ICT Policy and Gender Issues: Lessons from the past and home work for now

Anita Gurumurthy


If there is any silver lining around the not-so-happy discussions on women and their access to gains from ICTs, it is in the fact that with respect to policy on ICTs, the story fortunately is almost identical to gender in relation to all other domains. All of us here who believe in women’s equality can take heart in the fact that a new script for engendering policy and engaging in advocacy for women’s rights thankfully need not be written.


In respect of gender and the policy process, typically, there have been a range of policy responses – from plain resistance to skepticism “what the hell is this gender-vender?” “OK madam… why don’t you clearly tell me what you women want?” to even support and empathy for the cause.

I am going to be nostalgic and go back to the lessons from policy processes in respect of gender in other areas.


Lessons from the Past


Policy makers have been ready to acknowledge gender issues where they were able to palpably see a woman connection e.g. in issues like domestic violence, sexual harassment etc.

But in respect of issues where gender is hidden, gender advocates have had to engage with actors in government with great perseverance. We have thankfully come a long way in engendering public policy especially with respect to health and education, in understanding that just like every other political issue, gender - in the ways in which it plays out within social relationships - is indeed many times invisible … till we actually want to see it.

So the health policy person would say, “How is TB supposed to have a gender dimension? Well, about pregnancy and reproductive health I do understand…. but you gender advocates are distracting the main issue when you talk about TB and gender.”

So some researchers and organizations said let us put out the facts. In their work they had found that women were more likely to be victims of domestic violence if they suffer from TB. Thus they made the connection that when women are sick, they tend to be victimized more within homes. Then some others said, “Look you are right that TB affects men and women, but when women are sick they may not be taken to the hospital early enough, and when treatment actually begins, they may not get as much rest as their men would.

The point I am making is that gender often seems hard to grasp on the policy table and knowing that it needs to be unearthed is a useful position to begin with. And this is true for the policy process not only within governments but across the spectrum. (Many would agree that if I said, “... excuse me…. trade is a gender issue… it would need elucidation and the connections are not easily understood.)

The next point I want to make and here I go back to some historical evidence is around the ICPD process.

The Program of action of the “International Conference on Population and Development” (ICPD), Cairo 1994 called for a major paradigm shift in the manner in which population programs were conceived and implemented – away from being driven by demographic targets to being oriented towards upholding women’s reproductive rights and ensuring better reproductive health for women of all ages. This meant that countries had to offer a wider package of reproductive health services not only to mothers and mothers-to-be but also to all women, and had to improve the technical quality of services and be more client-focused. And since the Cairo conference it is undeniable that in our context a shift is taking place. At the minimum, the mindset change is that “You cannot chase poor women to get them sterilized.”

The other example of change is the donor-induced push in South Asian countries to do something about HIV/AIDS, and here I refer to how UNFPA for example, has taken the lead to push national level strategies for addressing the issue. Suddenly at local levels you see a lot of attention being paid to awareness about, counseling around and to research on sexuality, all of which, without the HIV umbrella would have been unthinkable in our cultural contexts. I am certainly not advocating for donor driven strategies. Indeed in the case of women’s reproductive rights as in the case of HIV, the work that Governments and donor agencies have done is only an extension of the enormous effort of gender equality advocates in global and local platforms. Women have stood in the corridors of international conferences, pushing their Governments to take progressive stances and urging them to support women’s rights.

These examples for top-down push for change; a policy-driven approach to social reengineering is useful to remember when we think of gender and ICTs. Therefore, the second point I would like to make is that proactive policy that pushes for strategies at ground level to correct gender imbalances can really be empowering for women.


Current Approaches – A Critique


ICT policy is seen by national governments in Asia purely as within neo-liberal macroeconomic frameworks - of GDP, employment, competitiveness.

Critiquing this, experts like Mitter (2001), point to how sustainability of the digital economy depends, finally, on a country’s ability to cater to its domestic needs and local traditions; in its absence, export-oriented strategies will only create an enclave or a satellite economy, often referred to as the “bubble economy”, that is dependent upon decisions of foreign investors.

