With the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, the discussion about the presence of technologies in our lives finally ceased to be a privileged space for experts in the field, since it became evident that nowadays it is unthinkable that there is no correlation between access to the Internet and the exercise of human rights. The technological advance of communication through the internet and mobile devices has allowed us as humans to overcome the effects of the pandemic and guarantee as far as possible that people are informed and safe from infection. Of course, on technology and human rights there are many things still unresolved, questions that we must reflect on: How in some contexts the lack of access and informed use of technology deepens inequalities, to what extent are States and businesses responsible for the welfare of people in cyberspace, how to ensure that the Internet is also a safe space for women?
On 29 June 2012, the Human Rights Council, in resolution A/HRC/20/L.13 (1), recognized that access to the Internet is a human right and that, as such, it is a space that is closely related to the exercise of the freedoms enshrined in international legal instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The work of the various treaty committees, special rapporteurs, thematic reports, general recommendations, and numerous observations made to States have made it possible not only to provide a basis for this resolution, but also to broaden the framework of analysis of human rights in relation to the use of technology, and to facilitate a discussion that is oriented towards the protection and guarantee of rights.
In particular, the CEDAW Committee has interpreted the right to access the Internet and the use of technology in different ways in relation to women's human rights through the Convention. References to this issue are scattered throughout various documents issued by the committee, such as its general recommendations and concluding observations. The various reporting mechanisms and special procedures allow United Nations bodies and organs to anticipate the evolution of human rights, opening up the possibility of addressing dilemmas that did not exist or were not foreseen at the time of their creation and thus expanding and increasing the framework for protecting the human rights of all people.
Two of its most recent contributions are it's General Recommendation 35 (2), in which the CEDAW Committee recognizes that technological factors can aggravate gender-based violence, and that, in a globalized and contemporary environment, where violence against women encounters high levels of impunity, the technological sphere is another environment in which women are exposed to experiencing violence and discrimination; and the call for joint action in times of pandemic COVID-19 (3):
"Since the duration, scope and impact of the constraints caused by the pandemic cannot yet be predicted, the CEDAW Committee first calls for the use of new technologies in a more effective, accessible, inclusive and gender-sensitive manner”. Further noting that it is an opportunity to "...adopt transformative strategies that are based on the empowerment and leadership of women, especially in the fields of digital technologies and artificial intelligence".
Although there is no specific convention or a general recommendation on the use of technology and women's human rights, it is important to remember that the convention itself is a powerful framework of analysis applicable in many ways to the right to access the Internet at its intersection with other human rights.
Article 1, which conceptualizes the term discrimination against women, can be applied to the analysis of forms of discrimination that occur as a result of technological development, such as technological gaps, algorithms that deepen discrimination, racially-biased search engines, or the censorship of non-hegemonic bodies that protest online, which are only some of the ways in which technologies can deepen inequalities. Similarly, articles 2 and 3 relate to the obligations of States to eliminate inequalities in access to and use of technologies, through the creation of laws and public policy that guarantee, for example, accessibility, neutrality, data protection, security, and access to justice when violence is reproduced in the digital space, whether by private or public actors. Likewise, in line with Articles 5 and 10 of the Convention, States should be able to take an appropriate approach to eliminate discrimination based on stereotypes in the integration of women and girls into technical career training programs such as computer science, which persist in educational systems and culture. (4)
With regard to political participation, which is addressed by the CEDAW through Article 7, it is important to note that States have an obligation to address the high levels of gender-based political violence that women face in cyberspace. And, in relation to Article 8 of the CEDAW, it is important for States to guarantee the participation of women on an equal representation in high-level spaces where the main discussions on the Internet take place, such as the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) conducted by UN, space where female and diverse representation is usually lower than male representation (5). In the same spirit, article 14, could apply to the situation of rural women who did not have access to minimum conditions of Internet access and were victims of multiple human rights violations because of the mandatory isolation, whereas access to rights such as education and health depended entirely on the conditions of technological access. All of the articles contained in the CEDAW also offer other parameters of analysis for specific problems that most affect women and girls, where effects have been increased by the conditions in which cyberspace currently operates, such as trafficking, sexual exploitation, and child pornography.
While the development of human rights in relation to the use of technology is still a long way off, the CEDAW, its Committee and other treaty bodies theoretical contributions provides an opportunity to conduct comprehensive analyses from a human rights perspective aimed at eliminating the barriers that prevent women from enjoying their rights in cyberspace; and this is only possible thanks to the vision and spirit of the convention as a “living document”, in which any woman in any country can find a framework of protection to defend her rights in different contexts and against any form of exclusion and discrimination, no matter how new or unexplored.
4. An example of this is the analysis made in the UN Women's report "Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics in Latin America and the Caribbean" published in May 2020, which mentions that: only 35% of students in STEM programs and careers are women. Report available at: https://www2.unwomen.org/-/media/field%20office%20americas/documentos/publicaciones/2020/09/mujeres%20en%20stem%20onu%20mujeres%20unesco%20sp32922.pdf?la=es&vs=4703
5. In 2019, women represented 42% of the people who participated in the IGF on a face-to-face basis, mostly from Western European countries. More information at: https://www.intgovforum.org/multilingual/content/igf-2019-participation-and-programme-statistics