I have been working on a voluntary basis as the Executive Director of Half The Sky Public Education since 2010. It is a Hong Kong based charitable organisation committed to empowering migrant women in China through innovative use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). In the past six years we have been partnering with international bodies, such as UNWomen (China Office), media organisations, and local NGOs on media campaigns targeting not only migrant women but also the general public to maximise our reach.
In 2014, we launched Jianjiaobuluo (www.jianjiaobuluo.com), a comprehensive one-stop life-hack web site, and its social media platforms for migrant women to provide information to prevent situations of labour rights violations and gender-based violence. China currently has over 277 million migrant workers, according to the 2016 official report by the National Bureau of Statistics of the People’s Republic of China. Among them, 33.6 percent are female. In Guangdong Province, migrant women are the backbone of the economy, with the majority of them ‘womanning’ every production line in the major cities. Aside from the promises of modernity, individual freedom, and a prosperous future, most young women migrant workers have come to face an unromantic reality: low socio-economic status without a city hukou (household registration), which prevents them from seeking local social benefits. They work long hours with little training in a harsh work environment where the dangers of industrial injuries and sexual harassment lurk. Nevertheless, leading studies on Chinese factory girls conducted by scholars show that they still try to seek empowerment and solidarity in every possible way. Within the multilayered network of corporate interests and state power, young migrant women are struggling to define and defend their personhood.
The new generation of women migrant workers is uniquely different from those of earlier generations. A random-sample survey we conducted in mid 2016 among 119 migrant women, the majority aged between 18 and 35, indicated that the mean year of schooling they receive now is currently 9.75. Over 90 percent of the women surveyed had completed junior high school before heading off to the big cities. They were also more tech savvy, given that 96 percent of the participants owned a 3G smartphone and 87 percent were online, mostly on their phones. What is also worth noting was that up to 80 percent of the respondents were online at least once a day. Interestingly, chatting, mostly through WeChat (Chinese name: Weixin) and QQ, and watching videos, TV serials and movies topped the primary online activities for the young, partially due to the drop in data service fees and increasing access to free wifi in China. Photo and video sharing and online shopping have also made it into the top four online activities, according to the survey.
While there has been a major increase in access to ICTs among Chinese migrant women, they are still underrepresented among the netizen population of China. Migrant workers, both male and female comprise approximately 20 percent of China’s entire population, but given their low socioeconomic status, only accounted for 3.1 percent of 700 million Internet users nationwide, according to China Internet Network Information Centre. This partially explains why very few web-based contents are intended for women migrant workers and illustrate the issues they face, such as gender discrimination and labor exploitation. There is abundant empirical evidence from scholarly studies and the survey and focus group sessions conducted in 2016, which indicated that in terms of social media participation, it is still quite difficult to get migrant workers to express their views online. Female workers tend only to browse or place their ‘like’ comments and rarely make longer ones. The lack of relevant information, technical skills and autonomy to receive and produce information regarding their concerns is more widely experienced by women than men in rural and developing regions. These apparent inequalities in access to and use of ICTs are among the many facets of what has been called the gender digital divide.
Since the launch of Jianjiaobuluo (English translation: Chili Pepper Blog) and its social media platforms in September 2014, we have endeavoured to provide information on gender equality, labour rights and life management as these are relevant and indispensable for migrant women to make better-informed decisions in life. Equally important, we have also made progress in terms of inspiring and training talented female workers to create original contents for the web site and empower them to voice out the concerns of their own communities.
The role of ICTs is, without doubt, significant to social empowerment of underprivileged women and promotion of gender equality. My experience of using ICT to eliminate gender digital divide has led me to a series of issues I would like further explore during the advanced digital changemaking training:
1) What can be the key strategies to use ICTs proactively and effectively to eliminate gender digital divide in the Chinese context?
2) How can they be applied to promote gender quality and social/digital empowerment of migrant women?
3) To what extent have we achieved what we set out to achieve?
* I have published a paper detailing what we do in order to technologically empower women migrant workers in China:http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/12259276.2016.1242947