Media Brief:Paddling in Circles while
the Waters Rise:
Gender Issues in ICTs and Poverty Reduction
by Angela M. Kuga Thas
Download the PDF version
This brief is published for the Gender and ICT Awards knowledge-sharing
session where the winners and guests deliberate the issue,
"Can ICTs really help in women's economic empowerment?".
This session is being held during the 10th AWID International
Forum on Women's Rights and Development in Bangkok, Thailand
in October, 2005. This brief is the condensed version of the
issues paper with the same title commissioned by the Association
for Progressive Communications Women's Networking Support
Programme (APC WNSP).
In 2003, the United Nations World Summit on the Information
Society (WSIS) officially recognised the emerging importance
of information and communication technologies (ICTs) as the
main impetus for developing nations to achieve economic growth.
To underscore ICTs role in development, the WSIS prioritised
issues of infrastructure, connectivity and access in its Plan
of Action and enshrined its importance in its Declaration
of Principles. Where the WSIS failed was to adequately lay
down the political framework and global platform for a gender
perspective and analysis on ICTs and poverty reduction. Despite
decades of development theory and initiatives aimed at its
relief and eradication, poverty continues to be a growing
phenomenon. This paper presents a number of different angles
to this persistent problem from the definition of poverty
to systemic causes of global poverty. These aspects are then
related to the tools used in addressing poverty from
the various approaches, measurements and indicators of poverty,
to issues of political will, both within national and international
contexts. The paper concludes with several key recommendations
to help facilitate a stronger gender perspective in poverty
reduction through the application of ICTs.
ICTs, like other types of technology before it, are being
heralded as the much needed impetus for the economic growth
of a nation, and hence the thrust behind ICT for development
(ICT4D). The first phase of the United Nations World
Summit on the Information Society in Geneva in 2003 witnessed
this global consensus and unsurprisingly, prioritised issues
of infrastructure, connectivity and access (WSIS Plan of Action
2003). What the WSIS failed to acknowledge is how integral
information and communication has been to the development
of human society, even prior to the recent discovery
and availability of the new ICTs, and that throughout generations,
women have been the natural guardians of local and indigenous
knowledge at the community level.
In traditional knowledge systems, women were recognised and
respected for their competence and local knowledge, based
on experiments and experience, on crops, seeds, medicinal
plants and health care. Today, information is most often developed
and disseminated by those outside existing local knowledge
systems, usually without the participation of local communities.
Thus, information may or may not reach rural women and rural
womens knowledge systems often become obscured and undervalued.
In spite of the general awareness and acknowledgment of womens
role in traditional knowledge systems and the importance of
such systems in development, there has been considerable lack
of understanding and appreciation of power dynamics and gender
inequality that is suffered at all levels of society. As a
result, women were marginalised in the final documents of
WSIS (WSIS Declaration of Principles 2003).
Technology, like money, is equivalent to power. In the wrong
hands, ICTs can do more harm than good; it can exacerbate
poverty, inequalities and disempowerment and reinforce discriminatory
and oppressive structures, systems and practices which are
particularly harmful to women and girls. In the right hands,
and driven by the right motivation, ICTs can contribute to
eradicating womens economic, social and political isolation.
ICTs can be used to empower women not only through access,
but control over the kind of information they access, receive,
obtain, and collect. More importantly, women can use ICTs
to adapt and innovate collected information into new or localised
knowledge for further sharing with others in the community
contributing towards their self-empowerment, self-determination
and well-being. In order to ensure this, an enabling policy
and regulatory environment is critical and can only come about
if all stakeholders genuinely work together to address existing
gender inequalities that perpetuate the discrimination and
subordination of women. To be truly relevant, ICTs for poverty
reduction must incorporate a gender perspective and analysis.
The UN Statement of Commitment of the Administrative Committee
on Coordination for Action to Eradicate Poverty defines poverty
Poverty is a denial of choices and opportunities, a
violation of human dignity. It means lack of basic capacity
to participate effectively in society
It means insecurity,
powerlessness and exclusion of individuals, households and
communities. It means susceptibility to violence, and it often
implies living on marginal and fragile environments without
access to clean water and sanitation.
