What is WSIS again?

This is the question that may most likely crop up from a local development worker. But for feminists who are keen on responding to the impact of the information and communications technologies in our very exercise and advocacy of human rights, WSIS is more than a name recall.

WSIS or the World Summit on the Information Society is probably the first official forum that recognised the complexity of ICTs in terms of their embeddedness and impact on policy processes on various levels. Held in two phases in 2003 and 2005, WSIS was also an opportunity to surface the links between gender and ICTs and develop feminist interventions in problematising the so-called “information society.”

Three years since the culmination of the process, WSIS participants, observers and outsiders looked back at WSIS, particularly its impact on gender advocacy and networking in a forum last 8 July 2008 at Bahay ni Isis-International Women’s House in the Philippines.

The retrospective exercise was guided by a study of Heike Jensen based on a survey participated by three groups: (1) members of the WSIS Gender Caucus and the WSIS NGO Gender Strategies Working Group; (2) WSIS civil society participants, and (3) individuals indirectly involved in the WSIS process. Funded by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), the study affirmed the rather uneven agenda and participation of various stakeholders. It also captured the tensions and difficulties, endured by women individuals and networks who persisted in engendering the WSIS process and its results. More importantly, it suggested the need to ensure the alignment and accountability of networks to organisations and individuals on the ground.

Women@WSIS

“Gender advocates are preoccupied on [different tasks]. They lobbied within government organisations but also among civil society organisations,” Jensen said. At the same time, gender advocates were working towards a more solid and human-rights based intervention in the WSIS process. The latter concern led to the formation of a second group, after the WSIS Gender Caucus which consisted of women from various sectors. The WSIS NGO GSWG aspired for sharper analyses and concrete strategies in integrating gender into WSIS. Among its initial members were APC-women's Networking Support Programme, the African Women's Development and Communications Network (FEMNET), Agencia Latino Americana del Informacion (ALAI), International Women's Tribune Centre (IWTC) and Isis International.

Among the achievements of the two groups was the inclusion of women and gender in the official documents. For feminist WSIS participants though, much could have done --- a stance which for Jensen and other WSIS participants and outsiders signal a rather high expectation for a process that was itself a subject of political dynamics and doubts. “We have to be kinder to ourselves. Summits cannot impose anything on nations,” Al Alegre, executive director of the Foundation for Media Alternatives asserted.

Community in Networking@WSIS

The study also highlighted the tangential nature of ICTs as an issue for most civil society organisations. Instead, support for gender and ICT came from personal interactions between gender advocates and WSIS outsiders, including those who belong to feminist movements. “The degree of influence of the gender networking and advocacy on outsiders matches the quality of personal interaction of these outsiders with gender advocates,” the study revealed. Jensen added that personal interactions were likewise crucial in her conduct of the survey: “This was even true for gender and ICT specialists, who might have been supposed to have had a strong professional incentive to familiarise themselves with the WSIS gender networking and advocacy and its achievements even from a distance.”

The study likewise validated trust as a fundamental aspect in gender networking and advocacy. As Isis associate director Tesa de Vela explained, “The survey affirms our findings that for a network to be sustainable, it was said that there must be a common goal, clear framework, clear system of working, shared values, plurality of participation and a space for debate and discussion.”

Although there are reasons to believe that the policy impact of WSIS was not proportional to the resources poured into the process, the WSIS experience is a well-spring of learnings in networking on gender and ICTs. For one, it demonstrated disjuncts on the very appreciation of gender and ICTs between the grassroots and local women’s groups, on the one hand and the regional and international women’s networks on the other hand. Feminist activist and artist Remy Rikken expressed, “There is a need to bring people to understand the concepts. Advocacy is [bound to be] expensive because it consists of reaching out to people.” For Rikken, who has had a long engagement with UN processes, the WSIS experience is also “a generational thing.”

Indeed much of the challenge in pursuing gender advocacy and networking lies in community organising, which also includes reaching out to the broader social movements and other actors so as to further define “information societies” and appreciate all that is at stake.

These were just some of the insights raised at the forum titled, “Looking Back, Moving Forward: Gender Networking and Advocacy on the Information Society,” sponsored by APC in collaboration with Isis International and IT for Change.

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