(Presentation by Isis International at the Panel Session on Rural Women – Poverty – Crises – Rights, UN CSW 56, New York, 2012)
Over the 38 years of our existence, we at Isis International have participated in a number of CSW meetings and countless other UN sponsored events. In this time so much has changed and yet so much has not. The existence and work of the CSW has served to surface human rights violations often hidden, has given a human face to the harsh statistics of mal-development, has created and implemented a structure to address the multi-dimensional aspects of human development. Indeed, the status of women is now put on the political, social and economic agendas of governments, it is allotted resources for the actualization of such agendas, and the process is increasingly consultative, participatory, and inclusive of women.
And yet, here we all are again confronted with addressing not just the new forms of discrimination, exclusions and violations women suffer, but also to talk about the old, longstanding issues that continue to subordinate, marginalize, and exclude women all over the world.
One of these long standing issues is that of information and communication.
What, one may ask, does information and communication have to do with the root causes of poverty and the economic, environmental and other crises affecting rural women in today’s globalized world? How important is this issue in view of the pressing problems of survival facing so many poor rural women today?
We believe that without the voices and input of rural grassroots women, the root causes of poverty and crises cannot be overcome in a way that will ensure that the rights of rural women are respected and upheld. Let us be clear, this is not just a question of external agents – whether academic researchers or development agents -- culling information from rural poor women and bringing it to the table. It is a question of how poor rural women can become participants and protagonists in creating the information and communicating it, first among themselves to strengthen their own efforts and, second, to pressure decision and policy makers.
Information and communication as a source and exercise of power and rights
Today we want to share with you how women experience information and communication in the developing south as a source of power and rights, as well as the exercise of power and rights. We want to share with you how this exists at multiple levels and varying degrees and, like most of the organizations here, we want to offer an input in the hope of contributing to a diverse and comprehensive understanding of how we can best address the hindrances to women’s empowerment and gender equality.
“Information is power” – it is said. But what information? Produced and delivered by whom? Isis International believes that in order for information to be powerful for women, women cannot be mere recipients of information. They must also be creators of information and be able to communicate this to others, including having some power and control over the means of communication.
We are currently living in a time where the new information and communication technology (ICT) tools are a part of our everyday life.
The new information technology has been empowering for the average citizen in ways that we have not seen before. The reach of cell phones for instance has provided access to people in rural communities at a much faster rate bypassing the need for landlines. Cell phones have played critical roles in situations of disasters where through text messages they can inform the outside communities, directing services and rescue operations.
In recent months, we have seen how autocratic governments have not been able to keep things under tight control. Through the use of videos and voice messages, we have heard the voice of the average citizen. Current data from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) tell us that, in 2011, 8 trillion messages were sent worldwide with a large percentage coming from developing countries. In fact, 87% of the world’s populations have mobile phones and this is led by China and India.
As we move at dizzying speed to embrace and use technology in our everyday lives, we need to pause for a second and look at the power of information and communication in people’s everyday lives for in fact, they serve as an indicator of their level of empowerment, agency, and even human dignity.
Media Technology as a Patriarchal Economic Structure
The media technologies in themselves are a reflection of the social structures and mechanisms of exclusion and inclusion. They reflect the patriarchal structures of a male-driven technology that values speed, financial markets and consumerism, and reproduces the existing power relations instead of transforming them and creating access. The new media technologies are dependent on money and education (The Role of Mass Media in Education and Poverty Reduction, Dr. Jane Stadler, University of Queensland, 2002.)
Frequently the poor and/or uneducated are overlooked and rendered invisible by the press and entertainment media. There is an illusion of a more democratic world with the instantaneous interaction and participation of social media, but this is only available to those who blog, tweet, and use interactive social media. The context and methods are still for the more literate, the sighted and those who can afford the connectivity and tools.
Increasingly, the rural poor are older women. The 2010 report by UN Special Rapporteur on Poverty ( Report of the independent expert on the question of human rights and extreme poverty, March 2010), points to the increasing population of poor, elderly women in rural areas. It cites that the increase is due to migration issues in many parts of Asia and HIV/Aids problem in Africa. Because of the lack of social protection systems in many of the developing countries, poor, rural elderly women often rely on others to send them money and that money may be irregular. This large population of women is further marginalized from the new media due to lack of access and their educational background making it more difficult for them to embrace the new ICTs.
This is not only a question of providing more connectivity, computers and other new technologies and training for women.
Putting people at the center
Communication for development needs to understand that in regions where new technologies are not readily available, the use of traditional communication systems such as radio, theater, video (digital and non-digital) and face-to-face interactions are the most effective for women. In such places where computers, mobile technologies, internet are effective, they can be combined to ensure dissemination and participation of marginalized populations, especially poor women.
One of the basic principles of our work in the field of communications is to see women not only as receivers of knowledge but producers as well. We reaffirmed this by launching the Isis International Activist School for Feminist Development Communications in 2010, which aims to strengthen social movements and advocacies through the strategic use of media and information and communication technologies (ICTs).
In our work with grassroots women through our Activist School, we have witnessed the power of information and how women can shape their own vision of social change, articulate their visions, and have the power to struggle and negotiate for such visions to become reality. At Isis we say our work is about, “Documenting feminist visions, Creating critical communications and Strengthening social movements”.