Feminist Knowledge Management

Dudziro Nhengu
Posted September 13, 2011 from Zimbabwe

FEMINIST KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT Models of information production, collection and management from Zimbabwe ZWRCN and EKOWISA.

Written for Osisa

By Dudziro Nhengu

Introduction The Nairobi Women’s Decade conference (1985) ushered a new era of feminist stock-taking to African women, who noted how public policies continued to be hostile to gender equality. In ensuing analysis it became evident that obtaining power relations and institutional structures were constructed to systematically curtail gender equality. Women realised that empowering themselves with knowledge was one way through which hegemonic state policies could be deconstructed, and egalitarian communities created. As a result, African feminist mobilisation has increased exponentially since the 90s, in ways not as manifest in the early 80s. Women’s associations have expanded their focus from welfare issues to the inclusion of more explicitly political concerns. This shift in approach has given rise to vibrant organisations aimed at deconstructing social relations. I note the nexus between the dictum ‘knowledge is power’, and the feminist adage ‘the personal is political’ where knowledge and gender intersect. Access to, and interaction with knowledge creates power. At the same time knowledge production is affected by the concepts of race, class and nation. A woman’s position in terms of her race, economic status and geographical location determines her visibility as an actor politically, socially and economically. The gendered digital divide shows that more women than men have little or no access to information on the internet, world-wide web or through other electronic means. As globalisation connects some people, more and more women are being relegated to the background. Consequently, access to knowledge and information becomes a political issue because it involves exclusion of the powerless from the public sphere. Noting the disparities and marginalisations emanating from unequal access to information and knowledge, feminists have engaged new strategies to empower women for effectiveness in the private sphere. What used to be a preserve of the mainstream industry, knowledge management, (KM) has since become a key strategy in the feminist development agenda. The concept ‘gender’ in this paper refers to both men and women, but for this discussion, this paper specifically looks at women’s experiences in relation to knowledge production and management. KM is a thoroughly contested term, often understood and interpreted differently by various scholars. There is no universal definition of KM, just as there's no agreement to what constitutes knowledge. For this reason, I refer to it in its broadest context, as the process through which organisations generate value from their intellectual and knowledge-based assets, and also as a practice, not a technology (Reynolds, 1998). While technology can support KM, it’s not its sufficient enabler. KM has several important components to it, three of which are major. First, the concept of knowledge in itself, regarding the collection of data, information and facts; and second, the concept of management, which regards the way actors get the best out of the information available and use it efficiently. Third is the concept of sharing this information and making it accessible. My presentation will not dwell much on theories of KM. I limit myself to an exploration of knowledge management practices of feminist organisations in Africa. I achieve this through a gender and historical analysis of two organisations in Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe Women’s Resource Centre and Network (ZWRCN) and E-Knowledge for Women in Southern Africa (EKOWISA), in relation to their broad objective of KM for the empowerment of women. The efforts of these two organisations and their achievements to date, despite the various political and economic hardships they have faced in the past, reflect a terrain of women’s mobilising that is both rich and deep in Zimbabwe. (Barnes 1991; Schmidt 1992; in Essof 2004) My discussion lays emphasis on the role of Feminist KM as a key arena in the development process. It also highlights the level of organizational and strategic capacity of feminists in Africa in seeking to cross boundaries based on class, race, culture and religion. In the same vein, but at a more critical level, this paper examines KM as part of the globalisation process. It takes place on unequal terms and it also increases social and economic inequality between and within organisations and individuals, noting especially how feminists have struggled to avert this challenge in their pursuance of women’s emancipation. (Radloff 2004)

Zimbabwe Women’s Resource Centre and Network (ZWRCN) The ZWRCN was born in 1990, through concerted efforts of a few feminists. The women shared a common interest of overcoming the disparities and marginalisations emanating from unequal access to information and knowledge. They believed that production, dissemination and management of relevant and strategic knowledge were a major impetus and pre-requisite for women empowerment in Zimbabwe, as well as for lobbying governments for gender equality. ZWRCN pursued its mission through a set of activities and programmes that continued to evolve and change over time, in response to the changing conditions of women's lives in Zimbabwe, as well as to the dynamism of knowledge itself.

