Olga Paz, Administrative and Project Coordinator at Colnodo, the Colombian member of the Association for Progressive Communications, APC, has been working for many years on ICT for development, the social appropriation and use of new technologies by organisations, communities, youth and women’s groups, among others. As a member of the Women’s Networking Support Programme, APC WNSP, Olga participates in discussions on the inclusion of the gender perspective in ICT policy. In Colombia, there is still a way to go to reach an understanding of the role of ICTs as a political and strategic issue that has the potential to be very productive for social organisations and women’s groups. A clear perspective of gender in national ICT policy is also lacking. In this interview with GenderIT, Olga shares her impressions on the challenges involved in integrating gender and ICTs from social organisations in general, and specifically from the women’s movement. She also shares some ICT experiences that have been considered from the gender perspective.
Graciela Selaimen – How are women involved in the ICT projects you coordinate? Do they perceive ICTs as a political issue?
Olga Paz – In Colnodo the issue of gender is given important consideration. This is not always visible in the development of some project, so it is a matter that is implicit in our daily work. For example, we are working on the Portal for Colombian Development – Avanza, which seeks to support social development processes in order to contribute to the reduction of poverty in Colombia. This project also seeks to promote knowledge management through the use of new technologies. In that sense, it is a space where organisations and local networks can receive training on various subjects and publish information. The three major axis of the portal are civil society, rural development and youth. Often, through the portal and various electronic communication tools, subjects circulate that can be especially interesting to women’s groups.
Graciela Selaimen – But did they include a focus on development issues? Are ICTs seen as a development issue? Do women use the portal to publish their news, as a medium of expression?
Olga Paz- One of the approaches of the Avanza Portal is rural development. During the first phase trainings were mostly offered in faraway areas, seeking for rural, farmer, and women’s associations to be able to publish information using the portal’s content management tool, which is the ActionApps. Unfortunately, however, the people have not had enough time or lack the means necessary to publish information. Often they are unable to connect to the internet because of the costs of services, or the distance to access them. All in all, the alternative is that these people send diverse information via electronic mail to the portal’s content editor, who revises, organises, and places information on-line on a daily basis.
Graciela Selaimen – From your point of view, are women’s organisations in Colombia taking ownership of ICTs as a political issue?
Olga Paz – I don’t think that this has happened yet and it can be due to various reasons. In Colombia, there are very complex problems pertaining to human rights, right to life, work, sexual and reproductive rights issues. These are subjects that occupy almost the totality of public space and fill the agenda. The communication issue – not only as it relates to ICTs – is not always valued as a strategic issue; through communication, processes become public, calls to action are made, campaigns are run, knowledge is managed, lessons learned are shared, hence the importance of understanding communication not as an issue relating to the tools involved in the process, but rather as a strategic organisational issue. There are groups of women that base a large part of their work on communication, they are concerned with how to use the medium, the tools, and communication strategies to strengthen their work and carry out interventions. This is great, while on the other hand it is important to see communication as a political issue from the point of view of the right to communication and information. This brings issues like freedom of the press, freedom of opinion, freedom to start-up communication media, to publish information, to not be subject to censure, and, particularly, to produce and disseminate one’s own information to the discussion table.
Graciela Selaimen - Is the potential of ICTs less considered then?
Olga Paz – As I said before, ICTs occupy a specific aspect of communication, they have enormous potential as bi- and multidirectional media. Nevertheless, according to the most recent report from the Telecommunications Regulation Committee (Comisión de Regulación de Telecomunicaciones, CRT) the percentage of people that access these tools in Colombia is 8% of the population. Their use is much more concentrated in the main cities of the country, among the population belonging to the higher and middle classes, among professionals, the employed, and so on. The work that numerous initiatives and organisations like Colnodo carry out, involves promoting the social use of ICTs among various segments of the population. In Colombia, the Connectivity Agenda (Agenda de Conectividad) is the most important public policy on this issue. The Agenda is making important strides so that citizens can have access to new technologies and manage to establish a more fluid government-citizen relationship. It also intends to enable a considerable flow of relevant information to circulate from the government and state entities to the population.
Graciela Selaimen – Does the Connectivity Agenda have a gender perspective?
Olga Paz – There doesn’t seem to be an obvious gender perspective in the Agenda. It is a programme directed at citizens in general. From civil society, there are organisations that are tending toward the issue of ICT and gender, of communication and gender. There are also universities that have media monitors and ICT monitors. There are interesting proposals –many more than before- but the gender perspective is not, in my opinion, clear and visibly defined.
Perhaps there is a need for a convergence of issues. Organisations dedicated to women’s issues could include ICTs in their action strategies and the organisations that approach it from a communication standpoint include gender perspective in their work.
Graciela Selaimen - ¿Neither organisations that work with ICTs, nor those that work with gender do this?
Olga Paz – The organisations that work on ICTs in Colombia are few. This is normal considering that the ICT boom is recent. For organisations like Colnodo, the gender issue is on the table, we try to approach it both in our daily work, as well as in the projects we develop, although it may not always be that visible.
Graciela Selaimen - Isn’t there a gender agenda? A vision of what needs to be affected to guarantee women’s participation in ICT policy for example?
