Updated August 10, 2010
Women's Access to Public Internet Centers
in Transitional and Developing Countries
Public access to the Internet is still common even in countries where home Internet access is the norm (like the USA). These public access points can be commercial Internet cafes, wireless access at a coffee shop, a community Internet center / community technology center / community telecenter operated as or by a nonprofit organization, a community multimedia center (or centre), or a bank of computers with Internet access at a public library. At its most basic, such a public access point offers at least a single computer with Internet access. At its most developed, it also offers a full range of multimedia facilities, which, as described by UNESCO, means the center is "functioning as a distance learning, training and informal education center, linking up to the local hospital for telemedicine applications, down-loading and printing national newspapers for local circulation and so forth."
But many women and girls can't or may not access public Internet points. Home and family obligations, lack of transportation, low-literacy and perceived lack of value of technology keep many women and girls from accessing public Internet access points.
There's also another factor that is rarely talked about that keeps women and girls away from public Internet access points: in developing countries in particular, many of these public access points can be male-dominated, with mostly male users and few -- or no -- female users, and for many women, particularly women in developing countries, this makes the public access point off-limits to them. It's off-limits because
D.Net (Development Research Network), a non-profit organization that focuses on technology for economic development in Bangladesh, found that cultural factors in Bangladesh played a bigger role in whether or not a girl attended computer literacy classes than lack of money or resources. Girls were often denied the chance to participate in computer training because it is considered socially inappropriate in Bangladesh, in part because the classes were held after school when it was dark out, but also due to entrenched community attitudes that encourage computer and internet use among boys but not girls. D.Net was able to build better opportunities for girls to access the classes through direct consultation with mothers, female teachers, and the girls themselves (read more here). Women farmers in a rural area of Peru were reluctant to use computers and the internet from a nearby telecenter because they thought they were just for children, no one had told them how they could use them to help their farming be more successful and because there are security issues for women to use public transport to get to the centers. The Association for Progressive Communication has found that women over the age of 35 are often times considered “too old” by younger people and men to use ICTs and learn about computer technology.
- of how a girl or woman might be treated by the men and boys there
- a female would be uncomfortable with what some of material the men and boys around her may be looking at on the computer
- the culture discourages women and girls from being in a public place with men and boys who are not relatives
- the culture requires women and girls to have a male relative as a chaperone to be in a public place, and no chaperone is readily available
- the woman or girl could be branded as less-virtuous/dishonorable, jeopardizing her community reputation and even her safety
In Afghanistan, women and girls are denied Internet access for a variety of cultural reasons. It means even educated women and girls from economically-stable families may be denied by access to the Internet for professional development, educational needs and health care information. Even if she has Internet access at home, she may have to wait until all of the men of the home are done with such - and is denied opportunities community Internet centers can bring (classes, mentoring and learning from peers). I mentor Afghan women in Kabul via the Internet, and I hear about these circumstances first hand, and I saw it first hand when I was in Kabul for six months in 2007).
Back in August 2003, I had the pleasure of co-hosting an online discussion at TechSoup regarding Gender and the Digital Divide with Latifat Kadir, who lives in Lagos, Nigeria. It included a discussion regarding the barriers that keep women and girls away from computer and Internet-related classes and community technology centers (telecenters, Internet cafes, etc.). Latifat and other women shared their stories of cultural barriers that kept them from using public Internet access points. It's interesting to note that, in the years since the original discussion a few men have posted to deny there are any barriers to women using the Internet, including in developing and transitional countries. Obviously, much more education is needed.
Developing/transitional countries need women-only public Internet access points. Or at least women-only hours at such points. Women-only centers -- or centers that have women-only hours -- would need to provide:
In many communities, it would be necessary to have local religious figures and other local male leaders to visit the center and affirm publicly that it is appropriate for women and girls to use the center unaccompanied by a male relative. Keeping these leaders informed about results the women-only programs are achieving is vital to maintain their support.
- Trained female staff assisting and training women and girls
- Classes, taught by women, for women and girls
- Onsite childcare
- Women-only bathroom
- An environment where there are no men or boys over 12 years old are present
- Well-lit, safe, fully monitored entrances and exits
- A user space free of any printed images that might be deemed offensive to a conservative culture or that might make women uncomfortable (such as posters of scantily-clad women -- or even just women without what local culture would deem proper clothes in public)
- Covers for windows, if women and girls should not be seen by passers-by for religious or cultural reasons
I wish I was in a position to make such a program happen myself in at least Kabul. Until then, I'll keep collecting information that might be helpful to a person or organization interested in undertaking such venture, in Afghanistan or elsewhere. Here's what information I have gathered so far:
These programs provide examples of how such women-only centers/programs operate (I do not have any further information about these centers other than what I'm linking to below):
- women-only hours at community Internet centers? why? (my first blog on this subject)
- Reaching women in socially-conservative areas (another of my blogs)
- Telecentres in Uganda do not appeal to rural women. "In rural Uganda, telecentres that have been established to promote rural access to information and foster development are not getting the results they had hoped for. Using the APC WNSP's Gender Evaluation Methodology (GEM) to understand why this is so, UgaBYTES, a Uganda-based NGO that works to promote access to ICTs in rural East Africa, has found that beyond the common obstacles to access like technical infrastructure, connection costs and computer literacy, women face numerous additional barriers if they want to use ICTs to improve their lives."
