in favour of men. These three organisations are networks that have regional members or intra-country members that have experienced conflict in the last two decades. The three organisations each use ICTs to disseminate their information, but there are subtle differences that show a focus on regional versus national; rural versus urban; and sophisticated versus less sophisticated users. What follows is a brief synopsis of each organisation and final concluding remarks.
The Isis Women’s International Cross-Cultural Exchange (Isis WICCE) is now based in Uganda but was founded in 1974 in Geneva, Switzerland as an ‘action oriented women’s resource centre to meet the need for information by women from various regions of the world’.26 Its three programmes are in the areas of exchange, information and documentation and publications. Isis is the Egyptian goddess of knowledge. Isis WICCE moved to Kampala, Uganda in 1993 with the ‘objective of tapping African women’s ideas, views and problems and share the information with women at the international level’ and ‘contributes to the strengthening of Uganda and Africa’s women’s movement’ through the dissemination of information.27
Isis WICCE has various publications that cover an array of writing styles from reports, pictorial posters and flyers to audio visuals and on-line media. It also has an on-site Internet Café, a resource centre and hosts exhibitions. It provides access to information on many subjects that pertain to women’s empowerment in Africa and further afield. Their Exchange Programme Institute offers annual cross-cultural skills building programmes. The women who attend these courses come from all over the world and ‘use the space to learn from one another, share information, exchange ideas and acquire cross-cultural strategies and solidarity actions for addressing a diverse range of women’s issues, from the human rights perspective’.28 The Institute relies on a snowball effect of training a number of women in their programmes who then go out and train and inform others. Isis WICCE uses a range of tools that include dialogues, training programmes and ICTs.
The website has used sophisticated technology that limits access by those who are not ICT conversant. The information is viewed through hyperlinks on their Knowledge Exchange and Information Sharing website. The history of the organisation is also broken up into episodes of information that are opened by clicking on a ‘Prev’ or ‘Next’ button. Technology has been used optimally to display Isis-WICCE’s objectives, programmes and outcomes, but it is dominated by the assumption that its readers are ICT-literate and have access to the internet. Dralega critiques a project in Uganda that used ICTs and a CD-ROM to facilitate the learning and sharing of lessons of women in micro businesses for ‘derail[ing] from ascribed notions of African feminism; notably due to its top-down proponents’. 29 The risk is that nature of ICTs and their empowerment programmes could make women passive recipients of information rather than producers and managers of information.
The Mano River Women’s Peace Network (MARWOPNET), founded in 2000 in the Mano River Basin, incorporates women’s organisations from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. MARWOPNET’s mission is to ensure the participation of women and youth in ‘the prevention, management and resolution of conflict in the Mano River sub-region, throughout Africa and the world, to serve as a catalyst through which sustainable peace, human security and justice can be attained by ensuring gender responsive policies and building women’s/girls’ capacity for socio-economic, political empowerment and human development for all’.30 MARWOPNET is a network involved in regional peace and development issues. It is concerned with awareness-raising through the media; ensuring women’s participation in decision-making fora; providing training programmes; and arranging meetings with development partners, youth and other social networks.
MARWOPNET was instrumental in creating dialogue between the three governments of the Mano River basin, a process that led to a Heads of State Summit in Rabat in 2002. The Network also signed the Liberian Peace Accords in Accra in 2003 and was given observer status at the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in December 2001. This Network mainly operates through meetings and dialogues rather than as an information hub. It does, however, have an on-line journal entitled ‘Voices of Peace’ that aims to ‘give voice to a diverse range of voices, particularly those of women, on peace- and conflict-related issues’ and ‘welcomes feedback from members, partners or other interested parties who would like to share their opinions, stories, letters, photos, or other materials for publication in the newsletter’.31 The testimonies, poems and drawings are first-person accounts of the horrors of conflict in the region.