The Documentation Centre was the first ZWRCN project, and the first of its kind in Zimbabwe, designed to gather gender-related information for documentation and dissemination. Formerly neglected research (both grey material and published) on women in Zimbabwe, in Southern Africa and elsewhere on the continent, as well as material dealing with feminist theories was gathered and documented.

With time, glaring gaps came to the fore. There was a general absence of materials that drew on the reality of African women. Most information took the form of official reports and documents written by foreign researchers/consultants, or by men, authors not always sensitive to Zimbabwean women's perspectives or concerns. This dissatisfaction led to the birth of the Gender and Development Talk programme. Members engaged in deep feminist debate, identifying gaps in the information base, with the aim of grounding staff in a shared understanding of feminist theory. What began as in-house discussions to strengthen staff capacity later opened up to the wider public as a networking and gender awareness forum. A shift in information sharing is noted here, where ZWCRN staff benefited from the contributions of the wider public and vice versa.

To reach out to women in the rural areas, ZWRCN published a news bulletin, later re-conceptualised as WomenPlus. This was intended to have a wider appeal, looked more like a women's magazine and mirrored the themes and issues driving ZWRCN’s programmes. It became the public interface for the organisation, and published articles in English as well as the dominant local languages to bridge the language barrier.

Through support from Women Connect, ZWRCN established an Internet cafe to provide e-mail and Internet skills to ordinary women who had no access to such. This project became the first Zimbabwean initiative dedicated to training women at local level on how to use the Internet and e-mail to communicate, search for information, and experience the benefits of being part of a global on-line community. The project offered discounted computer access to women in recognition of the factors that limit women's access to technology. The internet unit obtained an elitist face, as few elite women accessed it owing to its location in the capital. As such, the goal of distributing information to grassroots women remained elusive. ZWRCN lacked capacity to transport documents and information to women living in the rest of the country, let alone to translate it into local languages. In 1994, ZWRCN partnered with Rural Libraries and Development Association, (RLDA) and provided information on gender in local languages for distribution to rural women through the rural libraries. Information from the internet was downloaded, translated and also translated for dissemination to rural folk through rural libraries. The success of this programme only depended on the viability of the RLDA programme which has since gone defunct. At the same time forestalled and translated information could never replace the richness of up to date on-line information that city women could get at a click. Which information to gather and translate would depend solely on the criteria of the few feminists involved at the centre, especially as no needs assessment of what rural women needed in terms of information and knowledge was done before hand. Spivak argues against the representer’s political location in relation to the subjects, as one imbued with the politics of representation. The insider/outsider dichotomy presents a myriad of complications as knowledge producers grapple with how they can effectively represent their subjects and whether they can speak for the ‘other’. (Spivak 1958) Leela Fernandes also refers to a ‘colonial process of “information gathering. The strategies of representation and knowledge production [for] ‘the other’ are vitally important as they determine the final information that is going to be produced. The same strategies also bind the produced information within particular discourses of active producer/passive recipients, at the same time reproducing relations found within larger systems of power. (Fernandes 2003) In her critique of post-modern feminisms, Philomina E. Okeke further argues that {in their} ‘intent {to} defend subjugated voices, dominant voices do not seem conscious of the relations of power that position them as “gatekeepers”. She argues that the end product in knowledge gathering, documentation and sharing is determined by the major actors in the process. Consequently, knowledge about African women should therefore be produced by African women in collaboration with each other and in the interests of a movement that could bring about social change. (Okeke 1996) At the same time however, feminist knowledge is also embedded in class debates about what constitutes knowledge and where and how that knowledge is gathered and disseminated. Okeke argues for feminist scholarship that ‘affirms, even as it contests, particular knowledge claims’. In recognition of the above theories ZWRCN never questioned its legitimacy and mandate as a gender developer, but stopped to rethink its strategies for more relevance and effectiveness. The internet café was programme was phased out for the problems it posed as the organisation put invested more energy in gender awareness-raising workshops with local communities. These were designed to ensure maximum dissemination and sharing of information between rural women and the ‘experts’. ZWRCN became the focal point for gender training throughout Zimbabwe, as external organisations and other NGOs continuously called on them for gender training workshops. Demand outwore the few gender practitioners in the organisation, the majority of who were the founding feminist members, who had to overwork themselves as both board members and gender specialists. Although ZWRCN had the capacity to employ more gender practitioners, there were very few women competent in gender issues at the time. To solve this problem, ZWRCN embarked on a training of trainers (TOT) programme that pooled together experts from various persuasions such as education, sociology, agriculture, economics, and medicine. This programme was of double benefit to feminist work as the same experts also learnt the importance of incorporating and mainstreaming gender in their work back at the various work places. With time, the need to be strategic in ensuring that the information gathered and disseminated was effective, relevant and matched global standards emerged. A research and advocacy unit was thus set up. The unit identified critical and contemporary themes and held formal thematic workshops twice a year. These provided a forum at which proposals or research findings could be presented in the form of discussion papers, and gave rise to activism and initiatives with and by other organisations. The ZWRCN's deep involvement in the Land Commission (1994 – 98) was the