Africa, Headlines

TECHNOLOGY-AFRICA: Women Find Reason for Optimism in Internet Usage

James Hall

GRAHAMSTOWN, South Africa, Sep 18 2003 (IPS) - Slowly, but effectively, the Internet is empowering women in Africa to follow events as they have never witnessed before. The latest case in point is the women in Somalia who have been following their country’s peace talks in neighbouring Kenya via Internet usage.

"Women in Somalia could not attend that nation’s peace talks. They learned of developments via the Horn of Africa Regional Women’s Knowledge Network (HAWKNET) on the web, and through this source they became ‘virtual participants’ in the event. They then passed on their knowledge through their communities, and their reports were more timely and trusted than those broadcast on the state media," says Atieno Aluoch, a delegate at the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) to be held in Geneva in December.

Another initiative, the Women’s Net Pilot Project in the Limpopo Province of South Africa has also gotten women involved in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT).

"Training and, just as important, motivation, is provided to women," says Aluoch.

Women involved in high-profile positions in the so-called New Media of Internet and satellite technologies, met in Grahamstown, South Africa, last week, to discuss gender imbalance in Africa’s emerging Information Society, and found reason for optimism in the solutions they proposed.

"What is needed is access, so women can get their hands on computers and learn the technology," Zamambo Mkize, the General Manager of South Africa Broadcasting Corporation told IPS.

Mkize spoke at the African Highway information summit held at Rhodes University. Tackling the question, "Is the African Information Society a ‘men’s only’ party?" she conceded, "It is true that Africa has been steeped in patriarchal values that have led inevitably to male leadership roles in every aspect of society, including those that affect women’s lives, like the media."

Patrician Litho, a board member of Uganda’s Media Women’s Association, was blunter, "Africa’s Information Society is specifically excluding women."

Usually, women’s roles in computer and Internet have been restricted to lower-level positions, delegates said. The few women who have achieved top ranks in Africa’s media society at the Grahamstown conference felt that Africa’s inability to tap into the potential of its women has hampered development of New Media in the same way that gender imbalance has hindered economic, agricultural, social and educational development.

"Correcting this imbalance is a process. Women in power already must pull other women up, and use the media to showcase the talents and accomplishments of women," suggested Mkize.

But the women ICT specialists agreed that the argument should be shifted away from noting social and economic discrimination to practical ways and tangible action to correct imbalances.

"The barriers to women in New Media must be systematically broken down. Low literacy and lack of skills must be addressed through education. Inadequate access to resources must be addressed through government policy. There is also a need to involve women in drafting such policies," said Atieno

The WSIS, which will produce a global information policy binding signatory countries to establish legislation to implement the agreement, is aware of the need to bring African women into the information age. "Women’s rights will be included in national and international media policy, with attention paid to women’s voices and contributions," Aluoch said.

"If we could get access to ICT, we could communicate with each other easily through e-mail. Women are proven entrepreneurs. Internet can be another useful tool," Amanda Singleton, an executive with Telkom Communications in South Africa, told IPS.

Singleton prioritised general education and poverty alleviation as preconditions for women’s advancement in the information society. "We cannot hope to give women access to the New Media with poverty lingering. Getting a phone line and computer when that person doesn’t have running water or electricity is putting the cart before the horse. Education is the key to ICT usage," she said.

Expanding women’s decision-making roles in what news and information is disseminated will go far to ending gender imbalance, conference delegates felt.

"It’s not a mater of putting in women for the sake of putting in a woman, but giving equal opportunity for women who have capacity," said Litho.

By capacity, she means women who have developed the management and technical skills to administer or head companies. Once capacity is achieved, acceptance must be facilitated in the business world that hires executives.

"Now it is a matter of building capacity. We need training programmes, and companies willing to help women achieve the skills needed," Litho said.

The goal, she said, "is women ownership of the media. We look at things a certain way. On the issue of HIV/AIDS, for example, there is a women’s perspective that needs to be heard on family planning, condom use, AIDS testing and counseling, and other issues.

"Putting women in decision making positions is important so that women’s issues in general are considered. This won’t be at the expense of male points of view, but it is needed to correct an imbalance," she said.

"I am concerned with the ownership of the media," agreed Mkize. "The person who controls the dissemination of information controls the very thought process of readers. Women have essentially become passive recipients of information. We need to decide more on what is broadcast and put over the Internet."

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