‘Voices of Peace’ is an example of knowledge production and dissemination through an ICT medium. The information found on this website is a re-packaging of information as the individual’s words are placed in relation to other testimonies and poems. Layout of information also draws the reader’s eyes to particular information and photographs and drawings often attract more attention than a paragraph of words. MARWOPNET has managed to operate at the state level in the region and at the level of ordinary Mano Basin residents, which makes it an accessible organisation to a wide range of people in the region. Knowledge production’s power relations are therefore relatively reduced as two very disparate communities are brought together through the work of a single organisation. It appears that MARWOPNET is defunct as the website is no longer being updated and emails to the last-listed chairperson have not been answered.
The Zimbabwean Women’s Resource Centre and Network (ZWRCN) is a Harare-based ‘women’s information organisation with a focus on collection, analysis, processing and dissemination of information on gender and development. The organisation’s strategic interventions aim to empower women, strengthen inter-organisational networking of gender and development agencies and promote the women’s movement in Zimbabwe’.32 The ZWRCN was founded in 1990 by a group of Zimbabwean women whose aim was to ‘empower women through the provision of information’ through key objectives to collect and disseminate information; repackage existing information ‘in forms appropriate to users’; and fill information gaps.33 ZWRCN has a Gender and Information Programme that provides information from its programmes and other sources to its members and on the internet to a wider audience. E-discussions and Gender and Development (GAD) talks are held at regular intervals to bring women together to discuss issues that are pertinent to their development and empowerment. The GAD talks are held in a ‘free space’ in a ‘Secret Garden’ which could be analysed as a women-friendly space in which women can air their thoughts about their location in Zimbabwean society, their politics in a fractured (but hopefully healing) state and their dreams for empowering themselves and their families within a broader global context.
One special programme that ZWRCN runs is the stories of women told in their own words. In email correspondence with me, the Executive Director said the following:
I would describe ZWRCN as a knowledge and information producer. We manage knowledge in the sense that we make decisions through input from women about the knowledge that they require and we disseminate it according to needs. I would describe our work as definitely empowerment focussed because our information is used for women to make better decisions about their political, social and economic aspects of their lives. Different information/knowledge products use women's input. The stories that we publish are called 'I' stories and they have up to now [been] generated from research (of the experiences of women in their communities) and converted into a publication.34
This provides ‘ordinary’ women with the tools to produce knowledge from their own experiences; to manage that knowledge in a story and disseminate that knowledge through a medium that re-packages it and sends it out as information. The re-packaging of knowledge also constitutes a form of knowledge production as in inserting an ethical ‘witness’ who is implicated in the telling and retelling of the story that ‘breaks through the traditional hierarchies and relationships of power that governs how we see’.35
These three post-conflict contexts, in which ZWRCN, MARWOPNET and Isis WICCE provide women with information and the spaces to create knowledge, are not unique. Their models of knowledge production, management and dissemination can be transposed onto other contexts provided they are inclusive at every stage of the knowledge practice. The organisations provide interconnections between women and women’s organisations to share information and practices that are achieved through different modes of transfer, for example, pamphlets; meetings; e-chats; organisational websites; conferences; radio and television; and programme-related documents. There are African success stories where ICTs have had a significant impact on women and their development and these organisations have shown that impact on their websites. This paper argues that it is necessary to change the power relationships within communities, organisations and between people to ensure that gender equality is achieved and the ways through which we do that would determine whether or not that happens. ICTs could contribute to women’s empowerment but should only be one tool in a toolbox of approaches that ensure a holistic and integrated development programme. ICTs have to power to include as well as exclude and care should be taken to avoid exclusion. Structural and cultural changes would ensure that women gain equal access to the public sphere where most ICTs are located in Africa as many women live in the rural areas and are homebound. Finally, as Elizabeth Kiondo argues, ‘there is a need to strategically work towards eliminating the barriers and obstacles while exploiting the opportunities to make ICTs effective tools for women empowerment and the promotion of gender equality’.36