result of a GAD talk on the subject of women's access to land. A similar process led to their involvement in the Constitutional Review Process (1998 – 2001) and has continued to function as a think-tank, involving various stakeholders, staff and board members, as well as interested members of the public. In 2004, ZWRCN put its energies into the issue of gender and HIV/AIDS. It tackled sexist and discriminatory practices and attitudes that contribute both to women's vulnerability to HIV infection. The ever-growing burden of caring for the sick that conservative society places on women was noted, and the organisation used information to facilitate a search for ways in which to reform the national, local and community level interventions to become less burdensome to women, who presently bear the brunt of the epidemic. In 2005 the lives of rural women infected with and affected by HIV/AIDS were documented in a ground breaking research volume, Picture My Life. This came into being using modern feminist research and analysis methods. There is however need for the organisation to consider translating the volume into local languages as well as holding workshop with rural women and girls based on the research findings. E-Knowledge for Women in Southern Africa (EKOWISA) Established in 2003, E-Knowledge for Women in Southern Africa (EKOWISA) is a regional non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in Zimbabwe. Through promoting the effective and efficient use of Information and Communication Technologies, (ICTs), the organisation seeks to promote gender equality by creating knowledge, supporting women entrepreneurs, advocating for inclusive policy-making, and building ICT skills. The Community ICT Project catalyses the creation and exchange of local content by building the community's capacity to utilise ICTs in generating, analyzing, storing, and disseminating locally relevant information and knowledge in local languages. Participating communities are at one high-density, low-income urban site in Highfields, and two rural sites - Mhondoro and Mutoko. 80 percent of the community participants are women at each site. The E-nable Project has five complementary elements that are designed to encourage an inclusive policymaking process as well as gather feedback from urban and rural community groups. It includes the establishment of an ICT consultative forum of civil society organisations that engage in ICT policy formulation processes. The project also carries out research and produces information primers used as part of the resource material in raising awareness amongst civil society actors about various ICT policy and practice issues, and includes activities that engage and encourage community groups to create and disseminate local content using several relevant ICT tools. EKOWISA developed and published a database of local, national, and regional women entrepreneurs from Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa who are benefiting from using ICTs for their enterprises, known as the Southern African Database for Women Entrepreneurs (SADWE). The project held workshops for women entrepreneurs and created linkages with women economists and other critical stakeholders involved in fair and international trade. The Southern African Network for Women Economists (SANWE) encourages the engagement of women economist-oriented academics, media makers, and entrepreneurs to work together to research, publish, and apply policies that have been analysed through a gender lens. The women's ICT training centre is inspired by current non-use or minimal use of ICTs by women due to gender-based disadvantages such as levels of literacy and education, lack of productive resources, lack of time due to the multiplicity of women's roles in society, and cultural assertions that ICT is a male domain. The centre's purpose is to provide gender-sensitive training in applied ICT literacy. The training facility is an informal service to enable women to use ICTs effectively and efficiently in their occupations and everyday life without converting them into information technology (IT) experts. As part of its efforts to create and share knowledge, EKOWISA maintains a knowledge bank on their website which houses information including research, facts sheets, reports, and newsletters. EKOWISA has also produced ten digital stories (accessible on their website) with community representatives from PADARE Men's Forum on Gender, Disabled Women's Association, and EKOWISA Community ICT Project participants. Digital Stories are stories produced, stored, and disseminated using digital media. The objective of digital storytelling is to highlight issues which impact on people's behaviour, attitudes, and thinking concerning gender-based violence, HIV/AIDS, disability, and the use of ICTs in human development. In conclusion, like any other NGO in Zimbabwe, ZWRCN and EKOWISA have been frustrated by the slow pace of change, unfavourable political landscape and lack of adequate resources. However, the organisations have managed to adapt their situation to prevailing conditions. They continually, and timeously deepen their approach in knowledge management for women empowerment. Keeping their websites up to date and experimenting with new modes of networking such as face book and twitter would increase their networking capacities. BEST PRACTICES Below I highlight some best practices that feminist organisations championing KM can utilise to best achieve their mission: • There is need for women in gender institutions and information management to be knowledgeable with means and skills to effectively manage information to ensure that it reaches all sectors of society and all strata of women in languages that they understand best. Employing gender practitioners on the basis of their womanhood without considering their grounding and experience in the field may curtail development in an organisation. • Organisations involved in KM must also be committed to providing a learning environment. Resources must be put aside for the provision of seminars and workshops that allow and encourage conversation as well informal and formal knowledge sharing sessions. The secretariat in a feminist organisation ought to be in constant touch with intended beneficiaries for learning purposes. Knowledge is a set of multiple processes and has social dimensions too. • Knowledge “stores” and all ICTs must have quality criteria. Repositories that store knowledge artefacts such as websites, face books, twitters, CDs, tapes etc must be kept current and accessible, and also coded to allow easy accessibility. • Because knowledge is dynamic, constantly changing, and evolving, knowledge systems must be robust and flexible enough to take frequent updates from all sectors of the organisation. • Knowledge management should not be confused with the technology itself, and knowledge should not be confused with knowledge artefacts. (2 895 words)

