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ICTs for Gender Equity
|by Sakuntala Narsimhan|
Turning adversity into advantage is what a successful go-getting strategy is all about. Not surprising then, that the Association of Women in Development (AWID) conference 2002, held in Mexico, came up with the suggestion that globalization, which has so far been seen as working against the interests of women, could be co-opted for promoting gender equity.
More recently, examples of such co-option in the area of information and communication technology (ICT) for the benefit of women, were described during a two-day consultation for grassroots development, organized by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Bangalore last week.
Globalization has meant economic liberalization, which has meant throwing markets open to international competition. Market mechanisms work on the ruthless principle of "survival of the fittest", and those who are unable to compete because of the absence of a level playing field get cruelly penalized. Resources like forests (used by the poor for grazing or firewood and fuel, or even food in the form of wild produce) have been appropriated by commercial undertakings operating for profit, thus pushing the poor deeper into distress.
Women have been the worst hit, deprived of even access to raw materials that helped them survive. Documented evidence is now available to show that there is a correlation between the growth of the forces of globalization, and what has come to be known as the feminization of poverty, worldwide.
Protests against globalization have been gathering strength in many regions of the world, demanding that people's rights to basic needs, employment and dignity as human beings should be put first, rather than profits. But globalization has proceeded apace, leaving developing countries (and the poorer sections in particular) helpless in the face of a relentless juggernaut maneuvered by the countries of the developed world.
And therefore the question: If globalization cannot be reversed, can it be co-opted to help promote gender equity?
As one feminist activist puts it, "Fire can be dangerous, it can burn and destroy and kill, but the same fire, when used judiciously, can also be used to nurture life, it can provide warmth and comfort and light..." If those elements of globalization that promise benefits to all sections of the populace rather than just a few can be adopted, globalization could well be redefined.
In the West Godavari district of the state of Andhra Pradesh, for instance, e-seva kendrams (low-cost ICT centres) have been set up by Self Help Groups (SHGs) to bridge the rural-urban digital divide, and enable lower income groups to share information. "The Internet is in fact the most cost effective method of reaching the people," observes bureaucrat Sanjay Jaju, who is associated with this ICT initiative. In the same state, the Deccan Development Society has installed transmitters for connecting 5,000 rural Dalit women of Medak district, not merely as receivers of information but also as producers of information, by using broadcasts planned and produced by the community itself.
The Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan in Gujarat which works with 10,500 rural women in 158 villages in Kutch district began initially with a small newsletter before changing over to radio broadcasts that reach even the illiterate in remote areas. Programs cover subjects like girls' education, female infanticide, women's political participation, and a serial on women as sarpanches (heads of the village council).
Another example is the use of globalize technology to help provide access to information to the physically challenged. Mitra Jyoti, an NGO working with the blind in Bangalore, empowers these girls with skills and expertise that enable self-reliance. A simple computer connected to a voice synthesizer and suitable software becomes a talking computer so that a blind person can navigate the screen. With a scanner connected to the talking computer, the machine acts as a reading machine. Several user-friendly websites like http://www.eSight.org and www.disabilitynet.org become accessible. The visually disabled can not only network and empower themselves but also access job openings.
On a more global level, a women's electronic network called womensrightswatch (based in Nigeria) used its network recently to mobilize support for Amina, who was sentenced to death by stoning by a Sharia court. The network garnered worldwide support against the death-by-stoning penalty. Women from different continents were able to sign petitions extending their solidarity with activists in Nigeria.
As Dr B P Sanjaya of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication observed during the consultation in Bangalore, global technology becomes a resource as well as a reform tool. In the process, three important factors that promote equity get addressed - improving access to information, extending the right to information, and increasing the disadvantaged communities' right to participation in development.
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