Olga Paz – Regarding ICT policy in Colombia, some spaces have been opened, but not in a specific agenda for citizens to participate in the discussion, design, implementation and evaluation of ICT policy in the country. The spaces that have opened convene citizens on ad-hoc subjects, so it seems there are no permanent ICT policy participation mechanisms. Participating in the discussion of ICT policy is particularly complicated for organisations that are not in Bogotá since they are further away from the central authorities. However, on the other hand, these organisations can have an influence in their local policy spaces.
Among the organisations that try to follow-up on the subject of ICT policies in Colombia, there do not seem to be women’s organisations. Like I said, it is important to link these organisations to the current ICT debate.
Graciela Selaimen – As someone who has an interest in gender issues, is a part of APC WNSP and has experience with ICT project, if you had to boost the participation of women in your country to affect ICT policies, what would be your main demands?
Olga Paz – Raise awareness among women on the subject of communication and new technologies and instate mentoring processes so that women’s groups and organisations can fully take advantage of the benefits of ICTs. From Colnodo we have worked on this by organising workshops using the GEM (Gender Evaluation Methodology) tool. We still face the challenge of showing groups of women that they can use ICT and include them in their communication, management and social development plans. The specific uses of ICTs are derived from the skills women have in perceiving these technologies as a tool to be included in their agenda. Nevertheless, we need to work on providing training for these specific skills. Hence, the first thing is raising awareness. Secondly, it’s building capacities, providing follow-up and orientation so that women perceive the possibilities offered by ICTs. The needs that ICTs can address and the manner in which they can be used to do so in relation to subjects that are of particular interest to women must be diagnosed.
Furthermore, it is necessary to foster a culture of use of ICTs. Many social organisations in Colombia, not only women’s organisations, lack a culture of use of ICTs and their integration and maximisation within the management of their organisation.
It would be interesting to see women’s networks and organisations considering, promoting and obtaining resources to develop projects that actively involve ICTs. It would also be noteworthy to see community radio initiatives that integrate modern technologies. There are already interesting experiences in this line, from which we could learn a lot.
Graciela Selaimen – And what were the perceptions of women on ICTs in the workshops?
Olga Paz – Women are very surprised by the possibilities of ICTs. We share the experiences of women that had no access to technologies and that began to use them with a lot of success. Some women are even training other people and use modern technologies on a daily basis. In the workshops, we are using videos of various experiences, chats, written texts. The women are then surprised when they realise everything they can do. Nevertheless, the resources available limit the use of ICTs. Many of the women’s groups and organisations lack an office with adequate resources. So, how do they get an infrastructure that allows them to maximise the use of ICTs? The orientation also has to go beyond training. You can’t just tell women, “look at these experiences, you can do this,” you have to sit down and make plans together, manage projects and carry out processes so that ICTs are something practical and productive.
Graciela Selaimen – Beyond financing issues, what other factors should be kept in mind regarding the participation of women in ICT projects?
Olga Paz – Some time ago in the Neighbourhood Informational Units (Unidades Informativas Barriales, UIB) located in Bosa, Suba and San Cristóbal, we carried out a project called the Youth Communication and Information Network (Red de Comunicación e Información Juvenil, RIJ), in which participated young people from three localities in the periphery of Bogotá. Keeping a gender perspective, we tried to involve the same number of boys and girls the project, in a way that participation would be balanced, at least quantitatively. However, as the project got going the girls gradually pulled out, and neither returned to the trainings, nor participated in the community journalism project that we were offering in the localities. We were working in areas where there are various social issues. It seems that the girls were under more pressure from their families and had more domestic commitments to meet. They also needed the permission of their parents to attend the workshops. The girls were in charge of domestic tasks, so they arrived from work and had to wash the clothes, take care of their younger siblings, help in the kitchen. This limited their participation in the project considerably. There were even some girls who were single mothers and teenage mothers. All this considered, the number of female participants in the project diminished gradually and by its conclusion, we had a good number of boys and few girls.
What I am saying is that there are cultural and social aspects that we need to consider when we propose an ICT project that seeks to involve women in a more active manner.
Graciela Selaimen – What was the participation in qualitative terms like?
Olga Paz – This was very interesting, especially regarding the perceptions that the boys had of the girls and vice versa. The girls thought that the only thing their male peers did was look for pornography, music, or information about football. The boys on the other hand thought that the girls were only interested in information pertaining to show business, soap operas and singers. This was very entertaining, but also very suggestive in terms of the imaginary that each social group and each gender constructs in regard to its opposite and the stereotypes that are constructed and disseminated. At the beginning the majority of boys and girls sought out similar subjects, homework, information about their neighbourhoods, educational opportunities. There was also a great deal of news production, of content for the RIJ website that were researched and prepared by the young men and women. The news was a product of their own experience. The research of news for the portal was indicative of the differences in relation to the subjects that interested each young person. At the beginning the girls produced more information on social issues in their community, while the boys focused more on cultural subjects, such as rap or hip-hop. After a time, the young people demonstrated great interest for social issues: in fact, long after the project had formally concluded, the youngsters continued producing information on their communities.
According to the interests of each young person, some were interested in the technical aspect and others continued to become more involved in alternative journalism. They even sought training opportunities on their own in other written and photographic journalistic media. Through ICTs the young people realised the potential of communication and everything they could do for their community.