Poverty, while primarily identified as poverty of income,
requires a number of different measures in order to alleviate
it, let alone eradicate it. Most know that to address poverty,
issues of access to and affordability of education and health
are key aspects that must be addressed. However, with globalisation
and the move towards a more borderless world, these measures
are no longer sufficient. This is because poverty is rooted
to power imbalances, which are in turn, rooted in gender inequality
dynamics that stem from issues that cut across race, religion,
status, culture, and geographical location, among others.
Without addressing the different ways in which men and women
are socialised and subverted, poverty is bound to remain and
manifest in a vicious cycle.
Economic development that addresses poverty can no longer
be measured merely in terms of financial income. Over the
years, other non-income measurements have been identified
to determine economic development levels.
These include the Quality of Life index as measured through
literacy rate, infant mortality and life expectancy. Another
is the Human Development Index which combines longevity with
living standards and educational attainment. A third measurement
focuses on the provision of basic needs such as adequate nutrition,
primary education, health, sanitation, water supply, and housing
services which the poorest segments of the population
should have access to. Finally, there is the Gender-related
Development Index (GDI) which also measures life expectancy
at birth, access to education and per capita product
but more importantly, focuses on the differences between men
and women in these areas as a way to measure the economic
status of the female population in each country.
Related to the GDI, the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM)
also measures gender inequality, but in economic and political
spheres of activity. The GEM captures gender inequality between
men and women in three key areas: political participation
and decision-making power, economic participation and decision-making
power, and power over economic resources, as measured by estimated
earned income. A higher value indicates a higher level of
Since they were launched in 1995, GDI and GEM results have
shown significant progress in closing gender gaps in the last
quarter of the 20th century. However, a trends analysis of
the same results shows that progress towards gender equality
is not dependent on the income level of a society; but rather
more dependent on political will. The UN noted that governments
have made the most progress when they have been willing to
put womens concerns at the heart of their policies,
and champion the necessary changes in order to achieve real
If we intend to address poverty in its broader definition
of a denial of choices and opportunities which results
in disempowerment and further impoverishment, then there
is a need to design economic/development plans based on indicators
that measure lack of empowerment and the extent of realisation
of basic human rights.
The international human rights framework is designed to address
discrimination and oppression that could arise from power
differentials. The International Bill of Human Rights of 1948,
for example, serves as a reminder to all that these human
rights are the minimum (not the maximum) standards we should
aim to achieve for all human beings in the world.
Rights and needs are intimately linked, as are economic/social
rights and civil/political rights. However, with the liberal
interpretation of rights came the tendency to consider some
rights to be more important than others. This practice of
selecting and prioritising rights in a hierarchy for implementation
continues within and among nations, despite the fact that
the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights, held in 1993
in the wake at the end of the Cold War, had endorsed the principle
of universality and indivisibility among the different kinds
of rights meaning that rights are to be applied equally
to all persons and one type of right (e.g. right to clean
water) is not to be regarded as more important than another
(e.g. right to freedom of opinion and expression).
The separation of rights is counterproductive, especially
when seen through a gender lens. It is necessary to go beyond
the idea (and practice) that rights and needs are opposing
policy options there cannot be one set of rights for
women within the household and in her personal life, and a
different set of rights for the larger society.
Using a gender lens requires the State and others
to analyse the situation as to how it affects women and men
differently. A situation of poverty for a community does not
mean that all individuals in a community suffer the impact
of poverty and it vicious cycle in the same manner and degree.
Women, more than men, bear the brunt of poverty.
Seeing Poverty though a Gender
The gender lens is like a pair of spectacles
that allows the viewer to see both the forest and the trees.
This means the individual not only understands the big picture
but also understands how the big picture came about
viewing all social phenomena from a gender perspective, probing
into hierarchical, unequal and unjust relationships between
women and men. In an individual level, this requires a consciousness
that continuously challenges socially accepted roles of women
and men which directly or indirectly result in harmful health
practices or secondary or minor roles for women.
Poverty is multidimensional. It relates to aspects that are
economic (income, work, ownership of assets, credit, etc.),
human (health, education), political (power, rights, vote),
and socio-cultural (status, dignity, social exclusion) which
have an impact on the individuals protection (against
insecurity, risks and vulnerability) and overall well-being
Reducing the gender gap in education is important because
cultural tendencies favour boys over girls. Left unchecked,
the conscious or unconscious promotion of stereotypes will
ensure gender inequalities to persist in the next generations
which will in turn perpetuate existing power imbalances between
men and women, keeping women in subordinated and oppressed
On the economic front, actual figures show that in most countries,
women actually do twice as much unpaid work as men
amounting to 1035% of the global Gross Domestic Product
(GDP) and work longer hours than men. Women bear an
average of 53% of the burden of paid and unpaid work in developing
countries, and 51% in industrialised countries. Roughly, 66%
of womens work burden is expended on unpaid activities.
