I am an ardent believer in the power of the internet to foster development and women`s empowerment world wide.If women are able to connect online with the right training,information flow and learning is going to change a lot in households and communities.
Last week I participated in the first international Working Forum on Women, Information and Communication Technologies and Development (WICTAD) which took place at the Institute for International Education in Washington DC,under the auspices of the Department of State’s Office of Global Women’s Issues and UN Women.The forum gathered representatives from civil society, academia, government, the private sector, and the UN to measure the social, economic, and political implications of the gender gap in Internet access. Participants shared ideas on how to expand women and girls’ access to information and communication technologies (ICTs), related services and opportunities in the ICT field. Thanks to a push from World Pulse, I was given the chance to be a voice for the women of my community in such a crucial platform.
Are you shocked to learn that I left such an interesting forum with mixed feelings?I was happy that strides were being made to narrow the online gender gap but also sad to see that doctors were discussing treatment in the absence of the sick person.The under representation of grassroots women had a sickening effect on me.Women from developing countries form a greater portion of women who are absent online.I attended a few break out sessions where I shed a light of reality into the discussions using practical examples from my community.These examples became crucial points for discussions during the sessions.However,I could clearly see that many more grassroots women were needed to discuss solutions that were practical in their communities in all the sessions.
According to an Intel report, "Doubling the number of women and girls online in developing countries from 600m today to 1.2bn in three years could potentially pump an estimated US$13bn-US$18bn in annual GDP across 144 developing countries".I totally agree with the findings of this report and I am rejoicing because I know how personally my life has been positively influenced due to my exposure to the internet.I foresee the same for millions of girls and women in many parts of the world in the upcoming years,if only the right kind of exposure is offered.
The internet can be a double edged sword when it comes to women in vulnerable communities like my own.The number of female users of facebook and other online dating sites is skyrocketing in Cameroon as the days go by.Secondary school girls are increasingly running away from classrooms into cyber cafes where they indulge in cyber sex with strange men in Europe and the US with the hope of making money or traveling out of the country for greener pastures.These girls and women send out pictures of their nudity to unknown men who in turn post them online for others to see.We are not yet done with the negative portrayal of the woman by the traditional media and here comes the internet with another clever way of degrading the feminine body.It is true that this phenomenon is in all parts of the world,but also true that it becomes more ravaging in areas already plagued by high rates of gender based violence and under development.
There has been an increase in facebook relationships that lead these girls into unprotected sex with unknown men in the same localities.I am afraid exposure to internet without the right training will go a long way to worsen and complicate the feminization of HIV/AIDS and poverty due to increase rates of unwanted pregnancies and school drop outs.Problems like breast ironing and back street abortions will intensify. Mothers would want to protect their daughters and teenage girls would want to do away with unwanted pregnancies the cheapest way possible.
How can the number of female internet users be increased without increasing the problems of women in vulnerable communities?
-Websites like World Pulse that promote learning and positive interactions amongst women should be publicized and made accessible to women when they come online.
-Digital literacy in all primary and secondary schools in developing countries.
-Digital literacy and training courses on internet usage should be encouraged in all local women`s groups and adult literacy programs.
For a woman to have internet access in Cameroon, she needs to go to a cyber cafe.In most cases she has to be given permission by her husband,parent or guardian before she leaves the house.If the authority over her does not dim it necessary,she might not be able to leave the house.
Poverty,low internet speed,frequent power outages and lack of freedom of movement for girls and women are a few factors that could impede a higher online feminine presence in developing countries.Most of these challenges can be overcome through the provision of free cyber cafes for women in poor communities.To combat the problem of the absence of electricity or power outages,a standby generator could be useful in case of unexpected power failure.
For girls in poorer communities to have opportunities in ICT fields they need access to education,which is not given to all girls poor communities.Technical education is regarded as a field for boys only.Increasing the number of girls in technical education can be fostered by the increasing the provision of scholarships to girls in poor communities and providing them with ready jobs.
The same challenges that affected women and girls of my community when I was a little girl are still there and even more complex.What is the reason for this?Is it that no one cares to make a change?Accessibility to portable water,health facilities,education and even the right to a live free of torture is still not a reality to a greater portion of women in my community.
My heart aches and beats fast!I feel there is an urgency to act!So much has been said.So much research has been done.Yes the figures are alarming?So what?I am eager to see the unfolding of a new era,where alarming figures will be registered of things done and not things said!
So many workshops and conferences have been convened.Every year thousands of women fly from one part of the world to another to discuss issues related to women`s empowerment.Exorbitant amounts of money are spent on hotel bills,food,drinks and perdiems. The same topics are addressed year in year out.
For some time now I have been asking myself whether these numerous meetings have actually had an impact on the lives of the targeted women.What if the resources used in convening these numerous gatherings were invested in making life better for poor women in remote areas through the provision of internet facilities, micro-loans,better health facilities education and training opportunities?
For years we have been fighting to break the margins of culture to bring emancipation but have recorded very minimal success,now is the time for us to remain within those margins and still ignite freedom and change.They say our place is in the kitchen,well I am typing this from my kitchen table and my four year old girl is completing her maths assignment nearby,some hard work is being done to ensure that millions of women in all parts of the world will be able to do the same just in a little while from now. Watch out for a time when women dont need to escape the backyards to access the resources they need to change their lives. Once you light a lamp in a dark room,you cannot conceal its beams even if you keep it at the back of the room.So it is with the internet and women,we may have been relegated to the backyards for years but the time has come when opportunity and wisdom will collide at the backyards ushering in an unstoppable wind of positive change.