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Gender, development and digital technologies - Elements of a practitioner's framework

23 Apr 2014
Anita Gurumurthy, founding member and executive director of IT for Change,
Anita Gurumurthy
In recent years, several global studies1 have attempted to draw attention to the gender digital divide, a matter that is seen as requiring urgent remedy. The hope seems to reside in the mobile phone - being seen by the international aid community as a means to destabilise gender orders that are obstinate, denying women and girls the equal opportunity to pursue their aspirations and participate in all social spheres.

There are broadly two discourses that seem to capture the gender and information and communication technologies (ICTs) narrative. One strand looks at women's entry barriers in employment, dovetailing ICTs with the development solution of women's enterprises and access to markets. The other looks at ICTs for enhancing public service delivery, exploring how development institutions and practitioners can better deliver capabilities basic to women's well-being, such as through ehealth/ mhealth (mobile health).

ICT enterprises run by women and ICT experiments in livelihoods do indicate empowering possibilities, but gender related power can change at a fundamental level only when market structures are transformed. Women entrepreneurs' forays into non-traditional spaces like ICT may expand economic opportunities. But Ilavarasan and Levy find in their research on ICTs and women'senterprises,2 that the positive impact of ICTs on business growth may neither alleviate the burden of gender roles nor alter the structures of the market, for women. A majority of women in the study held primary responsibility for domestic work and most earned less than other members of the household.

Poor women's increased access to information about market prices is yet another theme that is recurrent in the literature. In this case, the elimination of middle-men pops up as a desired consequence of digital information systems that dis-intermediate traditional channels of information gate-keeping and market access. However, more research around ICT-enablement and market access is necessary. Poor women producers are certainly likely to benefit more with greater information access, but price information is but one part of the complex production ecologies of small farmers or artisanal communities. The middle man of the local variety may be rendered redundant, but only to be replaced, as we see in the many ICT initiatives for market integration, by franchisees of 'bottom-of-the-pyramid' value chains. We do not really have a complete picture of whether such market integration brings real choice for the woman producer. A critical women's empowerment perspective would need an inquiry into whether and how local economies use ICT enablement to counter the unflinchingly extractive models of the emerging networked economy.

Increasingly, development delivery is turning to the efficiencies offered by ICTs. Combining back-end digitisation for effective targeting with mobile-based community processes that many times involve extension workers, e-health is an area that can make a difference to health outcomes. However, current pilot programmesneed to be studied less for impact and more for signalling the unruly pathways of cultural adaptation. Health workers can find gadgets vexatious if they underminevital human interaction; recipients of messages may not be the primary owner of the mobile phone where access is shared; centralisation of information management may prevent localised feedback loops to service delivery institutions. Emerging results are predictably mixed, revealing gaps to be plugged in order to strengthen institutional goals.3 A matter of concern here is that the transformative hope within these new ecologies mediated by digital process is seldom accompanied by a commensurate narrative on ICT infrastructure and right to Internet access. A classic irony is the push for 'mainstreaming', with its glaring silences on the 'how to' question. Diffusion of mobile telephony through market mechanisms is not going to solve the mainstreaming question. Much more in the form of policy and institutional roadmaps for change is needed.

Women's rights organisations have injected some rights-based thinking into these trends - bringing intopublic view the issues of safety online and also looking at building spaces for voice through digital power. But as the network economy overpowers us with gadgets, apps and more, rapidly structuring our aspirations and indeed, our futures, the cause of gender justice deserves a holistic approach. It must avoid piecemeal preoccupations, and widen the analytical lens, looking at freedoms and well-being as notions that encompassreceived wisdom on power and justice.

Some scholars like Heeks4 and Klein5 have used Amartya Sen's capabilities approach6 to look at the ICTs and Development (ICTD) field. As new social relationships are created by ICTs, 'functionalities' for the 'life one has reason to value' seems to be more and more entangled in the collective destiny of the networked world. The passion to aspire and the ability to reason are framed not only through individual capability to access connectedreality; equally, they are influenced by externalities. The multiple actors on the global-local continuum, values and norms of overlapping social systems and various contesting aspirations inhabit ICTD. Add to this the rather obdurate problems of gender injustices. The 'good life' in a world with reality and real virtuality is more than about freedom and choice. It is also about dealing with the messy universe co-constructed by digital technology and where practitioners and theorists can wade through the structural constraints on the very processes of reasoning and valuing. Thus, capabilities do not offer an appropriate interpretive lens to look at ICTD.

