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6 Recommendations for Supporting Women and Girls’ Power, Voice and Influence Through Digital ICTs

By Guest Writer on April 25, 2017

What does the empirical evidence tell us about the types of interventions most likely to enable women and girls to use digital ICTs in ways that increase their voice and their influence? That is a question posed within a rapid literature review from the two-year Learning and Evidence Project on Women’s Voice and Leadership in Decision-Making by the Overseas Development Institute.

Do digital information and communications technologies increase the voice and influence of women and girls?” focuses specifically on the evidence from programmes or interventions that aim to build women and girls’ voice  and  influence  through  their  use  of digital technologies and  social  media.

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Women Girls and ICTThe literature review found eight recommendations for designers of digital ICT programmes supporting women and girls’ power, voice, and influence are presented. These include:

1. If they are to empower women, digital ICT programmes must address gender-and class-based barriers to women’s access.

Numerous structural factors can limit whether women use ICTs and how they use them, such as social barriers that mean women may not have the literacy skills they need, material barriers that mean they may not have the money to buy or use ICT devices (or may not have control over their own or household finances) and psychological barriers that may mean women believe they should not or are unable to learn digital ICT skills.

Attention must also be paid to whether access to ICTs decreases women’s burden of work or rather adds additional tasks to their existing traditional duties. For example, women in Indonesia who were trained in ICT skills gained greater status in their village but were also asked to take on administrative tasks for the local elites (Jahaj, 2013). All programming therefore needs to include gender and political economy analysis in its design and implementation and be situated within broader political and socioeconomic context.

2. Women and girls can be active conveyors of ideas and information through their use of digital ICTs or passive recipients of information.

The distinction has clear significance for assumptions about whether and how ICTs will increase women and girls’ voice and influence over decision-making. If ICT programmes are to increase voice and influence, they need to understand and design interventions that increase not only women’s access to information (e.g. through e-government, access to ICTs) but also their communication and engagement with others through digital ICTs. For example, an initiative in South Africa used an online platform to encourage girls to engage with policy-makers over public spaces where they felt safe (Klugman et al., 2014).

The literature suggests it is wrong to assume access to digital ICTs will result in women using ICTs for economic, educational and political purposes. For example, Intel (2013) found that, initially, women are more likely to use the internet for entertainment than education. Therefore, additional guidance on the potential benefits ICTs can bring to women, as well as incentives to take these opportunities, are important.

Access to digital ICTs can empower women economically, but this does not necessarily translate into greater social or political power. While women having greater economic opportunities through their use of digital ICTs is valuable in itself, programmes need politically informed design if women are to use economic empowerment as a stepping stone to increased presence and influence in the social and political spheres as well.

Policy and programmes concerning ICTs need to look beyond technical and economic factors to see the potential positive and negative impact of ICTs on society, culture, and politics (Gurumurthy et al., 2012). This could involve a government’s department for ICT incorporating gender concerns into its work and the ministry for women paying attention to the impact of ICT on gender relations (ibid.).

3. There is no automatic relationship between women having more ‘power within’ and ‘power to’, on the one hand, and their having more ‘power with’ and ‘power over’, on the other.

Influence is a factor not just of women having a voice but, critically, also of the nature of that voice, of women’s movements and of the broader environment in which they operate. Digital ICT training and use can provide women and girls with the skills, confidence and opportunities for their increased voice, as ICT training for female leaders in Bolivia showed (Wamala, 2012). These are important building blocks to voice and influence.

But increasing the power of individual women will not necessarily translate into the collective action needed to challenge gender inequality unless programmes explicitly build support for this into their design

4. More research is needed on when and how digital ICTs contribute to women’s mobilisation around particular issues that is effective in enabling them to project their views and interests in ways that influence decision-makers.

While there are examples of how women have used digital ICTs to strengthen their campaigns, there are many other factors influencing the political weight of women’s voice. It is important, therefore, to view ICT as a tool alongside other considerations, such as the particular issue and who has an interest in it, the strategic choices of women’s groups and the political context in which they are working.

