Report From UN Commission on Status of Women – Day Three

by Rebecca Norlander on March 1, 2011

The U.N. estimates that 95% of online abuse (aggression, harassment, and denigrating images, etc.) is aimed at women. This transcends race, class, and even the so-called “digital divide.” While the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women covers a broad range of issue facing women worldwide, most of the events that I have attended this week focus specifically on women’s access to and use of technology – the theme of this year’s CSW.

It was immediately apparent that a large conceptual gap exists between a technology conference and an international women’s conference focusing on Information and Communications Technology (ICT). Instead of introducing new (better! faster!) tools, the goal this week has been to identify the maximum value and benefit of existing tools.

Some of the CSW delegates are quite tech-savvy, but many others come from the Global South where access and familiarity are limited. For this reason, many of the panels have felt predictable and routine, even dated. I have been challenged – as someone from the Bay Area, saturated with technology and ever-fascinated with the latest gadgetry – to rediscover the enthusiasm of someone learning about the capacity of various ICTs for the first time. I have come to appreciate the way that the same tool can have wildly different applications across the globe.

The issue before us has therefore been identifying not the best technology, but the most appropriate. This can either mean a consideration for gender-responsive technology (given that most ICT tools and systems have been designed by men, with men’s interests in mind) or a desire to ensure a value-added experience, as opposed to leaving women increasingly vulnerable to exploitation.

The potential value of the ICTs themselves are not questioned – indeed, ongoing events in the Middle East have many delegates convinced of technology’s influence when used by marginalized groups to counter widespread oppression.

But the primary concern at CSW is preventing women from being further exploited through indiscriminate or uninformed use of ICTs. Women – indeed, all of us – need to learn skills to protect ourselves online and to forge a responsible digital identity. For example, Take Back the Tech! promotes collaborative action against gender-based violence and offers women a way to educate themselves about potential abuse.

Many of the panels about ICT have been case study oriented; different organizations reporting about initiatives in their respective regions that have been facilitated in some way through technological tools. For example, through Grameenphone, women have greater access to mobile technology, even smartphones. Combined with microfinance initiatives, a woman could borrow the initial money required to buy a smartphone and open a business where she charges others to use it.

ICT’s used to empower women are also not limited to the rural areas we usually think of as disadvantaged. Hollaback , “a movement dedicated to ending street harassment using mobile technology” is a crowd-sourced initiative empowering those fighting gender-based violence, including the LGBTQ community.

The transfer of knowledge and skills that empower women can be facilitated like never before using existing tools, including some that we might already consider passé.

Rebecca Norlander, a PhD student in Saybrook University’s Social Transformation program, is a delegate to the UN Commission on the Status of Women this week. She is blogging about her experiences.

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