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Women in the information society

Bangladesh: A village woman is talking to her husband from the cell phone of Rabia Begum, who runs a small business where she lets villagers use her cell phone for a nominal fee / G.M.B. Akash - Panos Pictures

Many policy-makers believe ICTs can help women overcome dependence on men by providing employment. Here a Panos London editor offers ideas of how to develop a story around the topic of women in information society.

In the audio feature Are ICTs empowering women? we hear from Sophie, a small businesswoman running a cell-phone recharging kiosk in Kampala. She had previously sold vegetables in the market. At the time of recording Sophie was feeling disillusioned with the new business.

Many policy-makers believe ICTs can help women overcome dependence on men by providing employment. The UN's World Summit on the Information Society acknowledged that information and communication technologies should provide opportunities for women (see the WSIS Declaration of Principles).

Providing a basic source of income

Perhaps the most famous and widely-quoted example of women's' empowerment through ICT, are micro-credit activities such as the Grameen's Village Phone Programme in Bangladesh and Uganda. In the Grameen Phone village programmes in Uganda and Bangladesh a woman borrows money for a mobile phone which is set up for several accounts. She buys airtime in bulk which she then resells to customers in the village.

Although female phone operators are generally poorer than the average villager, their income is significant, generally accounting for 30-40 per cent of household income. Nevertheless, it should be noted that some researchers argue the Grameen Phone scheme has is generally available only to literate, low-income women, who have access to other loans, and not to even poorer, illiterate women.

Providing opportunities to develop enhanced skills

It is hard for women to fully embrace the most lucrative opportunities of ICTs without proper education and training. Women are often less educated and less prepared for the workplace than men. For example in Uganda the number of people without any formal education is higher among females: 24 per cent compared to 10 per cent of men.

Mongolia has taken steps to address inequality. In 1996 Mongolia Telecom, which employs more than 50 per cent women, adopted a human resource development plan to help at least 20 per cent of women at lower levels move up to managerial positions. As a result, women now constitute over 20 per cent of senior managers, compared with just 9 percent when the plan was introduced.

Women have successfully used ICTs by forming peer networks. For example, the Kudumbashree Project in India created a state wide series of cooperative micro-enterprises owned, managed and operated by women from below poverty line families.

Women and the policy agenda

According to research by Patricia Litho those promoting and making ICT policies must understand that these new technologies create problems as well as solutions. Women often to walk long distances to reach the Internet centres and they would rather stay at home where they have to perform duties. On the other hand, they find the mobile phone accessible.

There is limited participation from women in the policy process. Patricia Litho says this alienates women's concerns in the established ICT policies. As a result, some of the technology that is introduced for development is inappropriate to the needs, priorities and circumstances of women. Researchers argue that decision-making ought to consider women's opinion on how ICT can improve lives of the women.

Malaysia, for example, conducted research to find ways in which tale-work could improve women's career opportunities and quality of life. As a direct result of the study, tale-work and its influence on women's employment were used in Malaysia's development policy.

Delve deeper

  • Can small scale ICT businesses really create new opportunities for women? What are the prospects for those women?
  • What are other ways of empowering women with a use of ICT?
  • How many women are involved in setting ICT policy? Are ICT policies and projects set by government 'gender sensitive'?
  • Is there any evidence that new communication technologies are changing roles  between men and women? Giving women more confidence? Creating new tensions?

Bring it to life

  • Day in the life of a mobile-phone airtime seller. What would he or she be doing otherwise? How does this compare to selling vegetables etc?
  • Find the most successful woman working in ICT in the country. How did she get there? What obstacles did she face? What is her background? Perhaps she could take questions from schoolgirls who want to get into the sector.
  • Research suggests women get a feeling of independence from mobile phones. Is this true? Ask a cross-section of women
  • What kind of ICTs do women feel comfortable using? Is there a difference between men and women? Visit an internet café and find out who visits and what they use.

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