For example, during the Arab Uprising, women’s movements used digital ICTs effectively to express their views but online campaigning alone was not sufficient to significantly change gender relations (Newson and Lengel, 2012).It is important here to also consider the extent to which there is solidarity of elite women with poor women’s everyday interests, and the circumstances in which government is more likely to be responsive to online campaigning or where collaboration with government and informal negotiation and influence may be more effective than traditional advocacy, or need to be used in tandem with it (Tadros, 2014).

5. Whether e-government empowers women in practice depends on how activities and tools are designed and implemented and, crucially, whether women are able to actively use them.

Women appear to be more passive recipients of government information through these activities, rather than actively influencing them or engaging in local decision or policy-making.  E-government activities can provide women and girls with better information, services and access to government, especially on socially sensitive issues, such as sexual health services that can be accessed more discreetly digitally.

For e-governance to have a differential impact on women and girls than on men and boys, it is important for women to have some control over how services are provided. The E-Seva programme in India showed benefits for women because women were trained in managing the ICT kiosks and had an important role in facilitating the system (Karan and Raj Mathur, 2010).

6. Programmes need to consider whether digital ICTs can increase women’s insecurity and/or risk of violence.

Women’s access to and use of digital ICTs may result in confrontation and conflict between women and others in their offline and online community, including family members and regressive groups that feel threatened by women’s increased access to information and communication.

Women’s use of ICTs, especially if advocating around gender-based issues, is likely to challenge existing gender-based power relations and so programmes must anticipate the backlash women may experience as a result. For example, a study in Zambia found women’s husbands often reacted negatively to their use of mobile phones, perceiving it as a challenge to their authority (Wakunuma, 2012).

Programmes therefore need to be alert to the possible dangers women face online and offline from using ICTs to express themselves publicly and access new opportunities independently. Doing so involves respecting the ‘do no harm’ principle and, when women’s access to ICTs may increase their power in one domain of their life but lessen it in others, identifying strategies to manage and mitigate empowerment trade-offs.

7. Laws and policy governing internet use must be gender-aware and should protect users from violence and harassment.

In particular, definitions of harm must be expanded to recognise the severity of crimes such as cyber stalking, trolling, online sexual exploitation and other violations (Gurumurthy and Chami, 2014). Programmes should also be aware of the commodification of ICTs and the internet by private sector interests that shape the information and services available and the cost of using ICTs to communicate.

Programmes could promote women’s cooperatives to run ‘not-for-profit ICT infrastructure’ that promotes locally relevant information and services, and pro-poor licensing schemes could be developed for local wireless networks (ibid.).

8. To raise the quality of research into women’s use of digital ICTs, sex-disaggregated data based on standardised indicators that relate to policy goals are needed.

This would make possible better measurement of change and impact in this area. Studies of ICT development programmes should also be more systematic, detailing assumptions and using rigorous research methodology to test hypotheses and substantiate conclusions (Gurumurthy and Chami, 2014). This is important for gaining a more detailed understanding of when and how women use ICTs to increase their voice and influence.

It is important to take on board that women and girl’s empowerment, whether through use of digital ICTs or other resources, is multidimensional and non-linear. The use of digital ICTs may therefore empower women in some areas of their life while reducing their power in others –as when women have more public voice but are subjected to increased violence.

The digital divide also means digital ICTs may increase the power of some women while reducing the power of others. For programming to be better informed by learning on the conditions under which (different groups of) women and girls are able to use digital ICTs to increase their power, voice and influence, there is a need for more research grounded in established social and political theory, including development and gender studies.

Ultimately, it is important to recognise that, while ICTs are always changing, so too are gender norms, and that the interaction between the two is therefore in constant flux(Marcelle, 2002). As Gurumurthy et al. (2006) advocate, this means that policies and programmes that attempt to use ICTs to increase women’s voice and influence must be acutely aware of the socio-political environment in which they work, and be flexible and adaptive, constantly learning and responding to the complex and rapidly changing global information society.

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