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Gendered ICT and Peacebuilding in Africa: A case of Missed Opportunities
Author : Shastry Njeru, Midlands State University, P. Bag 9055, Gweru, Zimbabwe
Inter-operability and use of ICT in crisis situations is not only about saving life, but a new life. The use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) has cathartic effects on divided societies. In violent conflicts that have taken place in modern times women have suffered much more than their male counterparts because of their ‘biological fate’ or what others have called ‘anatomy of destiny’. In most of Africa, women constitute the majority in the population. Yet they remain marginalized in knowledge, networks, and economic and political matters. As a result a lot of energy is left out in the process of national healing and peacebuilding. The recognition of women can provide ‘a new set of opportunities’ for nurturing a fragile peacebuilding process. The peacebuilding processes could be strengthened if organizations, people and regions connect ‘in effective multi-sectoral and peace building networks and provided with active and open knowledge banks. ICT can provide such connections, case studies and can bridge communication gaps between peace process stakeholders. The women can participate in the process from the grassroots upwards. This paper posits that marginalizing women can be retrogressive in the peacebuilding process and ICT can be used to mitigate against this problem in Africa.
The United Nations Resolution 1325 of 2000 dealing with “Women, Peace and Security’1 was ground breaking for women’s peace activism in the sense that it provided a coherent policy framework for promoting women’s involvement in the wide array of issues related to peace and security (Crisis Group 2006). However, the progress along this resolution has been more limited in countries where leaderships remain hostile to a greater role for women in peacemaking and peacebuilding. What can be done to dismantle the barriers that prevent women from greater participation in conflict prevention, conflict resolution, peacebuilding and post-conflict governance? Yet, women peacebuilders, often without formal support, are trying to bring security to their communities, countries and regions. What can be done to recognise and support the role and capacities of women in preventing and mitigating conflict so that it does not remain an afterthought? Against a backdrop of persistent violence, exclusion and decaying social services, many see improving the status of women as an issue to be addressed further down the road, in a time of peace. Consensus is not strong around the view that women in Africa need to be empowered through gendered ICT to enable them to be involved confidently in their nations’ peacebuilding programmes.
In majority of cases women have been left out as a result of their gender rather than supposed incompatibility with ICT. Just like many institutions in Africa, the ICT has not effectively escaped the problems of gender discrimination. The belief that technology knows no gender is openly challenged in Africa where technology is not only framed in a masculine way but is refusing to change. Even in economies like South Africa, only ‘17% of women have access to ICT related services’ (Huyer and Sikoska 2003) . Women have watched the benefits of technology accruing to men for a long time from a distance and bridges to this divide have been constantly destroyed with every step. There is a group of critics who argue persuasively that in Africa women need clean water, adequate food, health rather than worry about ICT. They do not see the connection between these necessities with ICT.
On daily basis in a normal peaceful African state, structural conditions are pitted against empowering of women. During times of war women suffer all kinds of violations and in peace times the cultural stakes are far against them. Some women are married off early in their lives to cover family debts, they forced out of school to give way to sons, and they are enslaved and kept illiterate because they are women. Recognizing the gravity of violations against women during war times and in the spirit of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 of 2000, the encouragement of the eventual use of the ICT in peacebuilding can have that cathartic effect on the women.
In violent conflicts that have taken place in modern times in Africa, women have suffered much more than their male counterparts because of their ‘biological fate’ or what is called ‘anatomy of destiny’ despite their numeral superiority. Example is Zimbabwe where women constitute 52% of the population (CSO 2006). They have suffered the discomfiture of poverty, drought, hunger, imprisonment and degradation. Yet in Africa, women constitute the majority in the population, yet still minority in decision-making. The inclusion of women in the ICT spheres is necessary for national growth and prosperity (Chamberlain 2002). Yet again they remain marginalized in knowledge, networks, and economic and political matters. Closing and making inaccessible the information management and frameworks to key all stakeholders, particularly women, undermines the ability of ICT to save lives in a crisis situation. Women need to know where they can get information, food, medicines, protection, and networks. ICT can help in this. By inter-operability of information, accessing to it will be made possible to all as digital barriers are pulled down by availability of information. The guarantees that systems, tools and mechanisms can exchange information seamlessly, securely and sustainably, need to be put in place.
