There’s been a lot of talk about the digital divide: between developed and developing nations, rich and poor, urban and rural. What’s less common is discussion of the gender divide, but it’s just as relevant. While poverty itself isn’t gender-specific, it does affect women in different ways than men. Aside from lacking education, women often face social and cultural norms that make it difficult for them to access technological resources. And women constitute 60 per cent of the rural poor, mainly in developing regions of Africa, Asia and Latin America.In a handbook about women in the digital age, Fama Alloo, founder of the Tanzania Media Women’s Association, says women must recognize that information technology is here to stay. “What we have to decide is whether we … play the game and turn it to our advantage or lose out completely.”
This means much more than simply accessing the Internet — it’s about actively playing a role in the development of an information society. If women don’t play the game, they could actually reinforce gender inequalities and will truly “lose out completely,” the handbook says. And while technology alone isn’t going to end poverty or gender inequality, it has the potential to empower women in ways that were impossible until now. In Iran, for example, more women have turned to the Internet to discuss taboo subjects in online journals or blogs.
But women also need to play a more active role in breaking down gender barriers so they can pursue careers in technology and participate in information and communications technologies (ICT) policy development. One of the biggest obstacles they face has nothing to do with infrastructure, but with attitude. Many women are still fighting gender-role perceptions in a male-dominated industry. And, when it comes to computer skills, many don’t progress beyond basic secretarial tasks like data entry.
At Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, for example, a program was developed to build women’s ICT skills, providing a career path for female students. At first, people wondered what “women and gender studies” had to do with technology. In the end, however, the program generated a lot of interest. Some governments and development agencies are starting to recognize the importance of bringing women into the digital age.
In rural Nigeria, for example, the Bayanloco Community Learning Center provides women with access to technology in communities with no telephones or electricity. A key component of the program is teaching women computer skills to help combat poverty in the region. And in India’s Bangalore district, a program called Tel-Nek is fostering community growth in rural areas by equipping women with vocational IT skills.
Public/private partnerships could play a key role in creating economic opportunities for women in IT. India’s Datamation Foundation, for example, works with a number of non-profit organizations to create IT job opportunities for disadvantaged women by offering free or low-cost IT training courses. ICTs also offer a way to empower women by allowing them to participate in economic activities. This concept is being explored in Southeast Asia, where women constitute only 33 per cent of the workforce, and most are earning incomes through micro and small businesses. Learning computer skills could help women sell products such as local handicrafts over the Internet, to expand their clientele and earn higher wages while working from home. It could also help reduce exploitation of rural women artisans by cutting out the middleman and bringing them in direct contact with agents and customers. Women in rural Bedouin communities in Jordan, for example, sell woven handicrafts over the Internet to earn a living, and are becoming increasingly self-reliant in a region where violence has killed off the tourism industry.

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