Harnessing Technology to Advance Women’s Human Rights

Thu, Feb 1, 2001


By Mahnaz Afkhami
In Raising Our Voices / The Global Fund for Women / February 2001.

The 21st century is ushering in rapid and unprecedented technology that offers women a range of new opportunities to shape the world in which we live. But these opportunities will enhance our lives only if we are prepared to take advantage of them.

We are now in the midst of a communications revolution that is changing the nature of power. Modern communication has drastically reduced the size of the globe by practically overcoming the barriers of distance and time. Information technology has made communicating globally as easy as conversing locally, forcing governments and companies to further reorient themselves to the requirements of global competition. Nation states are being squeezed between the demands of global competition and the social needs of local populations. Globalization has already widened the gap separating the haves and have-nots everywhere. Unless we harness the evolving technology, the future, potentially bright, will descend darkly, without our knowledge, input, or permission. What we must do is harness technology’s powers for our own uses.

A fundamental characteristic of the new information technology is that it can be deployed relatively inexpensively to all parts of the world. It can be used to support national and global policies aimed at helping disadvantaged individuals and communities participate in the decisions that can change their lives. The new information technology can help women gain the knowledge, leadership skills, and consensus we need to attain equality and social justice. To use modern information systems for improving women’s condition we need the sort of leadership that creates and uses power to realize not only sustained, but also equitable, development. Those whom the existing social structures have marginalized must be empowered to participate.

The 20th century brought phenomenal advances in science and technology. Consequently, the century we have just entered has the potential to bring extraordinary improvements in human life. Scientific advancement has brought us the capability to eradicate many life-threatening diseases, to prolong life, to change the nature of work, and to provide for a decent living for everyone. We are now capable of accumulating, creating and transmitting knowledge and information across the globe at high speed and relatively little cost. In the past, lack of development, exemplified by poor roads and inefficient power lines, kept communities isolated. Now, with the advantages of satellite communications, women can leapfrog some of these fundamental problems and make Internet or e-mail connections that expand their businesses and advance their work. The Grameen Bank, in Bangladesh, for example, provides a cellular phone to a village women, helping her establish a viable small business by offering the newfound opportunity to take orders and arrange delivery of her products.

Similarly, a women’s human rights organizations that acquires computers and Internet software can now obtain legal or educational information electronically that was previously inaccessible. Sakena Yacoobi’s group, Creating Hope International, brings on-line textbooks and curricula to a group of adolescent girls in an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan through a single computer. What once seemed to be the inevitable isolation of camp life is overcome by a small step in the use of technology. While the technology does not replace the ongoing need for improving the condition of live in the camp, it provides the girls with an educational window to the outside world–and furthers the possibility that they will develop innovative solutions to the challenges of camp life.

The Digital Divide

We are, however, faced with an information divide–a digital divide– which arises from unequal access to information and knowledge, and unequal ability to use it for development, gender equality and freedom. While people in poor countries have less access to information technology, women everywhere have less access than do men. The International Telecommunications Union estimates that 96 percent of Internet host computers reside in high-income countries. There are more hosts in Finland than in all of Latin America and more in New York than in Africa. More than 50 percent of the people of the United States have access to the Internet, while less than one percent of the people of the Middle East, with a comparable population, are Internet users and of these, only six percent are women.

Creating Access for All

We need to bring access to information and computer technologies to the poorer countries, and within each country, to the less advantaged segments of the population, especially women and girls. We need to make available not only the hardware and training, but also culture-relative, language-relevant, and community-created material. The marginalized and excluded peoples of the world must become not only consumers of information created elsewhere but must have the opportunity to become creators of knowledge that is locally derived.

One model for this type of project is Women’s Learning Partnership’s collaborative efforts with our partner organizations, BAOBAB for Women’s Human Rights in Nigeria, Association Démocratique des Femmes in Morocco, and Women’s Affairs Technical Committee in Palestine to produce multi-media training material for leadership development, using new technologies. Our work involves a process of interaction and dialogue that places the newest leadership development strategies within the framework of local cultures and languages. It encourages leadership styles that are democratic, consensus-based, and horizontal. It promotes the creation of learning partnerships that are open, flexible, and participatory. The project involves capacity-building for the use of technology not as an end, but as a tool for sustainable and equitable development. Underlying the program is the supposition that we all will be richer if we partake of the diversity of human experience and wisdom across the globe. If we fail to meet the challenge of reaching out and including all, we will likely end up living in a world unworthy of the best and most humane in our vision of the future.

The social and cultural structures we have inherited in both developed and developing countries favor centralized power, profit, and patriarchy. They almost always self-perpetuate unless we make an informed and concerted effort to change them. The challenge is to opt for change that shifts the ownership of the tools of information technology from the few to the many, in the hope that while we still must cope with the exigencies of the present, our newfound power will bring us closer to our dream of the future.

Fortunately, we are on our way to a broad-based consensus on the need for cooperation among governments, the private sector, local communities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and international agencies to bring information economies to all the peoples of the world. In the last decades of the 20th century, encouraged by the four world conferences on women, we were able to organize national and international NGOs in unprecedented numbers. We are now in a position to play our role in defining the content and parameters of the cooperative effort needed to come closer to the world of equity and justice we seek. In most countries there already exists a critical mass of active women that can mediate the process. We must use the possibilities modern information technology offers to produce and promote the sort of leadership that will empower us to do our work.


About Mahnaz Afkhami

A lifetime advocate for the rights of women, Mahnaz Afkhami works with activists across the world, especially in Muslim majority societies, to help women become leaders. She is Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP), Executive Director of Foundation for Iranian Studies...more

Quotables – Technology

"[Modern information technology] has the potential to empower women in ways unprecedented in the social and cultural evolution of human history" - Making IT Our Own: Introduction

"The new information technology, indifferent to human suffering, does not accommodate humane needs unless we harness it and make it do so." Leading To Choices

"We must be bold and creative, our feet firmly grounded in the realities that surround us, but our gaze aimed at the lofty possibilities that our advancements in science and technology promise and that our growth as a global society is only beginning to comprehend." - Toward A Compassionate Society

“International movement building in the 21st century and involvement of youth in advocacy will be made possible largely through technology" - Engendering IT Tools