Those in power must have the political will to achieve peace and to share the information that can be used in peacebuilding and in meeting everyday life challenges. The politicians in Uganda have recognized the importance of ICT in curbing the rural-urban migration and gave it the attention it deserves. They believed that ICT will not only provide rural employment but will stem the urge to migrate into major towns by the youths. The Ugandan government has been very instrumental in setting up telecentres in rural areas under the Rural Communications Development Fund (RCDF). However, despite this effort, the rural communities are yet to benefit from this movement. There isn’t any Internet or call centres in the rural areas because of lack of electricity (Nabwowe 2008). This is a universal challenge in most of Africa and it is women who have suffered the worst ultimately because should technology reaches near them, it will be grabbed by their male counterparts who have craft competences and literacy to use the technology. Women have little exposure to education to find this technology of any use to them.
Supporting ICT in peacebuilding and conflict transformation is premised on its ability to facilitate ‘virtual collaboration’ (Hattotuwa, ud) or alternative public space for women. Women can meet and discuss issues and solutions collaboratively on the World Wide Web. ICT can augment this socio-political process that explore options for the interest based options despite the fact that virtualisation of peacebuilding is not the final panacea. Peacebuilding still exists within the emotions and problems of the real world, but problems discussed are problems half solved. Women are naturally disposed to discussing intimate issues with their confidantes. ICT can provide this option. Further, ICT for peacebuilding can address gaps in communication within and between multiple tiers of the fabric of society and polity that are party to the peacebuilding process (ibid.). To succeed, ICT should connect progressive elements of the socio-political fabric that under-gird sustainable peacebuilding including, but not limited to women, children, youth, grass-root communities and rural peace activists, at the same time marginalizing extremist and corrosive elements that are detrimental to peacebuilding and conflict transformation.
However, ICTs can only help in crisis management and peacebuilding if they are based on open standards and are interoperable, facilitating use even in difficult conditions and engendering staff by-ins (ICT4Peace Foundation 2008). The peacebuilding processes could be strengthened if organizations, people and regions connect ‘in effective multi-sectoral and peace building networks and provided with active and open knowledge banks – with instant access to effective peace building approaches and case studies’ (Hattotuwa, 2004). The public can participate in the process from the grassroots upwards. Women may be involved.
However, ICT revolution has left out many in Africa given the absence of basic infrastructure, high costs of ICT deployment, unfamiliarity with ICTs, dominance of the English language in Internet content and indeed – lack of demonstrated benefit from ICTs to address ground-level development challenges. Where ICT is provided it is heavily barricaded by masculinity in ways that I now seek to explain. These barriers pose even greater problems for women, who are more likely to: be illiterate; not know English; and lack opportunities for training in computer skills (Gurumurthy 2004). Masculinity is writ large when parents have to choose male children over females to send to school when resources are limited. Domestic responsibilities, cultural restrictions on mobility, lesser economic power as well as lack of relevance of content to their lives, further marginalise them from the information sector.
This paper argues that sharing information provides women with a platform to engender a culture of open information sharing, where the approach to conflict transformation is one that is holistic, inclusive and participatory. By supporting the creation of "shared spaces" the gendered ICT initiative will help the process of conflict transformation.
It’s Gender stupid!
Technology is something people can use, but not the same thing that can be used to influence society. As inanimate, technology has been viewed as gender and value neutral (Gurumurthy 2004) and having the ability to traverse human cultural barriers. Yet this is not always the case. Technology cannot be neutral at all. Skimming through feminist literature reflects that women have been ‘excluded from science, creation, design and use of technology’ (ibid: 4). Women are socialized toward non-technical careers (Huyer and Sikoska 2003). Along with that view it will be patently dangerous to accept that technology works everywhere and provides solutions to development challenges. Effectiveness of technology is dependent on culture under whose frames it was negotiated and can be transformed.