- Gender Perspectives on Telecenters by Sonia N. Jorge for ITU – Telecom Americas 2000 - Telecom Development Symposium, Communications: Universal Access and Community Telecenters, April 11, 2000. "This paper argues that in any given community, telecenter plans must take into account the disparate needs and demands of women and men. Hence, gender analysis must be an integral part of telecenter planing efforts, rather then an 'add-on' task."
- GEM for Telecenters. How Gender Evaluation Methodology can be applied in telecentres (this was used for the D.Net project in Bangladesh referenced above).
- Women and Girls Working With ICT, a document from the PeaceCorps/
- Supporting Women's Use of Information Technologies for Sustainable Development: Barriers to Access. This document is actually mostly-focused on what women need from an ICT-related endeavor.
- Chapter 6: Expanding Women's Access to ICTs in Africa.
Bridging the Mountainous Divide: A Case for ICTs for Mountain Women (PDF)
Gender and Telecenters: What Have We Learned?. A slide show presentation Eva M. Rathgeber, Joint Chair of Women's Studies, Université of Ottawa/Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, March 2002.
How the presence of pornographic materials on the net adversely affect women's use of technology. A discussion.
- UNESCO Resources for Community Multimedia Centres. Very extensive web site focused mostly on the the technological and financial aspects of setting up such a center.
- Women in Technology Yemen posts its list of trainings online, providing an excellent model for other organizations.
- The Metissacana cybercafé in Dakar, Senegal. This is/was co-owned and partly managed by a woman, was created in May 1996. At one time, women constituted 50% of Metissacana's clients. It looks like it lasted until 2004.
- The Ishtar center is a women-only Internet center established in Baghdad, Iraq by Azhar al-Sheikhli, a former Iraqi cabinet member. In a September 2009 article in USAToday, she says that separating the genders goes against her belief that men and women should work together and that more women need to be in positions of power, but after talking with many women about how embarrassed or intimidated they were at Internet cafes, she decided an all-female Internet center was best for now.
- Madaba Woman's Programme Centre, a women's only Internet centre in the Madaba refugee camp, equipped and financed by a
grant from the US Ambassador's Fund for Refugees and associated with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The center was profiled in a September 2005 article in the Jordan Times.
- Four Women's Technology Centers (I'x CETEBIs) were created in Mayan rural communities in Guatemala, supported by the Asociación Ajb'atz' Enlace Quiché. Each is open seven days a week and is staffed by two trained women operators from the community that have received training; they receive a small payment for their time, "but the largest return is the chance to learn new skills while helping the development of their community."
- W.TEC Girls Technology Camp is a one-week residential program by the Women's Technology Empowerment Centre (W.TEC), a Nigerian non-governmental organization. The camp is aimed at helping girls develop an early interest in computers and other information technology, as well as enabling them develop positive images of technology-related careers.
- A Women-operated Telecentre in Cape Verde. As of April 2002: The telecentre is located in the town of Santa Catarina, the second largest on the island of Sao Tiago, Cape Verde. Members of the some 3000 strong Women's Association of Santa Catarina, operate the telecentre.
||This is me at the UNDP Community Technology Center (CTC) in Luxor, Egypt, with the center's manager in April 2003. I was on vacation, but that never stops me from dropping in on UNDP projects I come across. It was great to show her my UNDP business card and to then become welcomed like an old friend!|
This is (was?) not a women-only center, and the manager was usually the only woman in the center; few women used the center. The day I visited, she was just closing for the day, and I walked around with her to shut the computers down after the patrons had left. Sad to say that the men leaving the center had left most of the computers on web pages with women in various stages of undress. It was my moment-of-realization about what women face in trying to use public Internet access points in many countries.
(Thanks to the students in DTC 475 Digital Diversity, taught by Kathi Rick, at Washington State University Vancouver, for being the first to read this web page!)
Read more about my own women-focused/gender-inclusive work
Empowering Women Everywhere - Essential to Development Success, a list of research and articles that confirm that empowering women is essential to development success and highlight the very particular challenges to women's access to education, health care, safety and economic prosperity.
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community knowledge centres (CKC)
community technology centers (CTC)
community multimedia centers (CMC)
community Internet center