The woman in this photo is a 77-year old Ugandan grandmother named Anastasia. She is illiterate, but managed to get "hooked" on computers thanks to an interactive CD full of pictures and sound explaining how women in Uganda can use technology to make money. According to Nancy Hafkin, a leading scholar on technology, development, and gender, Anastasia "used the information on the CD to raise her income from raising chickens and now travels through her district to promote awareness among women, especially those without formal education, on how new information technologies can improve their well-being."
Anastasia's new career as cyber-granny didn't just happen because somebody donated money for a bunch of computer centers and cyber cafes in Uganda. Her new-found role is thanks to an organization called WOUGNET (Women of Uganda Network), an organization that has put a lot of effort into figuring out how to make computers accessible to women who are badly educated or illiterate, how to make technology relevant to solving problems in women's daily lives, and how to create female-friendly environments in which women have the opportunity and time to learn. Here is a video shot by WOUGNET, documenting the challenges that women in one community in Uganda face in trying to use the local computer center:
These stories were part of a luncheon talk on gender and technology at the Berkman Center by Nancy Hafkin editor of a new book called Cinderella or Cyberella? Empowering Women in Knowledge Society. She posed several challenges to common assumptions that technology is "gender neutral." Many people assume that the introduction of computers and the Internet into a society will transform everybody's lives positively, and that the technology naturally "trickles down" to benefit both women and men.
- Just because you introduce the Internet into a society doesn't mean that it will be used equally by men and women. Interestingly, the percentage of women vs. men using the Internet vary widely from country to country - where there are statistics on this at all. In some countries with widespread Internet penetration (the U.S., Canada, and Hong Kong for example) Internet useage is split fairly evenly between men and women. While in other countries with high levels of Internet penetration there is significant disparity (France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK). Same in developing countries with low Internet penetration: in some developing countries with low Internet penetration, there are nonetheless relatively equal numbers of men and women using the Internet, while in other countries with similarly low Internet penetration levels, the relative proportion of men and women using the Internet is badly skewed. What this shows is that there are lots of social and cultural factors that dictate the extent to which women will take advantage of the Internet's existence in their country. It also means that choices made by people with power and money - education policy choices, business model choices, and development project funding choices - can all make a difference. Unfortunately Hafkin believes that policymakers, NGO's, and businesses tend to lack awareness about the gender implications of their decisions about how technology will be implemented, taught, or marketed. Hopefully, her ongoing research will help make them more aware.
- You can't assume that technology - just by virtue of existing in a society - will bring immediate positive benefits to women's lives. In fact there may be ways in which the technology might worsen women's lives in the short term. Hafkin brought up the fact that the Internet has fed the growth of the porn industry and the child porn industry, which in some parts of the world increases the victimization of girls and women. She also pointed to studies in some parts of Africa that indicate increased domestic violence arising after women attempt to use the Internet or mobile phones, because their husbands and fathers tended to interpret this as an effort to communicate with other men. She did not raise this as an argument against the spread of technology, but rather to point out that women in some communities may first come into contact with technology via negative experiences such as these, which may in turn cause women and their parents to view technology as a male realm that they had best avoid in order to be safe. This context needs to be understood and kept in mind when we are thinking about questions of gender equality in the use of technology. How do you create opportunities for use of technology that will not feel threatening to women or to family members who may control what they can or can't do?
- In communities where Internet and computer resources are scarce, women and girls will be left behind if they don't feel safe or if circumstances to use the technology are stacked against them. It appears that in developing countries where there is relative gender parity of Internet use, one major reason is that a lot of women are working in the formal economy - i.e., in offices that have computers. Many "ICT4D" (internet and communication technology for development) projects created in rural communities by well meaning non-governmental organizations often fail to create environments that are conducive to women and girls being able to use that technology as easily as men and boys. Parents and husbands tend to be leery of a woman's reasons for wanting to go and spend a few hours a week in a computer center. Cyber-cafes are often full of men watching porn and playing violent games, creating an environment in which women don't feel comfortable and or which parents forbid their daughters from entering.
Hafkin argues that women can basically have a "Cinderella" relationship with technology or a "Cyberella" relationship with technology, hence the title of her book. According to two of her slides which she generously shared:
- Works in the basement of knowledge society (if she works at all)
- Has little opportunity to reap its benefits
- Waits for "her prince" to decide the benefits she will receive
Most women around the world today are Cinderella. Hafkin believes the goal is for Cinderella to become Cyberella, who is:
- Fluent in the uses of technology
- Comfortable using and designing computer, technology and communication equipment, software, and in working in virtual spaces
- Devises innovative uses for technologies across problems and subjects
- Finds information and knowledge to improve her life and expand choices
- Active knowledge creator and disseminator
- More than a user, designs information and knowledge systems to improve all aspects of her life.
Will Cinderellas magically transform into Cyberellas over time? Initial research indicates that the answer is not necessarily.
This is where cyber-granny comes back into the picture. Hafkin mentioned the Grameen phone project, in which village women in Bangladesh and elsewhere are given micro-loans to create businesses in which they rent out uses of mobile phones. What if women like Anastasia could get capital and support, systematically, to run computer and Internet kiosks in their villages? Would that create environments that would feel more friendly to women, and less threatening to their parents and husbands? Hafkin said that in India and elsewhere there are village Internet kiosk projects, some of which are run by women. She pointed out that it would be interesting to see some statistics comparing the number of female customers at women-run cyber-centers versus the numbers of women using other cyber-cafes and computer centers in similar areas.
Why am I writing about all this at such length? Because I've been thinking a great deal lately (in between packing and winding up various projects before I move to Hong Kong) about the question of how policy and business choices affect the extent to which the Internet is or is not transformative for different kinds of people. Hafkin's work is important because it highlights how - if we really want technology to make the world a better place for everybody - spreading computers and Internet access around as widely as possible is certainly a start, but it's probably not going to be enough.