Women are cultural as well and have multiple identities that interact with gender to define their access to technology. To undo unequal gender relations depends largely on understanding the complex gender interactions and the will to transform them for the better. It is easy for a well to do sophisticated woman to have easy access to the Internet, but unthinkable for the feudal rural woman to have that access to the public telephone, yet they are all women who are driven by different socio-historical circumstances that dictate their daily factors of existence. Such realities are the heart of the gender and technology discourse. Gurumurthy (2004) reminds us that men and women from the same social context may not have equal access to technology. For instance, if household assets may have unequal ownership, what guarantees that ICTs can stand unaffected by gender? Simple technology like a radio may be fully masculine. I remember my father had a tiny radio in the 1970s that my mother had no leisure to listen or allowed to join to sit around as men did outside the house. When he left for the city he took it with him or it was safely tucked somewhere waiting for his eventual return. He joined the guerrilla movement for a long time and his radio waited for his long return. By hindsight, it made me think that radios, TVs and computers are male assets and microwaves and cookers are feminine. Yet technology must ease everyone’s life.
Technology has remained historically a male preserve suggesting that the appropriation of the technology by women is a political project that they must fight for with their blood and sweat. Over the decades it has been shown that without explicit attention to gender in policy, gender issues are not considered in implementation (Hafkin 2002:3). Governments argue that they already have gender policies in place and this should obviate the explicit mentioning of gender in every project. To the contrary, evidence shows that in the technological fields ‘policy making ignores the needs, requirements and aspirations of women and girls unless gender requirements are included’ (Marcelle 2002: 39). Without specific attention and action, women and girls are always left out (Hafkin, op cit).
The presence of gender issues rarely extends to information and communication technologies. Unlike fields such as health and education and in economic fields such as agriculture and rural development, where it is rare to find projects that fail to take into account gender issues, ICT sector is one of the last areas to open to a gender perspective. A recent study of hundreds of development projects, either ICT as the major sector or with substantial ICT components, showed that more than one-third of all projects had a high degree of awareness of gender issues, but that the gender-sensitivity carried over to the ICT components is only 10 percent of the projects (Ibid: 4).
Persistent gender specific structural inequalities constitute barriers to women’s access to technology. Such barriers are imbedded in education, tradition, economic inequalities, etc (Huyer and Sikoska 2003). In fact, ICTs are designed and created within the male dominated environments and therefore do not necessarily correspond to specific needs of women (ibid.). This is the “gender digital divide”.
ICT has become a potent force in transforming social, political and economic life globally. It is viewed as an ‘intrinsic part of nation building’ (Hattotuwa 2003). It has the potential to carry ‘the new global knowledge based economy’ (Huyer and Sikoska, op cit). ICTs ‘may reshape, reorganize, and restructure working methods’. It has ‘generic advantages of efficiency, information sharing, storage, faster knowledge accumulation, dissemination and can permit new and collaborative work methods’. Further ICT can improve ‘the quality of human life’ and can afford ‘new types of education modalities such as distance learning and online training’ (ibid.). ICT is a tool for transformatory empowerment of women.
Development strategists are encouraging the developing countries to embrace ICTs to avoid social and economic marginalisation (Ahmed et al, ud.). The uneven distribution of the use of information technologies across the societies is called the ‘digital divide’. It reflects a division between the information "haves" and "have-nots" structured along lines of race, ethnic group, class, age, region, and gender; between countries; and globally, between those who have access to abundant information resources and those who do not have this access.
Women within developing countries are in the deepest part of the divide. They are further removed from the information age than are the men whose poverty they share. The gender gap in the digital divide is of increasing concern; if access to and use of these technologies is directly linked to social and economic development, then it is imperative to ensure that women in developing countries understand the significance of these technologies and use them (ibid.). The lack of access to information and communication technologies becomes a significant factor in the further marginalization of women from the economic, social, and political mainstream of their countries and of the world. Without full participation in the use of information technology, women are left without the key to participation in the global world of the twenty-first century (ibid.). Due to these problems it is important to challenge the apparent lack of visibility of women on the ICT, industry and as users of ICT. The starting point is to pull down perceptions that ‘women are less suited to or interested in working with technology’ (Huyer and Sikoska 2003). The truth is that women’s lack of engagement is due to gender inequality than ‘women’s lack of compatibility with technology’.