References Association of African Women for Research and Development, (AAWORD). 1985. "AAWORD in Nairobi 1985: The Crisis in Africa and its Impact on Women", AAWORD Occasional Paper Series No. 3. Mama, Amina. (Editor). 2005. Feminist Africa: Women Mobilised Issue 4: AGI South Africa Mama, A. 1996. "Women's Studies and Studies of Women in Africa during the 1990s", CODESRIA Working Paper Series 5/96. Mbilinyi, M. 1992. "Research methodologies in Gender Issues" in Meena, R. (Editor). Gender in Southern Africa: Conceptual and Theoretical Issues. Harare: SAPES Books. Hope, hype, or harbinger? Library Journal, 122(5), 33–36. Okeke, P.E. 1996. Post Modern Feminism and Knowledge Production in Africa. Michigan Jaggar, A.M. 1989. Love and knowledge: “Emotion in feminist epistemology”, in A.M. Jaggar & S.R. Bordo (Eds.), Gender/body/knowledge: Oxford English Dictionary. 2002. http://dictionary.oed.com. Parikh, M. 2001. “Knowledge management framework for high-tech research and development, Engineering Management Journal” 13(3), 27–33). Perner, Z., & Perner, J. 1999. A Theory of Implicit and Explicit Knowledge. Fernandes, L. 2003. Transforming Feminist Practice: Non-Violence, Social Justice and the Possibilities of a Spritualised Feminism (Paperback) India “Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology”—October 2002 Stewart, T.A. 2001. The wealth of knowledge: Intellectual Capital and the twenty-first century organization. New York: Currency. Streng, D.J. 1999. “Knowledge Management: An essential framework for corporate library leadership. Advances in Library Administration and Organization”, 16, 1–30. “Knowledge Management”: Concepts and Controversies Conference, Warwick, England. http://is.lse.ac.uk/staff/whitley/. Accessed October Spivak, G. C. 1988. Selected Subaltern Studies. India

Comments 2

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Sep 14, 2011
Sep 14, 2011

This quiet interesting and informative. I have realized many similarities with my organisation which is generation and dissemination of feminist knowledge and information. We set up a women's cafe in Kampala which was the first of its kind and we have a very big feminst resource centre with a wide range of collection. Our challenge has been reaching out to the rural women. I am grappling with this challenge. I hope to interact with you so that we can share ideas and strategies Loyce

Dudziro Nhengu
May 26, 2012
May 26, 2012

Thanks Loice.