For men, the reverse is true where unpaid labour makes up
The significant contribution of womens paid and unpaid
work to global production continues to remain invisible today
in indicators that we use in economic development planning.
This is one of the reasons why poor women are often seen as
mere housewives rather than as breadwinners. Looking
through the gender lens, it is quite easy to shatter
the myth that men are the main breadwinners of the world,
as it allows us to fully acknowledge the value of womens
unpaid work and womens work hours.
Applying Our Gender Lens in Using ICTs
for Poverty Reduction
Five key erroneous assumptions first expounded by Ingrid
Burkett in 2000 remain very much relevant today, because they
prevent a better understanding of inequalities in todays
global information society:
These five key erroneous assumptions claim that:
- Give the poor a computer and they will move from being
information poor to information rich.
- Information inequality is a North/South issue.
- Access to more information enriches peoples lives.
- The information society will be more democratic
- Given enough information, we can solve all the worlds
Access as experienced by the poor, particularly women, goes
beyond providing for a computer. Access means putting into
place the necessary physical infrastructure such as electricity,
phone lines, computer hardware and software, servers. It also
means establishing social infrastructure such as computer
literacy, local content, training, political will (including
the legal framework) and economic ability. Given the problems
of access, especially for the poorest and most marginalised
communities, the relevance and practical outcomes of ICTs
are harder to demonstrate. Since it is necessary to show more
direct practical outcomes, ICT-related programs or initiatives
can end up initially serving only the practical gender needs
of women, which in turn would more likely reinforce socio-cultural
expectations of women and their traditional roles in society.
If we are to alleviate poverty and through a gender
lens, the issue of access must include addressing the
roots of poverty that lie in the social, political and economic
dimensions of access and the gender disparities within each.
Information inequality is hardly a North/South issue. It
is a market/social issue. This is a stark reality even in
the USA, the most internet literate country that
pushes for market liberalisation of developing nations, but
also the land where those with the least access to computers
and online services are people who live in rural areas with
low incomes, those in poorer central city areas, black people,
single-parent households (particularly households headed by
women), and those with limited schooling. Intellectual Property
Rights (IPRs) exacerbate these inequalities, ensuring the
information-poor remain deprived of information that can help
alleviate their poverty.
Access to information alone does not enrich peoples
lives. However, how people make sense of it, evaluate it,
reach their own understanding of it and transform it into
knowledge, and then use it, certainly can. While studies have
shown that people tend to seek information and groups on the
internet who will support and reinforce their points of view
(immaterial of how bigoted, biased and misinformed they may
seem), in the developing world, ongoing projects have also
shown that the poor know what kind of information they need
in order to make their lives easier.
How ICTs are used mirrors the power structure in the real
world. The production of information and who controls it is
about power, and we need to understand these power relationships
by closely examining the origins of information to its purposes
and consequences if we are truly committed to eradicating
inequalities in the information society. Since
the organisation, presentation and origins are all inscribed
with cultural, social and political messages, this essentially
means that both the medium and the message are socially constructed
and hence, cannot be gender neutral but could be gender blind,
and can very much be gender biased. It is important for local
knowledge, indigenous knowledge, and local content developed
by women be made available as widely as possible since these
are valuable to development and poverty reduction.
Information alone is not knowledge. Information becomes knowledge
when the local context is added, linking information to the
users environment and particular situation. Very often
this link has to be made by the user herself. A wealth of
information that tries to measure and address poverty already
exists. But what
is needed to resolve real problems is not additional information,
but rather, political will, recognition of personal and social
responsibilities and ultimately, action on the part of governments,
private sector and civil society that prioritise social and
gender justice. In a non-partisan enabling environment, ICTs
can and are making a difference.
Current strategies and approaches to address poverty are
choices based on lessons learned garnered through imperfect
efforts. Gender mainstreaming is increasingly being dismissed
as an approach to address poverty because the approach has
not been able to show the required results. And yet, gender
mainstreaming has not been able to be as effective as it is
expected to be because it has yet to be meaningfully implemented.