Women in Africa are generally barricaded out technologically as already intimated. Bisnath (2005) attributes the barriers in the path of women to gender inequality and technological. These are resource endowments, infrastructure, telecommunication policies, skills and educational levels, socio-cultural norms, positions of men and women in production and reproduction, and digital preparedness of the country in question. Huyer and Sikoska (2003) reiterate the same problems always stand in the way of women’s progress: unequal educational access, glass ceilings in industry and research, lack of financial resources resulting from the women themselves or choices made by their families. Unless these barriers are pulled down ostensibly through the struggles of the women themselves, women will remain outside as technological second citizens.
ICT and Peacebuilding in divided societies
Countries coming out of a violent conflict, dilapidated institutions and systems do not have the capacity to manage the complex and disparate interests of multiple stakeholders and tiers. This is more difficult where politics is zero-sum and parochial. Social disconnect occurs due to fears and distrust in what the peace process may mean affecting the building of peace. Peacebuilding is a process beyond conflict viewed by Boutros-Ghali (1995) as ‘comprehensive efforts to identify and support structures which will consolidate peace and advance a sense of confidence and well being among people’. It is hard work demanding everyone’s contribution in disarming, repatriating refugees, restoring institutions, retraining security personnel, monitoring elections, reengineering political institutions for democratic governance, and protecting civil liberties and human rights. This does require more than men’s contribution. Women need to take part because they were involved actively in the conflict as combatants, victims or supporters. Leaving them out is an opportunity cost. Yet the structural stakes are too much against them in Africa, from the physical to social.
Peacebuilding must go beyond sorting ‘political and institutional deficits’ (Llamazares 2005) to healing lives made meaningless by protracted conflicts. Women and youth had their sense of self-respect and esteem violated by the conflict and left scattered across the rural areas as Internally Displaced People (IDPs) and in refugee camps. Cognizant of the geo-location of most women in Africa in rural settings, the use of ICT will enable them to be reached and participate in the peacebuilding without having to relocate them to urban areas. Women in post-conflict societies share common issues that they can creatively transform through ICT platforms. If ICT does not connect them, women remain separated by language, stereotypes, distance and mistrust even when they still share fears and hopes for peaceful futures. If ICT is neutral as suggested by some, then it can catalyse intra- and inter- communal dialogues, create powerful communal people-led foundations that can act as a bulwark against regression. Yet this is not the case when it comes to involving women in real issues of peace and nation building. ICT is an edge of a bayonet set against women where forces of gender are structured against the progress of women.
Peacebuilding has become profoundly multidimensional taking in humanitarian workers, Non Governmental Organisations, United Nations, governments, global financial institutions and from the bottom up, peace activists, women and children. This requires ‘multilevel approaches’ to increase inter-connectedness (Lederach 1997). It cannot assume this comprehensiveness without taking serious account of women. Pulling down of ancient structural forces working against women would make multidimensional peacebuilding possible. ICT can be used to reach out to all forces in peacebuilding including women. ICT can be embraced for its potential in advocacy and dissemination of information and policy alternatives. However, this potential in women can be seriously hampered by the usual litany of ‘lack of funding to purchase equipment or services, lack of skilled staff, little time and interest’ (Hattotuwa 2003:3). But despite the challenges, In Zambia, mobile phone networks are used to advocate women’s rights and in Douala the Internet is available to women entrepreneurs in textile industries. In Uganda ICT and mobile phone business are used as instruments of change by rural women, even professional women in Kenya are fast reaping the ICT benefits.
In some cases the websites available are carelessly designed to be of little use to the rural women. Some lack the content that can capture the attention of these women and in most of the cases they are written in a language that is difficult to understand. A good site is the Centre for Women Research (CENWOR) of Sri Lanka www.cenwor.lk that serves as an information source for the Sri Lankan women. The site is interactive and provides critical information facing women, and action taken by the government and other agencies. It also provides a communication platform transcending all types of boundaries for women and women’s organizations striving to realize women’s rights (ibid.). This platform is effectively eroding the gender barriers pitted against women in the country.
