Fighting vulnerabilities and forging resilience for women in the digital age

By Camilla Caraccio

International Women's Initiative News Writer

(Photo Credit)

“We as women don't need to change. What we need to change is the environment that holds us back.” With this passionate statement Dorothy Gordon, General director of Ghana-India Kofi Annan Centre of Excellence in ICT, captivated the attentiveness of an audience of 150 digital equality advocates gathered on September 13-14 in Ghana to learn more about the promises and perils facing women in the digital age. The power of her words resonates with truth these days, following the horrific news of a 31-year-old lady who killed herself because of sex footage that went viral on social media. The episode has raised concerns over the implications of being online, where sharing personal information can fuel rampant forms of sexism, if not subtle violence. “One of her most intimate, private moments became an Internet joke, a meme of sorts,” reads an article published on the Washington Post a couple of weeks ago.

Why strengthening a digital code of ethics matters

There's no place in this world where a woman deserves to be victim of malicious intentions, abused or publicly shamed, and the online space is no exception. The concept of privacy has long been a central predicament when speaking of women's human rights. Amongst other forms of abuse of women's freedoms – such as cyber-bullying, cyber-stalking, trafficking in human beings, hate speech, incitement to hatred – stealing and disseminating privately shared information and imagery (the so-called 'revenge porn') is an increasingly common crime that deserves special attention. By endorsing a narrative of objectification, in fact, such intrusive acts can cause psychological and physical harm to women, at times even leading to suicidal behaviors, like in Ms. Cantone's case.

The Internet has become a vital communications medium which individuals can use to exercise their right to freedom of expression, (…) as guaranteed under articles 19 of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. As stated by UN report 'The right to privacy in the digital age', governments and international community have an obligation to protect women's rights and minimize the vulnerabilities that come with today's digital communication technologies.

Online exposure should be an opportunity, not a risk, and violating women's privacy is yet another way of undermining their autonomy and uttermost security. In light of the pernicious nature of cybersphere, securing women's online rights and freedoms must be top priority in the process of enabling them to take a seat at the table of the digital conversation without feeling undermined by a promiscuous environment. It's only when the web is truly committed to protecting their identities and intellectual properties that women can pursue equal chances to compete and innovate.

Tech-savvy ladies first

Besides addressing security concerns and taking suitable safety measures, there is still much to work on before women take the reins of the digital revolution. In Africa more than anywhere else, the gender gap in technology reflects a socio-economic divide present offline as well as other existing inequalities. On the other side, technology in Africa is still relatively new and there are plenty of unexplored opportunities to tap into, as highlighted at the inaugural conference. “The Internet is bringing us together as a continent. Half a billion women across the continent has the potential to use technology,” a prominent panelist said.

Countless and unrivaled are the ways through which information technology can lead women in developing countries to access services and, ultimately, improve their lives. Evidence shows that, access to technology proves functional to enhancing women's general social well-being, making them able to report and reduce harassment, participate in decisions as active leaders and spur movements of free thought and expression. Likewise, once they are provided with the same resources as men are, women can increase yields, raise agricultural production and outcomes, harness employment opportunities and expand social capital. Women who are conscious digital-savvy are empowered to develop life-changing solutions to their daily needs and bring themselves out of poverty and isolation. That would benefit everyone today, not just women, and create more prosperous communities tomorrow.

Notwithstanding all these positive aspects that would come from healthy engagement of women in the digital arena, there are still profound financial constraints, socio-cultural biases in getting online and poor technical literacy that hinder women from taking full advantage of the opportunities. “I really want to learn how to use the Internet, but [mobile data] is still expensive, and there's no free WI-FI access in my area”, says a female shop-owner in Jakarta during a focus group discussion led by ICT Watch.

Placing women at the forefront of its digital agenda can be a driving force towards the delivery of Sustainable Development Goals. For a4ai, this would imply that gender advocates, experts in policy development, marginalized groups and dwellers of remote areas are involved in the gender-focused plan process. A first step to be taken in this direction is the design of a more gender-responsive ICT policy which outlines a roadmap for achieving affordable access to and meaningful use of technology. Making ICT more affordable means guaranteeing public access to initiatives and new connectivity models. A second recommended measure would be supporting at large scale education and capacity building programs where women are trained and then tested on their basic computing skills. The implementation of such strategies has the potential to improve affordability and access to digital technologies, which in turn can help narrow the wide gender divide.

Relating tomorrow's digitally enabled feminism

However, the fact that it's the environment surrounding women that demands profound transformations doesn't necessarily mean that women can't be protagonist of this change themselves. Quite the contrary, women can be potent builders of stories online, even before being their consumers. They can capture the injustice experienced during their lives and make it available to new audiences with compelling forms of storytelling in local languages. With them, women can make outspoken comments about controversial issues – spanning gender violence, equality, economic empowerment and other things they care deeply about – and provide a counter-narrative to male-dominated representations. A key lesson from the summit is that women can't ask for a positive shift toward democratic societies without amplifying their voices; generating indigenous knowledge and women-centric content is necessary to achieve political visibility, challenge the mainstream discourse and influence government policies. This is valid with high-level advocates as much as it is with those who don't have an academic background.

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The current condition doesn't, in the final analysis, go fairly close to a much-needed women's inclusion in the digital age. This means that further efforts should be put into designing effective online security training that could help improve the understanding of the concepts of threats, vulnerability and security. To achieve that goal by 2042, it is urgent today to make a quantum leap so that women can navigate the digital realm with resilience and avoid the insidious risks of the Internet altogether. In this ideal scenario, ICT can fulfill the role of a tool advancing women's rights and promoting social and economic progress at large.

On the other hand, a gender breakthrough in ICT isn't beyond women's grasp. Their eloquent words flourishing in the digital sphere are bound to trigger a spiral of inspiration, where empowered females lead their own destinies and encourage others to do the same. This is particularly relevant in developing countries of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, where providing role models for tomorrow is right at the heart of the female empowerment discourse. As highlighted at the conference, ended successfully on September 14, “the greatest product that a leader can give is another leader. A leader is a leader-maker."