Use of ICT has brought about a visible change in the attitude of men towards gender equality, gender justice and safe childbirth

UN Women official Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Mgcuka with mahiti sakhis (information friends) at the ICT mela
UN Women official Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Mgcuka with mahiti sakhis (information friends) at the ICT mela

Is it possible to empower women through the use of information and communication technology (ITC)? A recent mela, organised in Shihore, Bhavnagar district, Gujarat, jointly sponsored by UN Women and Gujarat-based NGO ANANDI, suggested that it is indeed possible. A report:

More than 500 rural women shared their experiences on the use of information and communication technology (ICT) to improve governance and access to women’s rights with each other, and also with a delegation from the UN Women that included Executive Director and Under-Secretary General Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. The event took place on November 9, 2014 in Shihore Block of Bhavnagar district, Gujarat. The exchange was part of a day-long “information fair” organised for the “Making Women’s Voices and Votes Count – An ICT based Intervention” project. Supported by UN Women’s Fund for Gender Equality, the project uses information communication technologies to help elected women representatives in local panchayats network with each other and connect with local leaders from marginalised women’s groups. This helps them represent these women’s concerns in local government processes as well as use local media to legitimise women’s perspectives on governance.

The project uses technologies such as SMS-based networking, community radio and video to enable face-to-face meetings and provide a space for dialogue. It has also set up a network of 17 information centres where different technology tools are used to enhance women’s access to their entitlements and their voices in local governance. Through this, the project has connected more than 800 elected women representatives and recruited a group of “infomediaries” who can reach more than 25,000 households. In implementing the project, the Fund works with three partners – the IT for Change from Karnataka, the Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan (KMVS) and the Area Networking and Development Initiatives (ANANDI) from Gujarat. The local platform for elected women leaders is provided by Mahila Swaraj Manch.

During her presentations, Dr Mlambo-Ngcuka, a senior member of the delegate, commented on the immense potential for technology to overcome gender inequality and reflected on the significant gender divide that continues to exist in the use of information communication technologies around the world. “They say women are illiterate, but how can they be when they run community radio, when they know what a 90.4 frequency is. This is the real power. How many literate people know what is meaning of 90.4 frequency?”, she asked.

“Many say use of technology is the domain of engineers, but here are women from villages who are deciding what technology be used for and what the content will be. You are appropriating technology for your own purposes – this is called technology disruption – in a good way. We in high places talk about digital divide and here every single woman is working to bridge this divide one by one and you are miles ahead of many other nations in the world”, she underlined.

Dr Mlambo-Ngcuka was joined at the fair by Bhartiben Shiyal, member of Parliament from the Bhavnagar constituency. Shiyal congratulated the organizations on their work and acknowledged the efforts of rural women participants in the face of enormous challenges. She said, holding an elected office herself, she is well aware of the challenges that rural women face discharging their duties in governance. She recognized the need for separate space for women in government offices and offered to enable such creation of such spaces.

Laxmi Puri, deputy executive director, UN Women, sent a message to women who are bringing “swaraj” (self- rule) and using technology in innovative ways. Other delegates stressed that women are setting example of using technology for change and transformation. On visiting the stalls and seeing the use of Global Positioning System (GPS) to map access to amenities using free and open software, they expressed their desire to work with the women of Mahila Swaraj Manch in the village.

The Mahila Swaraj Manch was created to work on governance in Gujarat with the help of organizations like KMVS and ANANDI through training grassroots elected women representatives to generate awareness regarding their roles and responsibilities, as well as to work towards making the Panchayati Raj system more gender responsive. One of the platform’s grassroots leaders, Hiraben, shared the learnings and challenges she had experienced during the fair, followed by an intervention on the project’s community radio programme by grassroots activist Sharifa Sedat. Sedat is non-literate woman from Nalia of Kutch district. She shared from the dais her expertise in sharing folders online and saving files on the computer, people found it surprising.

Hansaben of the Mahila Swaraj Manch expressed her happiness to share the dias with Dr Mlambo-Ngcuka of UN Women, saying , such coming together of women from high offices with women holding office in village come together – it will make the dreams women’s equality come true. Vinoda, the youngest infomediary form Mysore, Karnataka, mentioned that elder men in her village often ask “what does a little girl like you know about panchayat”, but she said she does not get phased and continues with her work of educating other women.

Elected women representatives at the info-mela at Shihore, Bhavnagar district, on November 9
Elected women representatives at the info-mela at Shihore, Bhavnagar district, on November 9

Since the pilot project started in January 2013, there has been a visible change in the attitudes of men towards gender equality, as well as a greater awareness around social issues such as gender justice, safe childbirth, environment protection, water, panchayat and alcoholism thanks to subtle messaging on community radio programmes, the fair was told.

Following official presentations, Dr Mlambo-Ngcuka and the UN Women delegation visited stalls highlighting the different areas of work under the Making Women’s Voices and Votes Count project. Local women leaders shared details of the training modules used under the project, highlighting the benefits of working through the information centres and their abilities in using tools such as computers, tablets and Geographical Information System (GIS) mapping. The visit was part of Dr Mlambo-Ngcuka’s first visit to India as UN Women’s Executive Director.

Making Women’s Voices and Votes Count – An ICT-based Intervention

The multi-site project is supported by the UN Women’s Fund for Gender Equality. Partner organisations in this project are Area Networking and Development Initiative (ANANDI), Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan (KMVS) and IT for Change. All the three organisations have experience of implementing programmes on gender equality using ICT.

The project is implemented at the following locations:

  • Shihore and Umrala blocks in Bhavnagar district of Gujarat by ANANDI
  • Nakhatrana and Mundra blocks of Kutch district of Gujarat by KMVS
  • Kote and Hunsur blocks of Mysore district in Karnataka by IT for Change

The project is coordinated and anchored by IT for Change. It commenced in January 2013 and will conclude in June 2015. It is envisaged that, by the end of the project, 1,000 Equal Rights for Women (ERW) groups and 900 leaders from women’s collectives will have been reached out, besides concentrated intervention with a core group of 122 EWRs across the three sites.

IT for Change is an NGO located in Bengaluru, India, that works for the innovative and effective use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to promote socio-economic change in the global South, from an equity, social justice and gender equality point of view.

The Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan was founded in 1989 with the objective of organizing rural women ofKutchto facilitate their empowerment.  The overarching mission of the KMVS has been the empowerment of rural women. It seeks to foster their leadership – economic, political, social and cultural – through conscious-raising, organization and their mobilization into local collectives, capable of independently addressing gender inequities in their region.

Area Networking and Development Initiatives (ANANDI), has been working with more than 7000 rural poor women from four districts of Gujarat since 1995. Forming women’s collectives and working towards changing the nature and direction of systemic forces which marginalise women has been an integral component of ANANDI’s work in Gujarat.

About UN Women and the Multi-Country Office (MCO) in India

The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) was created at the July 2010 United Nations General Assembly. A global champion for women and girls, UN Women was established to accelerate progress on meeting their needs worldwide. Based in Delhi, India, the MCO covers four countries: India, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka. The MCO works across four main programmatic areas: Ending violence against women, promoting leadership and participation, national planning and budgeting and economic empowerment.

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