The corpus of conflict resolution literature proffers that it is possible to transcend conflict if parties can be helped to analyse, explore, questions and then reframe their interests and positions (Hottotuwa 2004). ICT can energise the creative dynamics of societies to fully engage with paradigm shifts necessary for visioning a state without protracted conflicts. ICT fertilizes the process of peacebuilding itself (ibid.) by engendering subtle changes in the socio-political relations through interacting protagonists who may not be able to meet face to face in real world through the virtual spaces. INSTRAW virtual seminars demonstrate the potential of ICT in engaging women (Huyer and Sikoska 2003) in e-democracy.
Good ICT for peacebuilding should form the repository for documents, press releases and other information related to the peace process. Hattotuwa (2006) suggests ICT instruments that can be used to embrace all. He identifies community podcasting and Internet radios, Skypecasts, micro-grants for blogging, cheap digital cameras, oral histories, and establishing women, children and youth media houses as instruments that can be profitably used by rural women in Africa for peacebuilding. Community podcasting and internet radios are often required in conflict to capture the voices and hope of people in support of peace. Through ‘new media such as digital audio / video / mobile video / MMS, it is possible to link community driven production of media that addresses local issues. Community radio stations often find that they are prey to legislation that often restricts their freedom to broadcast issues seen as too sensitive by the incumbent government. Internet radio and websites by-pass these restrictions’ (ibid).
Internet radio for grassroots involves those who cannot read or write. Literacy is not a requirement for digital media production that seeks to capture the views of those who may not be able to read and write, but through their life experiences may have valuable insights into the transformation of the conflict and into issues such as reconciliation, transformative justice and co-existence. This technology is sustainable as long as the technology already in the hands of the people (mobile phones) is thoroughly exploited than creating a whole new technology for reaching out to the marginalised women and communities. The ICTs can help to revitalise stagnant dialogues and sustain difficult processes of peacebuilding by providing spaces for sustained dialogue even when Track One processses have run aground (Hattotuwa 2006). Through the internet and radio broadcasts, efforts of peacebuilders are augumented by enhanced channels, avenues and possibilities for communication, information and knowledge sharing, collaboration, empowerement and discussion in virtual spaces, even when physical, realworld meetings are impossible on account of geographical distance or political sensitivities.
The skypecasts allow a large audience to participate, using Skype as well as PSTN phones, in discussions that can be on any topic. The Skype is free, Skype to Skype calls are free and for Skype to work, all that is required is a decent ISDN connection. The rural women may only need to purchase the ISDN connection and the equipment for them to broadcast. Donors need to be motivated to support women’s projects that can enable their voices to be heard. In areas which are not on national electricity grid, solar energy driven with rechargable batteries need to be made available for easy access for women.
Women can exploit their access to these technologies to ‘create Skypecasts on peace from the grassroots itself’ – say a village meeting with a global audience including members from the diaspora chipping in. Such a series of recorded Skypecasts can be a useful way to capture community driven ideas for peace with international and regional voices in support of such ideas. Shared and borderless sources of ideas will not only improve the quantity and quality of information the women may have, but even their self-esteem. The moment women know that someone is listening to their arguments across the globe would empower and engender a new spirit in them.
There is need to provide women micro-credit for blogging. Blogging is an urban phenomenon and there is need to take to the rural areas where majority of women live. If blogging engenders democratic dialogue, it needs to go into places outside of the cities. Blogs that are based in the grassroots itself, and can promote voices of the community, can be a useful way of capturing voices in support of peace. The emphasis here should be on blogs that promote a multiplicity of voices, particularly that which ensures diversity and gender participation.
Women need to be also provided with digital cameras to capture the world around them as they see it along with their thoughts on the challenges of peacebuilding. CD-ROMs based on the lives of an activist in conflict zones, an activist in an urban centre, a web based activist and an activist in the diaspora may be produced as reference material for the people in bureaucratic decision levels to fall back on when crafting nation and peacebuilding policies. The Ugandan CD-ROM project based on the Nakaseke and Buwama telecentres explained by Mijumbi (2002) provides a good starting point for African women. The women who used the CD-ROM have become more confident, knowledgable, prepared to experiment with new approaches and more willing to compare situations for joint solutions (Huyer and Sikoska 2003). Further, women emerged not only with greater knowledge but also with enriched self-esteem.
