By Kim Crane
Women's voices converge from across the globe to demand digital inclusion for all.
For many years, whenever Precious Meshi Nkeih wanted to use the Internet, she had to walk to the nearest cyber café and hand over the contents of her wallet to the attendant. She would browse the web until inevitably her money ran out and the computer abruptly cut her session short.
The access challenges Nkeih faced in Cameroon are acutely felt by others around the world. Expense is the greatest barrier to online access for many women, while others yearn for a safe space to get online. Literacy levels prevent some women from taking full advantage of digital tools, while others fear the prying eyes of authoritative regimes. One woman might confront threats from an online stranger. Another might meet disapproval from her own family members. For some, the accumulation of responsibilities and expectations at home leave little time for online pursuits.
Why does it matter? Online access may appear to be a luxury—but for millions of women worldwide it is a lifeline to employment, healthcare, and a platform to advocate for their needs.
As digital tools gain increasing currency in our world, they are becoming essential weapons in struggles against inequality, including gender inequality. As World Pulse member Gwain Colbert of Cameroon put it: "The new source of power today is not so much money in the hands of a few but information in the hands of many."
It is this urgent unmet potential that prompted World Pulse to launch the WWW: Women Weave the Web Campaign, a mobilizing effort throughout 2014 which elicited testimonies about the power of online access from across the globe.
"As a deer who pants for water, so am I thirsty for knowledge," writes Nkeih in her campaign submission. Similarly, Martha Llano, a participant in Colombia, compares the free flow of information to running water, arguing it should not be limited by governments or private companies.
The World Pulse campaign ignited the participation of community members from over 70 countries, concluding with nearly 600 submissions.
A map showing the location of submissions from the WWW:Women Weave the Web Campaign
"We are using this crowdsourced data to generate a conversation with key stakeholders on how women’s digital inclusion can be accelerated and prioritized to empower women around the world," says Leana Mayzlina, World Pulse Digital Campaigns Manager.
World Pulse is responding to a worldwide movement that recognizes digital inclusion as a human rights issue—a movement that has steadily been gaining traction since the 2000s. In 2001, the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), a Women Weave the Web Campaign partner, brought together partners and stakeholders to draft their Internet Rights Charter. The current version of the charter declares in its preamble:
Like the process of globalisation with which it has been closely intertwined, the spread of Internet access takes place with uneven results and often exacerbates social and economic inequalities. However, the Internet and other information and communication technologies (ICTs) can be a powerful tool for social mobilisation and development, resistance to injustices and expression of difference and creativity.
The United Nations also declared Internet access a human rights issue in a 2011 report, which specifically addressed the harms of state censorship.
World Pulse hopes that the collective voices emerging from the WWW: Women Weave the Web Campaign can help galvanize support and bring the concerns of grassroots women leaders front and center.
Campaign submissions highlight the myriad ways women are using the power of the Internet to create a better world. Women are achieving economic empowerment and finding jobs and resources to help bring their products to market. They are creating women-led safe spaces online, such as a platform for youth in the Middle East to exercise freedom of speech and access information. And they are using digital tools to bolster every kind of offline initiative, from helping deaf women in Argentina access health information to introducing yoga to heal collective trauma in Kosovo.
They are also forming a network of relationships they can draw from in their mobilizing efforts. Political activist and World Pulse Correspondent Malayapinas in the Philippines remarks, "In times of political danger with the digital technology I never felt alone." While she faces safety concerns and uses an alias for her online writing, she finds communication tools essential. "Mobile phones and Internet access are my ammunitions…Digital access defies distance and fear."
But for each triumphant voice in our community connecting to resources and speaking out on issues, there are the shadows of many others just like her who are unable to participate.
We see women with Internet access doing what they can to share their wealth. They are narrating stories on behalf of “sisters” who cannot themselves use a computer. Like Obisakin Christianah Busayo in Nigeria, they are conducting their own trainings. And like Busayo, who began training women in her community several at a time on her own laptop, they are finding themselves quickly overwhelmed by the demand.
Photo courtesy of Obisakin Christianah Busayo. Women and girls receive training on how to use a computer, access the internet, and join global conversations at the Women Inspiration Development Center in Nigeria.