The ineffective implementation of gender mainstreaming is
largely due to lack of political will in using the gender
lens and ensuring a very integrated and cross-sector
analysis of the situation. This has subsequently led development
agencies to stop insisting on the gender equality approach
but rather to insist on the development of poverty reduction
strategies, which in recent years have included a stronger
bent towards the formation of public-private partnerships
in the absence of efforts and resources towards effective
formations of multistakeholder partnerships (MSPs).
Recommendation: Guarantee a gender analytical
approach in national ICT4D policies
ICTs are being used to put incomes in the hands of the poor,
which in turn, can generate the growth impulse needed to expand
the global economic pie. This is the bubbling up
theory of growth, i.e. the growth engine will bubble up from
the production and consumption of the poor redirecting
the economy to their capabilities. However, while the poor
may initially start by looking for direct material benefits
when ICT centres are designed as conducive spaces for ICT
use, these same participants will find themselves engaging
in processes of innovation and exploration whose benefits
are more subtle and long-term. National ICT4D policies need
to ensure a conducive environment not just for the technological
aspects of ICT4D, but must also provide guarantees (from human
rights and gender equality perspectives) as well as for the
social, economic and political spaces that come with the use
Recommendation: Ensure a pro-poor enabling
While an ICT4D policy framework that is well-tailored to
the needs of the country and integrated into its poverty reduction
strategy is needed, poverty alleviation realistically requires
an overall conducive environment for economic and political
Rather than a one-sided focus on the private sector as a
whole, policies, mechanisms and programs aimed at poverty
reduction need to focus on two broad areas related to enterprise:
1) the capability-building and market linkages development
for micro, small and medium entrepreneurs, particularly women;
and 2) the establishment of policies, mechanisms and programmes
that would both promote and strengthen social entrepreneurial
efforts of both women and men, young and old.
Rules and regulations need to be made more favorable to small,
medium and social enterprises, and ensure that women are not
further discriminated out of gender blindness, ignorance or
neglect in the program design and implementation.
Guarantee of freedom of expression and the right to information.
The poor can protect themselves from oversights of and inefficiencies
within the State if they are able to get their concerns heard
and access the right information in a more timely manner.
Plurality of independent media. Investigative journalism
that is independent and non-partisan can be the most effective
mechanism in ensuring the rights of the poor, particularly
poor women. Independent media can play a more effective role
in establishing alternative ways of bringing the views and
concerns of the poor to the negotiating table, allowing leverage
to the poor in their bargaining power.
Promotion of open source software will strengthen developing
countries by ensuring that information becomes and remains
a global public good for all.
Recommendation: Strengthen and
increase the number of collaborative partnerships
Although partnerships are strengthening around a greater
sense of common purpose, there is much to be done to close
the gaps in understanding and increase cooperation. A clearer
understanding of mutual rights and responsibilities between
the State and civil society is required. Partnerships have
too often been adversarial rather than collaborative. The
pace of sharing of experiences and good practices fall far
behind the growth rate of poverty. There is a need to develop
mechanisms that would make partnerships more inclusive of
all stakeholders, particularly those who are institutionally
small and community-based. This need becomes particularly
pertinent when taking into account the fast pace of change
in the area of ICTs and their application.
Recommendation: Renegotiate relationship
agreements between international agencies
The Relationship Agreements that currently link the World
Bank and IMF with the UN should be renegotiated, and a similar
Relationship Agreement to link the WTO and the UN should be
created. All of these institutions either already are or are
becoming major influential players in the area of ICT4D. These
agreements should: 1) clarify the responsibilities of the
IMF, World Bank and WTO to the UN, and 2) enhance the ability
of the UN to ensure that international financial and trade
institutions fully respect the jurisdiction of other agencies,
funds and bodies, including UNIFEM, for ensuring compatibility
of trade, economic and financial policies with gender policies
and womens rights; and the ILO for ensuring compatibility
with its decent work agenda, with labour rights and social
protection provisions. Women who have a role in all of these
sectors are affected by the level of use of ICTs, the nature
of these technologies, and the manner in which these are applied.