Oral histories need to be recorded from the people who participated in making that history. However, conflicts often erase voices. Peace needs to preserve voices. However, when voices are captured, only voices of those with power are captured. Poor women’s voices, those who suffered the tragedies of the conflict are left out. Digital media offers unique ways through which voices that are important and most vulnerable, can be captured and promoted, so as to protect valuable ideas for social change even if their authors are killed. Simple recording devices can be given to communities (keeping in mind gender, age, ethnic, economic, class, caste, religious diversity) and capture their voices that support peace.
Women, youth and children need to be supported in setting up their own small media production houses. National regulations may need to be relaxed particularly in Africa where alternative sources of information are viewed by the governments with scepticism. With the help of donor financial support, acquisition of new technology would make setting up the houses pretty inexpensive. Women and youth media bring very different perspective to peace and conflict reporting as well as general programming. Children and youth have much more access to political leaders than do adults and can get away with asking some seemingly simple but precise questions that go to the heart of peacebuilding.
Innovative websites need to be created in vernacular languages to reach women who are often not educated in foreign languages like English and French. Since most women are impeded by lack of education to engage effectively with ICTs, there is need to ensure ‘soft access’ to less literate and educated by developing appropriate software applications and content. For example, Web 2.0 mash-ups that tell the narratives of those involved in peacebuilding through the use of Flick photos, audio / podcasts, GIS (Google Maps), blogs, mobile video, MMS or SMS (like myspace.com, but geared for peacebuilding) can be used. Projects such as www.witness.org use digital media to record human rights violations. When all these are made accessible to women great strides may be made in solid peacebuilding in Africa. There is no need to continually blame the victims by feeling ‘that women are reluctant to invest either their time in learning how to use the technology or financial resources needed for access’ (Huyer and Sikoska 2003). Women have been severely battered by the weight of masculinity to take further blame for their problems. They have been frequently diasdvantaged by culture and concomitantly by inequitable access to all kinds of resources.
There are challenges for ICT in peacebuilding in spite of its phenomenal potential to augment the interventions of individual women in many areas of peacebuilding process like rebuilding trust between communities, creating dialogues within and between ethnic groups, giving voice to the marginalized women and youth, and enabling grassroot participation in the dialogues related to peacebuilding. What discourages wide and regular use of ICT are the high capital and recurrent costs which most of the women and their organizations cannot meet. This dovetails into the problem of access. By elbowing women out of ICT through bad policies, this dis-empowers them from having a voice in the peacebuilding processes when in fact, ICT must be able to facilitate the building of social capital that can empower women and ‘local communities to grapple with conflicts in a non-violent way’ (Hattotuwa 2004).
The other challenge is the trust that people can conduct critical discussion in virtual spaces while being assured of confidentiality of shared content. This is important in countries where terror and violence is heavily embedded and people cannot afford to trust the next person. How would it be possible to trust a worldly technology that one does not control? Next is sustainability of the ICT in a world where equipment can be novel today and obsolete the next day. The question of compatibility is important as well. There are the issues of breakdowns and back up the problems? of viral invasions and proper software to clean may be discouraging challenges for women who are financially weak due to structural gender imperatives. Further challenges like vernacular content/interface/questions of accessibility, connectivity/infrastructure/ bandwidth, lack of IT knowledge and lack of finance to buy the hardware and software remain prominent. While some of the challenges may be addressed by donor funds, the question of sustainability needs more than donor support but the strengthened arm of the beneficiary.
Finally, the lack of technological ownership by women is a huge challenge to be overcome if women are going to mean much in peacebuilding. A sense of ownership is an important precondition for overcoming the barriers to women’s access to and use of ICTs. To achieve this fullness of ownership, ‘it is important that ICT tools are tailored to the specific needs of women’ (Huyer and Sikoska 2003) and this feat is overcome by serious advocacy by the women themselves for other women. Women need to curve inroads into the realm of policy making to influence the ICT policy making for a gender perspective.
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