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Women Using ICTs to Change the World

SAN SEBASTIÁN, Spain , Oct 26 2012 (IPS) - New technologies can transform society, and the role of women in using these tools to promote change was clearly seen at the first ICT Congress for Peace in this city in northern Spain.

The Oct. 23-24 conference, whose theme was “Women, Technology and Democracy for Social Change”, emphasised women’s leading role in social change, based on the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs).

The premise of the meeting was that ICTs are tools particularly suited to promoting human rights, especially women’s rights. It was organised by the Foundation for a Culture of Peace, headed by Federico Mayor Zaragoza, and the Cyber Volunteers Foundation.

The organisers of the congress also argued that women have been largely absent from decision-making, democratic processes, and the construction and consolidation of peace, and that ICTs can help overcome this discrimination.

Manal Hassan, a cyberactivist who participated in the Egyptian revolution that overthrew former president Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011), and Jolly Okot, a former girl soldier in Uganda who founded the NGO Invisible Children, were among those taking part in the meeting in this city in the Basque country, one of Spain’s autonomous communities or regions.

The participants also included Judith Torrea, a journalist and blogger who comments on daily life in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, known as the femicide (gender-based murder) capital of the world.

The three women were part of a group of 14 activists from four continents who came to the congress, where they shared their specific experiences with IPS, including their achievements and pending challenges, in which ICTs have been particular allies.

Hassan and her husband worked on the development of new technologies applied to social change, so she was not new to the issues when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took over Tahrir Square in Cairo on Jan. 25, 2011 to force Mubarak to step down.

She had collaborated with NGOs to create databases and documentation centres, and had contributed to building a blogging platform for different political groups to post their contents, far before the Arab Spring arrived in North Africa.

“At first, there were only a few of us,” she said. “But then there was a wave of response and the revolution arrived.”

Social networks like Facebook and Twitter became symbols of the uprising, especially when the regime decided to block access to the internet. Hassan and thousands of other Egyptians used their wits to break through the censorship.

For instance, Hassan was then in South Africa, so she gathered the information she received over her phone and uploaded what was happening in Tahrir on to the blogs.

Servers were connected to one another to get around the blockade, or voicemail would be converted into tweets in order for the demonstrators in the square to report what was happening there in real time.

Now that Mubarak has fallen, there is still much to be done, Hassan said. The military have behaved worse than the dictator, she complained, so activists remain extremely necessary.

She herself was in South Africa when the revolution broke out, and would be given information on what was happening in Tahrir Square by telephone and write it up on blogs.

Hassan highlighted a key element: Women don’t only work on gender issues, but are involved in every political and labour issue.

Jolly Okot’s childhood came to an end in 1986, when she was abducted by a member of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda.

She said she was fortunate to get away. In 2005 she began to make documentaries and founded the organisation Invisible Children, which has documented the horrors suffered by boys and girls forced to fight in different wars. It also promotes education as the way forward for these victims.

One of the campaigns run by the organisation features “Kony 2012”, a short film about the outrages committed by LRA leader Joseph Kony, which went viral on the internet. The aim is to arrest Kony and take him before the International Criminal Court.

The great achievement of the new technologies is that, with one click, thousands of people can receive information, said Okot, who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. You can reach leaders and persuade them to take decisions, she said.

But she said that ICTs are a complementary tool for change, and the real tool that will change things in Africa is a different one: education.

“Unfortunately, journalists don’t have so much power to change things; our duty is to report and let others assume their responsibility,” said Torrea, who for the last 14 years has been reporting on the killings of hundreds of young women in Ciudad Juárez, on the border with the United States.

Torrea stressed “the importance of alternative voices who will tell the truth about what is happening on the ground,” even though these voices may be “a nuisance” for those in power, as in her case.

The journalist acknowledged that bloggers are under a great deal of pressure from those in power, because they are special agents of change at the global level.

“When women bloggers – I say women because they tend to be the best-known – manage to get their voices heard, that is when they start receiving the most pressure, threats and smear campaigns,” she said.

“This happens to all of us, whether we are in Tunisia, Ciudad Juárez or Saudi Arabia,” said Torrea, who published her book Juárez, en la sombra del narcotráfico” (Ciudad Juárez, in the Shadow of Drug Trafficking) a year ago, and has received many awards for her work.

She said it was “a global phenomenon” because “when power feels it is under attack, it reacts against the voices that provoke debate.”

The Mexican activist concluded with a concept repeated by many women at the congress in San Sebastián: “If we don’t know what is going on in the world, we will have fewer opportunities for change.”

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