Gender and ICT/Introduction

The digital divide is not an accessibility issue but an equity issue… Under informational or digital capitalism increasing returns are not an anomaly. But they create an instability. They have been marked by the most unequal distributions of income and wealth in human history. …development theories of the industrial age are inadequate to explain the ground realities of the information age.

- Govindan Parayil, National University of Singapore [1]

What are the Benefits of ICT for Development and What is the Digital Divide? edit

Information and Communications Technology (ICT) has no doubt been recognized as a potent force that can transform the development pace and status of a country. In fact, this is not the first time that technology is seen to provide the much needed impetus for progress and development. Industrialization and the establishment of manufacturing and electronic assembly plants, primarily in Asia, and to a large extent in Latin America, have demonstrated how technology alone could influence and drive economies and their respective developmental policies.

Within the same vein, the developments taking place in the field of ICT have positively enabled and strengthened the creation, processing, storing and sharing of information as a continuous communication cycle. It provides instantaneous relaying of information to and from any location on the face of the planet at a relatively lower cost than ever before.[2] The potential benefits for women with the resources to access and use new ICTs are enormous. For society as a whole, ICTs offer immense possibilities for reducing poverty by providing income generating opportunities, overcoming women’s isolation, giving women a voice, improving governance and advancing gender equality. In addition, ICTs have provided various options to increase the reach and speed of communication (see Box 1).

At a macro level, this seems to imply that geographical, social, economic and political borders and boundaries are made irrelevant in this new information age. However, there is a growing global concern on what is deemed as the ‘digital divide’ – of those who have the capacity and access to information and the ‘information have-nots’.

Box 1: New Information and Communication Technologies
Information Technology (IT) uses computers, which have become indispensable in modern

societies, to process data and save time and effort. IT employs the use of computer hardware and peripherals, as well as software, and requires computer literacy on the part of its users.

Telecommunication Technologies include telephones (with fax) and the broadcasting of radio and television, often through satellites.

Networking Technologies of which the best known is the Internet, but which has extended to mobile phone technology, Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephony, satellite communications, and other forms of communication that are still in their infancy. Networking technologies include the Internet, mobile telephones and cables, Digital Subscriber Line, satellite and other broadband connectivity.

Source: Adapted from Association for Progressive Communications. 2003. ICT Policy: A Beginner’s Handbook. Johannesburg: APC. p. 9

In addition, it must be noted that the impact of the digital divide on information ‘have-nots’ needs to be contextualized within the reality that women make up the majority of the poor and are part of the deeper end of this divide.[3] The constraints on women’s access, usage and capacity vis-à-vis ICT are similar in many respects regardless of geography. Poverty, illiteracy, lack of education and skills, language limitations and capacity, time constraints, cultural restrictions on mobility in public, and psychological barriers (which are perhaps due to the perception that technology is a male domain) often result in women’s ambivalence and fear towards ICTs.

Why does Gender Equality Remain a Missing Agenda in Development? edit

Today’s development framework leaves very little room to address issues of equity (which, to a large extent, demands affirmative action towards women’s empowerment) and gender equality. If a gender perspective and analysis is at all integrated, the main impulse motivating the articulation of concerns with gender are usually limited to promoting growth, reducing poverty and improving productivity (Rose, 1995). The additional concerns of Asian countries on the sustainability of the digital economy have further exacerbated this emphasis.[4] As trends in negotiations around the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) have shown, actions which were proposed prioritize issues of infrastructure, connectivity and access (WSIS Plan of Action 2003[5]). Gender equality advocacy groups had to continuously monitor negotiations and persistently advocate for gender to be recognized as a cross-cutting issue and principle in the final declaration, only to see it whittle down and tied specifically to a paragraph on women as a target group, and after young people (WSIS Declaration of Principles 2003[6]). Such narrow definitions discourage a deeper analysis and engagement into the complexities faced by women and girls in exercising their agency in decision-making that affects all spheres of their lives. Hence, engagement with equity in this respect usually extends only as far as addressing ‘access’, rather than empowerment issues of control, ownership, decision-making and self-determination. A policy study on gender and ICT in the Philippines by WomensHub and the Philippine Legislators Committee on Population and Development (PLCPD) points out that a correlation between the level of human development and the prevalence of ICT access and use exists and that “countries with high human development indices prove to have high ICT availability. Women’s development, as a highlighted concern of human and sustainable development, must therefore be considered in the planning, implementation, and monitoring of ICT development and utilization in the country.”[7]

Why is There a Need to Incorporate Gender in ICT for Development? edit

In order to maximize the potentials of ICT in effecting gender equality and women’s empowerment, there is a need to not only have a clearer understanding of the concept of gender, but to also consciously integrate a gender perspective in ICT and improve our ability in identifying and analysing gender and ICT issues.

At the outset, while it is acknowledged that most development paradigms do incorporate gender as a factor, it must be noted that these are primarily and largely as an add-on or as an afterthought. It must also be noted that several developmental agencies have now taken a broad-based approach, whereby they have placed gender as a cross-cutting thematic area of developmental work.

Gender advocates have long insisted that gender is an integral component in development for the simple reason that persistent and emerging gender issues and inequalities hinder full and equitable development. A gender-blind framework and approach to development does not take into account socially constructed inequalities between women and men, as well as between different kinds of women and different kinds of men, within a community.

