We need to “take back the tech” NOW

November 28, 2009 at 10:39 pm 3 comments

When ICT and VAW (Violence against Women) were mentioned to me in one breath for the first time, I didn’t immediately see the connection between the two. I guess part of me has always spent a lot of time defending the Internet and communication technologies and that is why I am very quick to react to any suggestion of technology being related to anything negative, or being made to appear to be a threat as opposed to an enabler and an equalizer.

However, being a person who usually gives anything new a fair hearing before making any sort of judgement, I listened. And as I listened, I realized what I had missed, the things I had failed to connect. What the members of the Association of Progressive Communications (APC) Women’s Networking Support Program said made total sense and my eyes lit up as I began to understand what they were trying to do, what they were in fact advocating.

Unequal power in gender relations has always been central to the issue of Violence against Women. Men (or women) who indulge in violence are trying to prove their physical superiority over, or control of, another human being. Of course that doesn’t make them superior. In fact it probably stems from a feeling of inferiority and the need to prove otherwise. However it gives them the false pretension of have power over the person they are victimizing resulting in that person’s individual rights and liberties being impinged.

So how does that translate into violence using ICTs? The same crimes that exist in the real world also exist in the online or virtual world – cyberstalking, harrassment using email, SMSes, chat, online messengers and other tools. These methods have been known to be used to harrass and cause psychological trauma in women and children as well as to be a source of threat to their privacy and confidentiality. Then there is the increasing instance of pornography and human trafficking using a faster more accessible medium. Tracking of women using GIS, webcams etc by the perpetrators of voilence, has also been known to happen.

Information and Communication Technology is of course gender neutral but obstacles such as poor infrastructure, high usage costs, budgetary constraints, psychological barriers, inadequate skills and access have often been cited as some of the reasons for relatively low usage of technology by women. I remember how surprised I was when a young IT professional told me that in his household his sister and his wife were not allowed access to the computer. When I asked why he said that the male members of the family wanted to protect “their women” from the threats that existed online. This may appear to be a case of chivalry but what does it result in? It keeps women from using technology for their benefit. It restricts them from accessing all the sources of knowledge that are out there, keeps them from connecting with support networks, from sources of entertainment, the possibility of online work and economic empowerment and basically from being a part of a dynamic and growing global community.

Women’s organisations and support groups are also slow to adopting and using the ever-growing online medium and social networks to communicate their message and to provide the kind of linkages and support that they so easily could if they could harness a medium that is within their reach.

There is no question that security is important. But it is possible for women and women’s groups to learn to use these new technologies to their advantage securely. They can use privacy settings and common-sense approaches to keep themselves safe online.

The mission of this project “Take Back the Tech” is to enable and educate women’s groups, NGOs, support organisations, activists and women themselves to take charge of their lives by grasping the reigns of these technologies and using them for their own empowerment.

Women need to involve themselves in the development of online multimedia and visual content and online games. They need to be part of privacy advocacy groups and initiatives to ensure that technology and policy is developed keeping gender sensitivities and challenges in focus. The digital divide that exists is not just between the developing and developed world, it is also between genders, also between the digitally literate and the digitally deprived. This needs to change NOW.

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