The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Sida organized the Stockholm Internet Forum (SIF) in May 2019. The event’s theme was “Shrinking Democratic Space Online–mobilizing for a free, open and secure Internet”. The Association of Progressive Communication (APC) LOCNET(Local Access Networks) participated in organizing a session on gender and community networks. The session took place on Day 0 which was the pre-SIF event. The session was organized and facilitated by LOCNET team members Karla Velasco Ramos Latin-America regional coordinator REDES, Cynthia el Koury– APC Gender Coordinator and Josephine Miliza – Africa regional coordinator KICTANET.
The goal of the session was to offer an overview of the realities of women in rural and marginalized parts of the Global South. More than half of the world’s population is connected to the Internet. However, in celebrating this milestone, it’s worth noting that the majority of those connected are men. This gender digital divide contributes to shrinking democratic spaces as women are denied the right to access the Internet. Community networks can be a catalyst in advancing individuals’ and communities’ social, economic and political rights as they promote access to the internet at the grassroots level.
The session started with a presentation by Karla on what community networks are and how they are uniquely positioned to close the gender digital divide as well as challenges such as being male-dominated. This was followed by a Q&A session from the participants who were from 13 countries across the globe. They wanted to learn more about how community networks are initiated, run and how different they are from traditional models. The next presentation was on the feminist principles of the internet.The participants were then divided into four groups, each discussing one of the following: access, information, usage and movement building. The discussion points revolved around:
- Thinking about online democratic spaces, how women-led community networks offer alternatives for patriarchal tools that control online spaces.
- How community networks should be designed, initiated and operated to be more gender diverse.
- Relating to the group’s discussion points, the participants were to share lived experiences that are barriers or challenges to democratic online spaces for women and queer persons.
- How community networks can expand the space that women are trying to occupy online.
The groups also discussed the challenges as well as opportunities for gender balance and the creation of community networks that are gender-informed and inclusive to the rights of those who are most marginalized. Each group was asked to present their reflections. On access, the group shared some of the challenges faced by women such as lack of infrastructure, affordability due to the fact that in most communities women earned less than men but spent a large percentage of their income on household responsibilities. When it came to physical spaces, one participant who is an IT expert shared their experience on how they did not drink water at work because the workspace was designed for men and did not have a women’s washroom. Another challenge was online violence especially for women and queer activists which in some instances led to physical harassment hence withdrawal or censorship. To overcome some of these challenges, the group recommended that women should be involved from the initiation and design stages of the network to ensure that both online and physical spaces are inclusive and safe for all.
The groups on information and usage had almost similar points on challenges such as gender-relevant information which is a result of fewer women than men participating in the creation of content and content platforms. Women from the group shared their experiences on how even though some were engineers, they would often be judged by their appearance. One example was of a woman who because she applied make-up and had manicured nails her male colleagues would tell her that she belonged in the beauty industry and not engineering. The groups’ recommendation was to create content that fits the context and community as well as increase women’s participation in the development of content and content platforms by equipping them with relevant skills. They also encouraged role modeling for girls and women by women IT experts.
The movement-building group also presented. They shared their stories` on negative stereotypes around feminism which are resulting in “gender wars” both online and offline. The group also shared that few women were actively involved in movement building as many did not see a reason to engage. Men also rarely participated in gender discussions, attend events or sessions. An example was this session which had only one man. Their recommendation was to find an entry point to get women engaged in movement building especially through existing networks and ensure they have the capacity and resources.
In conclusion, even though community networks operate at the grassroots level and have the potential to achieve inclusion for all, the majority of these networks are initiated, designed and operated by men. Women are often left out of discussions around technology and brought in at a later stage which makes it challenging to achieve for ownership. Gendering community networks requires an understanding of how the community works and the value, knowledge, and expertise; which may be non-technical that women possess and can contribute.
Josephine Miliza is a network engineer passionate about enabling communities in Africa to leverage digital technologies for socio-economic empowerment. She is currently the Africa regional coordinator for the APC-LOCNET project working under KICTANET. Twitter – @jossie.miliza.