Furthermore, the location of gender in development paradigms and initiatives have been mostly in areas that are viewed traditionally as ‘women’s issues’, such as health, and violence within the community and the family. While these issues of concern are important, it is equally important to extend and expand the development framework to include areas and fields that have not included women and gender in the past. In the Philippines, for instance, the review of the government’s ICT policies that was conducted by WomensHub and PLCPD has shown that: “Significantly missing in the many incarnations of the ICT policy initiatives and formulations as well as ICT legislations in the last 10 years is a clear-cut and equivocal commitment to advance the gender equality and women’s empowerment through ICT. The Philippines’ strategic framework for ICT development is silent on gender issues and considerations.”[8]

ICTs have long been believed to be gender neutral but, contradictorily, the ICT sector is primarily a male domain. This, in and of itself, is an issue as it dismisses the invisibility of women in the ICT field as a given. ICT for development frameworks and initiatives that do not incorporate gender as a key factor and concern run the risk of widening inequalities between women and men. For example, in attempts to provide universal access to ICTs among rural communities, several development agencies fail to consider women’s particular needs and realities in planning and implementation. Thus, these initiatives tend to be largely tailored towards the needs of men within these communities, a situation that further marginalizes women. Policy makers and even development experts may sceptically ask too, why women living in poverty would need computers? (See Box 2).

Box 2: Why Women Living in Poverty Would Need Computers
Why would women living in poverty need computers if they still do not have access to clean

water and other basic goods? This is an interesting debate which is touched upon in the International Development Research Centre book Gender and the Information Revolution in Africa by Rathgeber and Adera, but which needs much more exploration. Limited evidence so far suggests that the poor are willing to spend a significant proportion of their income on ICTs if by using them they can see real economic benefits. For example, a World Bank report showed that, in Chile, the poorest sections of society spend as much on telecommunications as on water and electricity combined (Kenny, et al., 2000). Another research issue relates to whether the emergent information society can be seen as a knowledge society.

Source: Information and Communications Technologies: A Priority for Women in Developing Countries. Paper presented at the International Meeting on Gender, Science and Technology: Current Trends and Future Action, Radcliffe Public Policy Centre, Cambridge, MA, 30 April - 1 May 2001.

ICT is an important tool to address women’s basic needs but, more importantly, it also serves as a means for women to lead themselves out of poverty. “Women in poverty may lack education and may be illiterate, but this should not be equated with their lack of wisdom, survival skills or resilience,” stressed Usha Reddi, Director of the Commonwealth Educational Media Centre for Asia. Women must be enabled to use ICT effectively within a social, economic and cultural fabric that has consistently disallowed this. Digbijoy Bhowmik of i4d said, “it must be kept in mind that the need for information and communication precedes the need or substantiation of technology.” [9] In other words, the need for information, knowledge and communication and the means by which these are provided cannot be considered at the same level of priority, as these needs existed long before ICT. ICT must remain as the means to this end.

Application of ICTs by women’s rights activists in small-scale projects has shown that such technologies enable a woman to seek safe spaces in the form of information, knowledge and community. ICTs provide women the ability to make informed choices in relation to political, economical or social issues that affect their lives. If a gender perspective and analysis is not integrated from the beginning into national ICT policies while nations are either still trying to develop these or have yet to start, women and girls risk experiencing disempowering gender relations of a greater intensity and being impoverished even further.

References edit

  1. Key points from a paper exploring if ICTs could be India’s growth engine, which was presented at the Indo-US workshop organized by the department of management studies of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. See
  2. See Drake, W., ‘The Rise and Decline of the International Telecommunications Regime’.
  3. e-Choupal, for example, is a much celebrated initiative. Their agriculture extension efforts in India which seek to improve the productivity of agriculturists are based on the telecentre model. e-Choupal has been critiqued for not involving low-caste farmers. Women are also not seen as intended beneficiaries of the initiative (Gurumurthy, 2004: p.29).
  4. According to Mitter (2001), sustainability of the digital economy depends, finally, on a country’s ability to cater to its domestic needs and local traditions; in its absence, export-oriented strategies will only create an enclave or a satellite economy, often referred to as the ‘bubble economy’, that is dependent upon decisions of foreign investors. There is thus, in Asia, justified concern lest that these bubbles burst and ICT-related jobs disappear.
  5. The WSIS Plan of Action can be referred to online at
  6. The WSIS Declaration of Principles can be referred to online at
  7. Gender and ICT in the Philippines: A Proposed Framework’, jointly-developed by WomensHub and the Philippine Legislators Committee on Population and Development.
  8. The four-month review covered (1) National ICT Plans and Strategies from the Ramos Administration to the Macapagal-Arroyo Administration; (2) Major ICT-related Legislations; (3) Conferences and Major ICT-related Covenants and Declaration of Commitments; (4) Publicly-funded ICT Projects and Initiatives which Promotes Citizen’s Access and Use of ICT; and (5) Pending ICT-related House and Senate Bills. The review’s objective was to find out whether gender equality and women’s empowerment are considerations in the government’s ICT strategies, policies and actions over the last 10 years.
  9. Please visit for full summary report of the i4d-hosted online discussions on ‘Gender and ICT: Issues, Implications & Opportunities’.