Cheekay Cinco (member of APC WNSP) of the Philippines interviews Nancy Hafkin on her reflections about the field of ICTs and gender, especially regarding policy issues and the World Summit on Information Society , via Skype.
Dr. Nancy J. Hafkin has been a true pioneer of networking, and development information and communications in Africa, over the course of a twenty-three year career. In fact, she is credited with being among the first to enter the field of electronic communications in Africa.
She also founded and spearheaded the Pan African Development Information System (PADIS) of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), as Officer-in-Charge from its inception in 1980 until 1997. Dr Hafkin played a central role in facilitating the APC's work to enable email connectivity in more than 10 countries during the early 1990s, before full internet connectivity became a reality in most of Africa.
The virtualactivism.org network describes here as a "pioneer of networking and development information and communications in Africa". New York-born and Boston-educated Hafkin did her PhD in African history, with a dissertation on trade, society and politics of Mozambique. She has said in an earlier interview: "Throughout my university years I was active in student support movements- especially anti-apartheid and support for liberation movements in Portuguese colonies in Africa. I became interested in women's political issues and women as a field of study in the last 'sixties, when I organized a study group on women and "underdevelopment" in Africa (in the parlance of the time)."
The World Summit on Information Society
Nancy Hafkin believes that in the World Summit on Information Society a lot was gained. This included the gender caucus, where a lot of gender and ICT advocates came forward and raise gender issues.
It was harder in WSIS II, though, she feels. "The two main issues (raised) were not the main issues that gender and ICT advocates were concerned about. It was harder to get gender issues to the fore. Governance and financing had gender issues...but they were not the biggest concern of gender and ICT advocates," she elaborates.
At WSIS II in Tunis, in her view, the intergovernmental meeting was concerned about other issues. Gender issues were discussed in the forum, not in the intergovernmental meeting.
Non-neutrality of ICTs
Take the case of sexual exploitation and trafficking issue. Hafkin points out that these very complex issues have been mostly complicated by arguments of how to protect women's rights vis-a-vis the freedom of expression. "There seems to have been a focus only on the positive aspects of ICTs. But other women see the exploitation issue. A very pollyana approach," she adds.
"To me the most basic issue is this whole awareness of the non-neutrality of ICTs... this is the hardest one to get across... no matter how much we say that there are gender issues in all of this. It's very difficult to convince those who are doing it. They're gender-blind and completely unaware of it," she adds.
One the other hand, so many of the gender advocates are so unaware of what these issues out too, she points out. She cites the case of a women's department in a Southern country, which was asked to give input for a women's ICT policy. As it worked out, they knew of gender issues. But on matters of gender-and-ICT policy, they were unable to say anything.
"The job is of educating both the people in ICT and gender advocates about what this is ICTs all about and what are the gender issues," she adds. "(All need to realise that) intervention must happen at the earlier design phase...not at the point of impact."
Hafkin stresses that one needs to ask the question: how does whatever it is we're dealing with affect men and women differently? What are the reasons for this?
Does she see a growth in addressing gender issues in ICT?
"Yes, there has been tremendous growth. There has been a growth in awareness of gender issues in ICTs. In 1998, the 'developed' countries realised digital divide issues. Just about exactly the same time, gender advocates have become more active in bringing these issues to the forefront," she notes.
Yet, there's a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done. "Global awareness is there... but there's always need for more awareness. The issue has been brought to the global forum, but at the local level is where we have to do battle," she says. "(There's need for) awareness of global processes at the local level. For more awareness in developing countries than in developed process."
On the global impact of the WSIS, she feels this was not a "whole lot". But through the WSIS, the official decision-making community of ICT was made aware of gender and ICT issues, she argues. ITU members, governments doing ICT policy and the highest level of decision-making in ICTs is now aware. But that is small number of people.
What does she see as the next priorities?
“The constant use of all media to continue to raise these issues. Raising the issues in whatever forum to work at the workplace, at the local level. That's the burden of the struggle. Getting it out to all media and getting them to cover gender issues are important too”, says Hafkin. "This will make an impact...until the point where it's taken for granted," she adds with optimism.
She adds: "There doesn't seem to be sufficient understanding in UN Division for the Advancement of Women (UN DAW) to take the leadership on it. Although it is the place for it, where gender equality and women's rights need to be established."
But this, says she, is reflective of the bigger women's movement. Any big women's conferences and gatherings are not giving attention to ICTs, she notes. Why? Simply because of the lack of awareness of the importance of these issues. "These new ICTs are taking over so much of everyone's life, globally, yet we still have technophobia (that's very much gender-based)," she adds with obvious regret.
On the issue of mainstreaming ICTs within the gender movement, she says: "There's a lack of realisation that the really core problem of the poorest of the world's women is poverty that comes from isolation, from the lack of education. These are exactly what ICTs could help with. If there was awareness, if we could hurdle the deficits that women have to get them access to these tools that will get them out of poverty."
Hafkin argues that it's important to have "more done on education, e-learning... and economic strategies beyond entrepreneurship". She stresses the need to do more work on improving women economically through ICTs, but not just through e-commerce.
"The big area is using ICTs. No matter what it is that you do. (You need to see) how ICTs can enhance whatever it is that you do".