This edition of
GenderIT looks at the question of access to knowledge focussing on
Africa. Over the last century, copyright and patents legislation have
penetrated into most countries, strengthened by international trade
agreements, and often pressure from the United States. This has had
the impact of both shrinking the amount of knowledge that is freely
available, and of legislating what is and is not 'knowledge'. This
has been happening at a time when it is becoming easier and cheaper
to copy and transmit information – so despite these increasingly
powerful laws, and driving these laws, piracy and file-sharing
challenge corporate control of culture. Even in the bastion of
copyright legislation, the United States, efforts to enforce
legislation over people engaged in peer-to-peer sharing has been

Access to knowledge
issues tend to focus on the legal terrain of copyright and patent
law, and related movements such as the CopyLeft movement, the
Creative Commons and the free and open source software movement.
Questions raised in this issue will be how the expansion of copyright
and patent law – geographical, in terms of duration and in terms of
what is covered – have been addressed by women's movements, and how
the commons movement has, or has not, engaged with women's concerns
on control of and access to knowledge, including traditional
knowledge. Other issues include gender disparity in terms of access
to knowledge, the gender-blind nature of legislation on access to
knowledge, and lack of access to decision-making on access to
knowledge issues both at the local and international level, in both
governmental and non-governmental arenas.

However, while
copyright is expanding in scope, the practical limits of enforcement
of copyright legislation are being challenged by digitisation, and
its offshoot, piracy. The impact of this on cultural rights and
minorities, on the spread of knowledge (including access to pirated
software for non-profit organisations), on the open source movement
and on the spread of information that can be harm or help improve the
status of women is still being explored. For example, pirated
software can enable groups to have access to technology they could
otherwise not afford, but often the same groups involved in the
piracy of software are involved in the making and distribution of
pornography for male consumers.

This issue focuses on
Africa, but includes a couple of articles from other regions. It's an
area of both law and lived experience that is changing rapidly and
having a marked impact on women and they control they have over their
bodies, their health and their heritage, and we invite you to take
part in this evolving debate.

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