Thandiwe Mathenjwa, a 43 year-old single mother of 11 from KwaZulu-Natal,South Africa, opened up a discussion on financing for ICT at the UN in this year's session of the Commission on the Status of Women. She's part of a self-help, income generating group called Fancy Stitch, a supplier of artistic greeting cards, picture frames and clothing. Her voice, image, work and experience - her digital story - kept the policy and finance debate away from abstraction and rooted in women's realities.

The panel on women's communication rights "Why the purse feels empty: Financing for women's equitable access to information and communication technologies" brought together donor, development and civil society perspectives on the issue.

Why should gender and ICT projects be funded?

Ireen Dubel stated that HIVOS, a funding agency in the Netherlands, prioritises information and knowledge for development. "We think that access to information and its transformation into knowledge enables people to express their voice, to develop self esteem, dignity - in other words it empowers people to make informed choices, to make claims and participate in brief, knowledge is power." 

Indeed, sharing Thandiwe Mathenjwa's story was possible thanks to a digital storytelling workshop run by Women'sNet, gender and ICT advocates and trainers in South Africa.  Twenty-seven women from Fancy Stitch took part in the workshop originally designed for 10.  Twenty-seven digital stories were made in Zulu, by women who had never used a computer before.

And yet, organisations such as Women'sNet struggle to find funding for the important work they do.

Funders like HIVOS, which recognises the importance of ICT and that they are not gender neutral, are few and far between. "In an existing discriminatory environment, the way that ICT are produced, perceived, used, applied, monitored, governed - there is a gender bias related to the gender inequities in society at large," observes Dubel.  HIVOS sees information and knowledge strategies as vital to women's organisations and movements. The emphasis is not so much on the tool, but on women becoming "ICT-savvy", with ICT responding to women's agenda of empowerment and equality.  "ICT play an important role for women to exercise civil, political and economic rights. They assist in giving women a voice, being heard, and having access to economic opportunities," affirmed Dubel.

Is the problem an empty purse, or no purse at all?

While funding for grassroots infrastructure and ICT work was initially available in the 1990s, this support quickly disappeared as infrastructure was left to the private sector; which, panelists observed with dismay, did not necessarily have the capacity or interest in reaching unprofitable sectors of society, for example rural areas.

The Task Force on Financial Mechanisms issued a report on the state of financing ICT for development during the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2005. It pointed out that both public and private sectors had not properly addressed issues of capacity-building, communications and connectivity in remote areas, regional backbone infrastructure, or broadband capacity. ICT application and integration in health, education and development sector programmes was found lacking. The report also stated that government, donor, and development agency resources were usually too limited to be solely responsible for solving such insufficiencies.

Delving into new pockets

However, in the case of ICT, countries have a local, dedicated mechanism for financing in the form of Universal Access Funds (UAF), commented Willie Currie of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC).  Telecoms were required to pay a percentage of their turnover into these funds, which in some countries have served to finance rural infrastructure or telecentres.  Typically, the funds are tapped by the private sector and focus on infrastructure. In some countries, they are untouched and represent a significant amount of resources.

Currie considers that given advances in mobile technology, universal access funds could be repurposed to support community networks as well as the content, application and capacity building necessary to sustain them. He encouraged women's movements to champion the "transformation of UAFs into community friendly sources of finance" at all policy levels, including the upcoming fora of the Global Forum on Access in Malaysia and Connectivity and the financing for development review of the Monterrey Consensus in Doha this year.

Radhika Lal called for gender and ICT advocates to join forces with universal access activists, but also observed that making inroads on existing funds through gender responsive budgetting is necessary. Information society issues touch on many areas such as service delivery, livelihood creation, and inclusion which are not considered from gender equity viewpoint in national budgets.  Lal also encouraged activists to take a closer look at ICT regulatory and financing mechanisms. We need "licensing in the name of equity," she insisted, "you are not going to get responsive service delivery where the social norms are adverse towomen's participation without women being explicity involved."  She recalled rollouts of telecentres that did not pay even minimal attention to stakeholder needs.

Silicon Valley philanthropists represent a new funding horizon, and the possibility of private sector partnership that for many is unexplored. Lal cautioned not to see the northern private sector as the deep-pocket solution to funding troubles, but to also explore southern private sector alliances. "Innovation can happen with the southern private sector because they understand some of the issues better, the costs, the kind of services to focus on, the local lacks."

Who needs whom?

In closing, Chat Garcia Ramilo of the APC Women's Programme urged people to keep in mind that telecoms and Silicon Valley companies owe their success to consumers, to the general public, to us. “All of us contribute to this wealth,” she stated, insisting on women’s right to influence such funds in favor of gender equity.

The panel “Communications Rights for Women: Why the Purse Feels Empty. Financing for women’s equitable access to information and communication technologies” was organised by the Association for Progressive Communications Women’s Networking Support Programme, the International Women’s Tribune Centre and the UN Division for the Advancement of Women during the 52nd session of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York, February 29, 2008.

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