These preoccupations in policy circles coexist with ICTD approaches dictated invariably by donors. As I said earlier, this per se is no problem so long as donor strategies are informed, but in respect of ICTD the truth is that we are all early learners and most of us are still experimenting with the potential of ICTs for social justice. We are all embarrassed to come clean with our learnings lest they be construed as mistakes. And the donor community at national levels, by and large have in the past 5 years, been forced to reckon with this new animal in the room…. ICTs and MDGs, ICTs and poverty, ICTs and what have you…

And unfortunately, pushed as they are by mandates that get decided far away from the national country context, their approach in many instances is tentative at best and in the worst case, even echoes the language of neo-liberalism. Pushing for quick results in the field, pushing for MNC partnerships at local levels (without any idea of the political struggles of local people against global capital), pushing for “sustainability” (read no donor money or commitment in the long term).

Our frameworks of reference cannot be limited to growth to the detriment of development and efficiency to the detriment of equity.




Technology policy cannot be complacent with just creating conditions for the market. The playing field is to be understood as pertaining not only to market but with respect to the cultural context and in relation to what technology is seen as being able to do. So, ICT policy needs to account for the differential location of people in society… Internet telephony is as much a gender issue as a technical one. The level playing field with respect to different telecom companies in internet telephony is well understood... but that it links to affordability, which indisputably is a gender issue, is not so easily understood. In many of our countries, when primary education for girls was made free, the enrolment and retention of girls in schools went up. The ways in which social mores mediate technology access is very much within the domain of ICT policy and policy must take cognizance of these.

So where does gender lie in ICT policy?

Gender and ICT policy and practice today lie at the crosscurrents of two mainstreaming efforts – gender mainstreaming, and mainstreaming ICTs – and their success will depend upon developing and harnessing the synergy between the two. And the policy process here requires intervention at 4 levels

  • The larger social information and communication context,
  • The availability, nature and role of ICTs;
  • The integration of ICTs into substantive development sectors, and
  • The enabling role of ICTs towards gender equality

For instance, when we think of a woman’s access to Government authorities or her participation as a citizen… we need to understand what her civil liberties are… can she criticize the Government; does she have access to any mechanism ... set up in her village, within walking distance like a free email facility that connects her to the Government office, is the office administration at the Government-end geared up to respond to such messages, and what is the vision of the powers that be – the local Government, the bureaucracy etc in taking the opportunities of connectivity closer to women so that they can be empowered citizens?

In conclusion I am going to say 3 things

The first is about participatory approaches and may seem like anathema in development parlance…

Often policy takes the path of expediency and leaves empowerment, participation, needs, etc to the “community” level, and it is also fashionable to involve local NGOs and say that they understand the community best and so leave things to them.

Gender mainstreaming in ICT policy involves addressing gender issues in the context of a complex and less understood arena. Therefore the ICT policy process needs to involve the necessary expertise at many levels to clearly recognize the lurking opportunities for women’s empowerment through ICTs. This cannot be left unarticulated or relegated as a task for “local communities”. Like all of us, policy makers also need to do the necessary homework – to understand how ICTs can expand women’s choices, how ICTs can create new spaces that promote women’s capacity, self-determination and autonomy.

The second is that policy cannot afford to construct a template of the typical rural woman – and bunch all women into one box. ..Illiterate women need a different strategy, their daughters going to schools and colleges need different ICT opportunities, their women relatives in urban slums need other strategies. Similarly, the needs of women facilitators and village level workers who are part of the dev delivery processes require diff ICT tools…

The third is that when we think of gender and ICTs... we need to think beyond the computer... we need to think of telephones, handy cams, what the digital media can do... video-based applications, how help lines for women can use the new paradigms in telephony..

And we need to think laterally, what can ICTs do for reducing women’s isolation, alienation from political processes, and exclusion from social institutions, how can ICTs help women’s access to empowering information, capacity-building and networking needs...

What does it cost for NGOs to buy a VCD player? How much will it cost for a self-help group to hire a CD of a film like Choker Bali so that men and women in the community can watch and discuss the film and explore notions of equality.

© 2003 WSIS Gender Caucus