Our approach at IT for Change, the organisation I belong to, is to walk with socially and economicallymarginalised women, in their brave attempts to use digital technologies to reshape their world.7 In their actions, women seem to make some choices implicitly (while at other times, they deliberate how to act), constantly dialoguing with other actors in their community, negotiating power, and moving constantly between the value propositions of the individual and the collective; rational and emotional. The Namma Mahiti Kendras(Our information Centres) they run as a sangha(collective) have become eclectic spaces that community members approach for making applications to government schemes; children come to in order to play games and use educational applications; the local government official drops by, to pass on information about a new scheme; frontline workers visit to submit and thus make transparent, records of food supplies received for public distribution; women running the centre use it to listen to their weekly community radio broadcast; where video content is captured for sharing perspectives across geography on citizenship and its multi-dimensionality. The Kendrais part of a small network of Kendras.News and views travel across Kendras, thanks to the technological connectivity and the efforts of a team of young women who woman these evolving community institutions.

The Kendras are all located in the village peripheries - where the 'lower' caste live. The access women have to digital technology through the Kendra brings them visibility, credibility and authority. They have visitors from the 'upper' caste who otherwise do not enter the 'lower streets', where dalit women live. The Kendrais a quiet hub, but significant for its impact in the local citizenship ecology, mediated by criss-crossing affiliations - caste, political party, NGOs etc. Women's actions reveal collective claims on the official system: they routinely seek public money for nutritional programmes, contributing the funds of their sanghato hold health events for children; they undertake surveys for local authorities who trust them to bring objective data on eligible households for government entitlements. At other times, they meet together for a moonlight feast to celebrate their collectivity.

The Kendra remains an abiding thread linking these events. Its digital means and methods expand the repertoire of women's reflective pedagogies, collective action and citizenship practices. It also brings opportunities for individual women and their families. But it is not a static space. Its unique techno-social identity is a fulcrum both for intra-community dialogue, and parleys outside the boundaries of caste and community, in the offices of formal governance institutions. The sanghais the touchstone for deliberation about norms and ethics concerning the Kendra. Moments of conflict between individual and collective good arise, and sometimesresistance replaces dialogue, as women confront authorities, or men from their caste, or women from other castes, in their civic-political manoeuvers.

In the light of this example, the conventional ICTD discourse seems rather flat. In order to get beyond 'fixes' for girls' and women's empowerment through ICTs, what may be needed is ‘‘a hermeneutics of techno-human change, involving interpretations of dynamic relations between unstable capabilities, technologies, practices, and values.’’8 Current thinking and practice in ICTD seem to ignore the dynamic presence of power in information and communication ecologies". Even as they glibly employ the term 'empowerment', most often only to describe the mere assimilation of girls and women as consumers, into the structures of our futures.


1- For instance, see Intel (2013). Women and the Web; the Broadband Commission Working Group Report(2013). Doubling Digital Opportunities: Enhancing the inclusion of women and girls in the information society; GSM Association (2010). Women and Mobile:A global opportunity.

2- P. Vigneswara Ilavarasan and Mark R. Levy(2010), ICTs and Urban Microenterprises: Identifying and maximizing opportunities for economic development.

3- Mobile Health (mHealth) Approaches and Lessons for Increased Performance and Retention of Community Health Workers in Low-and Middle-Income Countries: A Review;

4- Heeks, R. (2010).Do Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) Contribute to Development? Journal of International Development22(5), pp. 625-640.

5- Kleine, D. (2010).ICT4what? Using the choice framework to operationalise the ‘Capability Approach’to development. Journal of International Development22(5), pp. 674-692.

6- Sen, A. (1999).Development as Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

7- We partner with the women's collectives of the Mahila Samakhya programme - an initiative of the Government of India for women's empowerment.

8- Mark Coeckelbergh. (2011).Human Development or Human Enhancement? Amethodological reflection on capabilities and the evaluation of information technologies,Ethics and Information Technology,Volume 13 Issue2, June 2011: 81-92. Oct 2013