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Women's empowerment? Not without men

The lack of women’s access and use of ICT has been an issue for decades, but only in the last few years has it gained mainstream attention.

May 10, 2017

By Revi Sterling, Chief of Party, Global Broadband and Innovations Alliance

There would not be women on the web in Matete if not for the men.

Matete is rural, in a county in Kenya that has enjoyed significant development attention. It is not very conservative, nor is it a place where women are absent from public life. Women vendors are active in the few commercial areas, and girls run up and down rural roads in school uniforms. And on my initial visit to gauge interest in the Women and the Web Alliance, all of them said the same thing: Let men come to the trainings, or they themselves would not be able to attend. We did, opening the training sessions to include at least 30 percent men.

This number comes straight from the Kenyan constitution, which states that any government (or development program by extension) include at least 30 percent of both genders. This was meant to integrate women into government positions; in this case, local men felt both marginalized by a women-focused program, as well as wary that women would transgress their cultural role. This is a complicated dynamic and one that we do not often consider thoughtfully, but it is one of the major reasons we don’t have more women on the web.

The lack of women’s access and use of ICT has been an issue for decades, but only in the last few years has it gained mainstream attention. The word is finally out that gender is now an important topic to have at all ICT and Development convenings, and every organization is trying to do something. Just leaf through the most recent UN Broadband Report: 2016 saw the stalling of gender and ICT activities, and a widening of the global online gender gap. This is not looking good for SDG 5.b: “Enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular ICT, to promote the empowerment of women.”

Most cultures don't want female empowerment
It is great to see the momentum, but distressing that those who have “discovered” this issue do not ground themselves in decades of knowledge and practice. The near-universal reasons women are online less than men are well-known and well-documented. ICT for Development practitioners have gone after the reasons in their power to address – cost, low-literacy, location – but there is one factor that technologists ignore because it is not in the realm of technology at all. There is no technical leapfrogging of culture, and most cultures do not necessarily want to increase women’s empowerment and opportunities. It is a threat to the status quo, and the status quo favors patriarchal societies in most communities – even if women don’t look terribly “unempowered.”

Those of us in development have heard from the top down that women are the key to development – empower/educate the girls, and you change the system for good. This sounds like a tall effort if men are not on board. Why don’t men want women to be empowered? It means power-sharing, which means men give up something so that women can benefit. People, all people, dislike giving power to others. What is the risk? Educated, empowered women aren’t beholden to men. They might talk back. They might disagree. They might want better for their daughters. They might emasculate their male relatives. They will cheat. They will leave. They will make their own money and realize they have rights. They will no longer be property. These are the reasons we hear every day, around the world.

Skills to help the family
But in Matete, the men learned in the Women and the Web training that their wives and daughters would learn skills that would help the family’s health, skills, and bottom line. Husbands and wives came to the training together and discussed, often for the first time, trying new enterprises, like running a desktop publishing service, or expanding their markets to neighboring towns. Pastors took the training and recommended that women in their congregations take the training, as God helps those who help themselves.

The Women and the Web training, while focused on digital literacy, internet security, and entrepreneurship, also offered opportunities in the classroom to safely challenge gender conventions. One of the examples discussed women’s cattle-raising responsibilities, which mde everyone laugh since it is the men in this region who manage the livestock, but we had “what if” exploratory conversations in a safe setting that made everyone re-imagine chores and responsibilities to models that made sense from a time and location – not gender – standpoint.

Culture change must come from inside
Changing culture is tricky, occasionally “icky,” and needs to be done from inside – with prompts and opportunities created by the development professional. This is all the truer with ICT, to which people ascribe all sorts of aspirational values and status. We talk about the internet as the great equalizer; we fail to internalize that most people don’t want an equal society if they feel at risk of losing some power. If organizations are not working hand in hand with men to design and deploy their women’s empowerment programs, we will never get closer to SDG 5.b.

It is only because the women in Matete trusted the training implementing partner and NetHope member organization, World Vision, that they felt comfortable enough to demand men come to the training. And that is the reason we have women on the web who are now – with the support of their families and communities – getting microfinance loans to buy ICT equipment and go into their own businesses, teaching ICT to other communities, and sustainably changing the status quo. We have video stories from both women and men on the web at

The official Women and the Web Alliance is set to end in Summer 2017. However, past and current participants recently told us on our visit in April that the Alliance is theirs, not ours, and when we leave, they will keep it alive. Already, the Women and Men and the Web Alliance has secured local and regional support to sustain training activities and continue the work they began as digital ambassadors in every sense of the word.

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