"Harnessing Technology to Advance Women's Human Rights"
From Raising Our Voices, News from the Global Fund for Women (February 2001)
by Mahnaz Afkhami
Member, Global Fund Advisory Council

Women's Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP) is an
international, publicly supported, 501 (c) (3) non-governmental organization
committed to empowering women through dialogue, choice, and participation to
restructure their roles and to improve their status in their families,
communities, and societies. WLP creates culture-specific educational and
multimedia tools for radio, video, CD-ROM, and the Internet to help women
and girls of the Global South acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to
exercise their rights and choices.





The 21st century will usher in rapid and unprecedented transformation in information technology that will offer women a range of new opportunities to shape the world in which we live. But these opportunities will enhance our lives only if we are prepared to take advantage of them. 

We are now in the midst of a communications revolution that is changing the nature of power. Modern communication has drastically reduced the size of the globe by practically overcoming the barriers of distance and time. Information technology has made communicating globally as easy as conversing locally, forcing governments and companies to reorient themselves further to the requirements of global competition. Nation states are being squeezed between the demands of global competition and the social needs of local populations. Globalization has already widened the gap separating the haves and have-nots everywhere. Unless we harness the evolving technology, the future, potentially bright, will descend darkly, without our knowledge, input, or permission. What we must do is harness technology's powers for our own uses.

A fundamental characteristic of the new information technology is that it can be deployed relatively inexpensively to all parts of the world, and it can be used to support national and global policies aimed at helping disadvantaged individuals and communities participate in the decisions that can change their lives. The new information technology can help women gain the knowledge, leadership, and consensus we need to attain equality and social justice. To use modern information technology for improving women's condition we need the sort of leadership that creates and uses power to realize not only sustained but also equitable development. Those whom the existing social structures have marginalized must be empowered to participate

The 20th century brought phenomenal advances in science and technology. Consequently, the century we have just entered has the potential to bring extraordinary improvements in human life. Scientific advancement has brought us the capability to eradicate many life-threatening diseases, to prolong life, to change the nature of work, and to provide for a decent living for everyone. We are now capable of accumulating, creating, and transmitting knowledge and information across the globe at high speed and relatively very little cost. We are able to leapfrog the foundational problems that in the past derailed social and economic development by hindering communication and timely interaction. [The Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, for example, provides a cellular phone to a village woman, helping her to establish a viable small business for herself and at the same time connect her community to the region and to the world. Sakeena Yacoobi's organization, Creating Hope International brings text books, curricula, and priceless information to a group of adolescent girls in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan through a single computer. Connections that seemed impossible because of infrastructure impediments are now made possible through information technology. But this technology is there not to replace the infrastructure, but to strengthen it and help it meet the challenges of today's world].

We are, however, faced with an information divide--a digital divide--which arises from unequal access to information and knowledge and unequal ability to use it for development, gender equality and freedom. While people in poor countries have less access to information technology, women everywhere have less access than do men. The International Telecommunications Union estimates that 96 percent of Internet host computers reside in high-income countries. There are more hosts in Finland than all of Latin America and more in New York than Africa. More than 50 percent of the people of the United States have access to the Internet, while less than one percent of the people of the Middle East with a comparable population are Internet users and of these, only six percent are women.

We need to bring access to information and computer technologies to the poorer countries, and within each country, to the less advantaged segments of the population, especially women and girls. We need to bring the potential for the use of the Internet to all of the peoples of the world, not only the hardware and training, but also culture-relative, language-relevant, and community-created material. The marginalized and excluded peoples of the world must become not only consumers of information created elsewhere but have the opportunity to become creators of knowledge that is locally relevant. One model for this type of project is Women's Learning Partnership's collaborative efforts with our partner organizations, BAOBAB for Women's Human Rights in Nigeria, Association Démocratique des Femmes in Morocco, and Women's Affairs Technical Committee in Palestine to produce multi-media training material for leadership development, using the new information technologies. Our work involves a process of interaction and dialogue that places the newest leadership development strategies within the framework of local cultural and linguistic conditions. It encourages leadership styles that are democratic, consensus based, and horizontal. It promotes the creation of learning partnerships that are open, flexible, and participatory. The project involves capacity building for the use of technology not as an end, but as a tool for sustainable and equitable development. Underlying the program is the supposition that we all will be richer if we partake of the diversity of human experience and wisdom across the globe. If we fail to meet the challenge of reaching out and including all, we will likely end up living in a world unworthy of the best and most humane in our vision of the future. 

The social and cultural structures we have inherited in both developed and developing countries favor centralized power, profit, and patriarchy. They almost always self-perpetuate unless we make an informed and concerted effort to change them. The challenge is to opt for change that shifts the ownership of the tools of information technology from the few to the many, in the hope that while we still must cope with the exigencies of the present, our newfound power will bring us closer to our dream of the future. 

Fortunately, we are on our way to a broad-based consensus on the need for cooperation among governments, the private sector, local communities, non-governmental organizations, and international agencies to bring information economies to all the peoples of the world. In the last decades of the 20th century, encouraged by the four world conferences on women, we were able to organize national and international NGOs in unprecedented numbers. We are now in a position to play our role in defining the content and parameters of the cooperative effort needed to come closer to the world of equity and justice we seek. In most countries there already exists a critical mass of active women that can mediate the process. We must use the possibilities modern information technology offers to produce and promote the sort of leadership that will empower us to do our work. 

Mahnaz Afkhami is founder and president of the Women's Learning Partnership (WLP). She has written and lectured extensively on women's human rights, women in leadership, and women, civil society, and democracy. WLP is an international, non-profit, nongovernmental organizations which seeks to empower women through dialogue, choice and participation to restructure their roles and to improve their status in their families, communities, and societies. WLP creates culture-specific, multi-media education tools for individuals and organizations in the Global South.

Contact Women's Learning Partnership at wlp@learningpartnership.org or visit www.learningpartnership.org.