When I first heard that the theme of this year's CSW was going to focus on science and technology I was really excited. Finally, ICTs on the agenda of the women's rights movement! ... or so I thought. Turns out that I wasn't quite right. You see, the framing of science and technology as a women's rights issue at this year's CSW didn't really resonate with me.
Yes, we must absolutely must make sure that there are more women and girls taking up science, maths and engineering and, yes, we must look at the barriers to women's employment in senior high level science and technology positions and, yes, we must change the perceptions about who works in technology and who doesn't. These are critical issues.... but they aren't the only issues.
What seemed to be missing for me were conversations about how technology is being used, framed, and claimed by women's rights activists. It seemed that the lens applied to science and technology at the CSW remained quite traditional. The debates didn't seem current. Or perhaps I am not plugged into those debates. Whatever the case, though I came away feeling like we didn't quite hit the mark.
Could this be one of the reasons that there were fewer of us attending this year?
I went to a session titled 'Protecting and Empowering the Girl Child Online and Offline' thinking that finally I would get to hear a different perspective, from girls themselves. But there were no girls. The first speaker shared her experience of working in science and technology in Taiwan, and the huge obstacles she faced and continues to have to deal with. The second, a man who is the head of disarmament at UN headquarters, spoke about the need to see girls' education as a security issue and argued that 'extremism and terrorism flourish better in societies where girls get less chances'. The third speaker, (another man) from World Vision Tanzania spoke about the experiences of girls in pastoral communities and how customs and traditions are obstacles to girls' education, and finally there was a woman from ECPAT USA who spoke about online dangers that girls experience.
She pointed out that there's no one single definitive solution to keep girls safe online, but rather that we need to talk about preventative measures. The reality is that sexuality is a topic in adolescence and girls are facing new challenges with the onset of technology. Sharing the findings of some research ECPAT USA has conducted, she said that the fear is that the internet is making boys more sexually aggressive, while less interested in girls they encounter in real life. This puts young young women in a position where they feel they have to try to bridge that gap. Over two thirds of girls they spoke to say they have sent sexually charged content to a girlfriend or boyfriend; almost half say they know that the images may end up in hands they didn't intend, but they do it anyway.
I made an intervention to share the work we are doing on violence against women and ICTs and gave examples of the work that is already being done by women's rights organisations in South Africa and Mexico in terms of online safety and security. The audience was really interested and it seemed to me that a lot of them were only beginning to see the connections between ICTs and violence against women.
Many of the sessions I went to focused on the the experiences of women and girls in terms of pursuing maths and science at school and university. We heard how girls are constantly discouraged to take maths and science by teachers and how there is little support for them to pursue careers in the sciences, including in the US. My sister recently began university in South Africa where she is an engineering student; throughout her schooling career she was encouraged to take up maths and science. There is a huge push for increasing the number of women in the sciences in South Africa, supported by the departments of trade and industry, education, science and technology.
I kept on coming back though to wondering why there is this disconnect between how we understand science and technology as a women's rights issue and why the participation at the CSW seemed so different to when I had participated before in terms of who was actually there.
For me, the dividing line of use and participation in technology is not as distinct as it perhaps once was. Today, we don't necessarily need formal entry – we use social networking platforms, we play games and in some ways we are more involved in the technology as users, and this is not only happening in formal spaces. In fact, we as consumers of technology can really shape it. Whether it is through insisting that policies respond to our real needs and ensuring that women's specific experiences of technology are considered in decision-making in everything from access to content regulation, these conversations seemed to me to be missing from the CSW.