Women have been changing lives at a local level, but many of their needs require coordinated action involving national, international, and corporate stakeholders. That’s why World Pulse worked with a range of partners during the WWW: Women Weave the Web Campaign, including the Alliance for Affordable Internet, Association for Progressive Communications, Beyond Access, Business for Social Responsibility, UN Women, and many others.
Mayzlina of World Pulse says, "Working in partnership, as a block, helps generate a more holistic and comprehensive conversation around digital inclusion, that addresses the gender digital divide across multiple issues—from affordability and Internet service provider policy to the urban/rural divide." Engaging some of the most vocal and historically relevant organizations for the campaign provided outlets for grassroots women leaders to contribute their knowledge.
"Working with partners is essential and symbiotic," adds Mayzlina. Partners helped spread the word and elevate the conversation to governments, corporations and international forums. And they provided opportunities for grassroots leaders to see the impact of their voices, such as the four World Pulse members who contributed to policy discussions around regional Internet affordability in an A4AI forum in Nigeria.
In turn, the voices and solutions generated in the World Pulse community are helping to build evidence and case studies for digital inclusion. They are illuminating priorities and lending urgency to advocacy efforts for a sustained commitment to eliminate barriers to digital inclusion on a global scale.
The time for that change is now. The recently released Web Index Report from the World Wide Web Foundation provides a rich dataset that supports Internet access as a key tactic to address the growing global divide between the rich and poor. "But," reads the report, "we can’t take the equalising power of the Internet for granted. Current trends suggest that we now stand at a crossroads between a Web ‘for everyone’, which strengthens democracy and creates equal opportunity for all, or a ‘winner takes all’ Web that further concentrates economic and political power in the hands of a few."
For women to be fully included in this historic moment of opportunity, their voices and unique challenges need greater attention. We need more data points and perspectives from the women who are relegated to the sidelines of the digital revolution. More work needs to be done at the policy level to mainstream gender within the movement for digital inclusion.
Grassroots voices are key to advancing this movement. "It is not simply because we think we want to hear their voices," says Sonia Jorge, Executive Director of the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), an advocacy coalition that World Pulse belongs to. "They are the only ones who can truly integrate their voices in the dialogue."
Because the problem we are tackling is exclusivity, the process must be inclusive. And it must be coordinated.
Dafne Plou, who works on gender and digital inclusion issues in Latin America and the Caribbean for the Association for Progressive Communications, says, "I find policy makers at most levels are aware of the need to foster and improve women's digital inclusion… We still have a gap when it comes to indigenous women, especially, because most of them live in remote areas with no connectivity at all and speak their own languages."
Jorge of A4AI has also seen more space given to women’s perspectives in these types of policy decisions in the past five years. However, she cautions that such support has often been cyclical, and subject to the whims of political agendas and international funding trends. She says the easiest part is getting together to decide what needs to be done. "The tough job is making sure we support each other to make it happen," she adds.
World Pulse plans to leverage existing partnerships, and the urgency of the voices in our community to sustain momentum on this issue. We see women using the platforms available to them to speak out for the universal right to freely connect online. They know the value of this connection, because in most cases they are speaking from their own transformative personal experiences. Jacqueline Patiño in Bolivia declares, "We are what makes the World Wide Web something meaningful. We use it to make our dreams possible. To make our communities better places for us. Safer places. And of course, we become, more and more every day, the rulers of our destinies."
When Precious Meshi Nkeih in Cameroon gained a computer and Internet access at home, her life opened up. She was able to participate in World Pulse’s digital empowerment training program and she started her own online radio show, Precious Inspires, to highlight solutions to obstacles women face.
She is proud of her successes with her radio show and her blog. But the challenges in her community never leave her consciousness. She wants to see Internet costs lower and connections more reliable; she wants to see husbands more supportive, and literacy more widespread.
Nkeih describes locking herself in her bathroom for a quiet space away from distractions from her children to record episodes of her radio show. Her story, like so many stories in the WWW: Women Weave the Web Campaign, demonstrates incredible perseverance to connect across borders and lead change. She says, "as long as I live I will use the different aspects of this blessing as instruments of revolution."
Testimonies like hers show that even in conditions of digital scarcity, women have led extraordinary transformations. And their stories suggest the major global shift that could occur if the connections flowed as freely as water.