Gender, Global, Global Geopolitics, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

Women Pulling Out of the Technological Gap

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Aug 25 2010 (IPS) - When she gets up in the morning, Ghadeer Malek, a young Palestinian feminist activist, checks her Facebook page to keep up on new developments and messages linked to her work.

Her daily routine illustrates a growing trend among young women, who are turning more and more to the latest technological tools, although that use is still incipient, according to experts taking part in the Aug. 23-27 World Youth Conference in the city of León, 200 km north of the Mexican capital.

During a panel on “Empowerment of young women by means of the innovative use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT)”, delegates of a number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) shared their experiences Tuesday

“Girls, teenagers and young women are less familiar with the new communication techniques,” Inés Alberdi, executive director of UNIFEM (the United Nations Development Fund for Women, now part of UN Women), told IPS.

“The question of equal opportunities is a key issue for the future autonomy of young women, and it’s a serious problem that they aren’t on an equal footing with men, in terms of use and knowledge of, and familiarity with, the new technologies,” said Alberdi.

The conference organised by the Mexican government, which has brought together some 2,500 young people from around the world, will end Friday with a declaration urging the United Nations to promote more policies targeting this segment of the population.

The United Nations declared 2010 International Youth Year.

“Technology can help women change the status quo,” said Abby Blechman Goldberg, gender director for Latin America and the Caribbean of the U.S.-based Digital Democracy.

In Haiti, where a January earthquake claimed at least 220,000 lives, Digital Democracy is working with women to combat what the NGO describes as “an epidemic of rapes in post-earthquake camps.”

The project involves the use of mobile phones and digital cameras by women, to report incidents of violence, communicate with each other, and respond to attacks.

Malek said her organisation, the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), is focusing on supporting activism.

In her presentation on the panel, she added that in AWID’s Young Feminist Activism programme, they have used the new technologies to network, share ideas and build visions “in a strategic manner,” rather than merely spreading around information.

There are an estimated 180 million internet users today in Latin America, amounting to a penetration rate of around 30 percent, according to Tendencias Digitales, comScore and Google. Women represent upwards of 45 percent of all cybernauts in the region.

Ninety-four percent of the region’s web denizens use one of the social networking sites, and 82 percent have a Facebook or Twitter account, with Venezuelans leading the pack. Facebook has 49 percent of users of such sites in the region, and Mexico has the largest number of Facebook accounts.

In 2007, five institutions — UNIFEM, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) — created the International Knowledge Network of Women in Politics (iKNOW Politics).

The network is described as “an online workspace designed to serve the needs of elected officials, candidates, political party leaders and members, researchers, students and other practitioners interested in advancing women in politics.”

Piyoo Kochar, network facilitator of iKNOW Politics, said she was confident in the network’s ability to help women connect to politics, so that they won’t feel intimidated and won’t feel that “politics is a dirty word.”

Worldwide, only 18 percent of parliamentarians, 16 percent of government ministers and seven presidents are women.

The growing popularity of the internet led UNIFEM to expand Say NO – UNiTE to End Violence against Women, a global call to action launched in 2007 to collect at least one million signatures.

After gathering more than five million signatures and gaining the support of hundreds of NGOs, 70 governments, 200 cabinet ministers and 700 legislators around the globe, UNIFEM launched the second phase of the campaign last year, to record specific actions to end violence against women.

Urjasi Rudra, the coordinator of the campaign, said it has grown into a platform for communications and advice, while serving as a showcase for the work being done by organisations and activists across the planet.

Meanwhile, in Mexico, Cuidemos el Voto, an independent organisation set up to monitor elections, adapted and translated into Spanish Ushahidi, a platform created in the aftermath of Kenya’s disputed 2007 presidential election to allow people to anonymously report violent incidents.

The platform makes it possible to gather information via text messages, email, tweets or the web and visualise it by creating a map or timeline. Cuidemos el Voto will use it to report irregularities or fraud in Mexico’s elections.

When something dramatic occurs, the greatest possible amount of information is needed, said Juliana Chebet Rotich, co-founder of Ushahidi, which means “testimony” in Swahili. “If for any reason your voice is silenced, the internet offers many tools, to be able to tell what we see and what is happening.”

Cuidemos el Voto has received reports from NGOs and individual citizens on stuffing of ballot boxes and vote-buying in previous elections.

In Malek’s view, the challenges include the languages used, and access — especially in rural communities — to training and use of ICTs, so that women become not only users of social networking sites or bloggers but also software developers and programmers.

“The biggest challenge is making sure that all groups of young women, who are often marginalised and face greater disadvantages, especially in developing countries, acquire these skills and capacities in order to access these technologies, for the sake of empowerment,” Alberdi said.

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