Recommendation: Review the existing
economic and development framework, and establish systemic
practices of cross-data gender analysis
There is a need to develop a more comprehensive economic
and development framework that concretely takes into account
gender from a gender lens, to a gender
geography, to gender transformative policies and strategies.
The current economic and development framework is a male model.
Like the traditional health model that treats the man and
his situation as the universal standard without looking at
the specific and very different health needs of women, the
male economic development model is exactly the same. In health,
gender equality and womens rights advocates have shown
through various studies that doctors would provide considerably
less consultation time with women compared to male patients.
Likewise, our current economic and development framework behaves
in the same manner.
Poverty strategies which primarily focus on fighting poverty
in monetary terms may be effective for men, since male poverty
may be chiefly attributed to economic factors and sometimes
to ethnic discrimination but are only partly directed
against symptoms and causes that concern womens vulnerability
which is exacerbated by gender inequality issues. Hence, what
is needed are measures in the legal area to overcome womens
vulnerability and institute other changes, such as establishing
stronger and obligatory interconnections between the MDG reporting
by countries and their progress reports on achieving gender
equality that are heard by the CEDAW Committee.
A great deal of knowledge about female and male poverty is
already available, but this is not always in the form of hard
economic data but are reflected in legal and other forms of
discrimination regarding access to and control over resources,
decision-making. For example, most women are restricted in
their mobility because of cultural and religious beliefs.
Restricted mobility produces restricted social networks for
information, support and interaction. It also involves very
material reliance on others social networks from which
one is excluded. It is known how women lack spare time
and how womens unpaid work is not seen as economically
productive. For development planning to successfully
reduce poverty, this knowledge must be acknowledged and incorporated
within the financial and trade regimes to be effectively applied.
Widening the social networks of women should be prioritised
if women are to be empowered because it is through the informal
power networks and gender stereotypes that women are disempowered.
At the minimum, governments need to be supported in the collection
of sex disaggregated data and tabulating this to enable a
deeper analysis and a statistical system of cross-data comparisons
(GDI, GEM and beyond) for policy formulation, national budgeting,
and monitoring of progress.
Recommendation: Ensure accountability
of TNCs and MNCs
Of all the products and services in the world, those that
are ICT-related are probably the ones with the highest sales
turnover and margin of profit, and TNCs and MNCs are fast
entering this field of profitability, not necessarily limited
only in the direct selling of products and services, including
ICT infrastructure, but also in selling value-added ICT-related
products and services, anywhere from banking to media. However,
the lack of financial and social accountability of TNCs and
MNCs to the country where they conduct their operations has
been an ongoing problem faced by many developing nations.
Governments in developing countries, particularly LDCs, are
increasingly losing their ability to negotiate with these
corporations, opening themselves up to and inviting further
entrenchment of corruption within their ranks. Measures and
mechanisms that have been mooted and accepted are facing a
variety of problems in implementation.
A key concern with regards to MNCs is their highly mobile
nature. The highly centralised nature of MNCs allow them to
stimulate the flow of investment, technology, profits, and
more, but they tend not to experience a sense of loyalty to,
or responsibility for, the citizens of the countries in which
their subsidiaries reside. They establish subsidiaries in
countries where conditions are most favorable to their business
operations. To the disadvantage of the host country though,
MNCs are better able to negotiate favourable terms and conditions
for themselves, because of their ability to just pack up and
leave, producing internal economic shocks in the sudden rise
of unemployment. Hence, they are often more likely to close
branch plants in times of economic downturn. As a result,
concerns for the well-being of the citizens of the host government
will tend to take a backburner to investment concerns.
While globally, corporate social responsibility (CSR) has
been promoted, this remains largely rhetoric, and corporations
will only respond more positively when there is stronger regulation
and closer monitoring by NGOs, trade unions and consumer groups.
This is a paradoxical situation that can only change when
international binding rules for corporations are established.
International rules governing investments and economic activity
are not new ideas or practices. We can devise a similar set
for ensuring the accountability of corporations, where the
host country and parent companies, are responsible for the
socio-economic crimes they commit elsewhere. Governments can
be kept informed through a number of existing international
reporting mechanisms, particularly country reports to CEDAW.
These measures can range from imposing global social taxes,
fees and fines which can then be re-channeled into gender
transformative development programs; to enforcing transparency
rules, and enabling information to be collected on the investment,
trade and employment practices of these corporations.