It may feel like the century of the tablet and the android, and yet nearly 50 percent of the world’s people still have limited or no access to a computer. Since the digital divide that lies between developed and developing countries is closely linked to poverty, illiteracy and language barriers, this gulf is wider for women – and wider yet for women who live in rural areas.
The UN General Assembly Resolution 58/146 of 2004 recognized the need to provide rural women with information and communication technologies (ICTs), which has led to the significant growth of UN-supported ICT programmes in rural communities. It identified ICT’s as a quick way to help women to step into leadership positions in their communities, and therefore reduce inequality.
With the support of UN Women, the NGO, AMJUPRE has been training women leaders in rural Ecuador since 2008. Communications technologies are a scarce and intimidating commodity for most women in the rural regions. Yet by teaching participants to overcome their fear of technology and use it to improve their situations, AMJUPRE has opened up their opportunities and empowered them as leaders. This was the case for Angelita Villa Salazar, who lives in eastern Ecuador. “At first I thought I would damage the computer by touching it!” she admits, laughing.
“Today I am in college and send out my homework every day by e-mail.” For El Oro Rosa Balcazar, the newly-acquired knowledge has helped her to become a driving force in her community; with it, she has been able to access new information, request forms and submit projects to the government. This has paved the path to important improvements in sanitation, housing and drinking water in her area.
The digital divide is also a barrier to women’s economic empowerment. In Guatemala, for example, UN Women is addressing this gap by teaching women entrepreneurs about ICTs. Through the programme “Women and Local Development,” rural women have been taught to use the Internet and manage their own e-mail accounts.
One participant, Clara Garcia, is the coordinator of a small handicrafts business in Tunucó Abajo, a village in Jocotán, and intends to use internet to expand her business, and her network of potential clients and partners.
Many like Angelita, Rosa and Clara have found that by learning computer technology skills, they have increased their sense of independence and confidence. According to Martin Hilbert, Researcher at the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, technology is an effective tool for improving women’s welfare.
“It allows women to search for jobs; access education through online trainings and software, and increase their income with, for example, e-commerce,” he says. “ICTs are a tool to fight discrimination against women in a holistic way.”
Clara in Guatemala for example, has been improving her reading and writing skills through technology, while Angelita has noticed a change in the way that she approaches life. “Now I feel better about myself. I realized that I am capable of learning, and it’s exciting” she says. Some of the participants in the Ecuador programme have even become instructors for other women.
Luz Haro, president of AMJUPRE, agrees that such changes often enable empowerment. “Knowledge in new technologies makes the participants feel more important and valuable,” she explains.
“Now they are supporting their families, working at a professional level and meeting their responsibilities as leaders in the public life”.