Remarks by Lakshmi Puri at a CSW58 side event on “ICT and the Internet as powerful means in advancing women’s rights and empowerment: Possibilities and Challenges”

Remarks by UN Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri at a CSW58 side event by the Permanent Missions of Estonia, Mongolia and Botswana on “ICT and the Internet as powerful means in advancing women’s rights and empowerment: Possibilities and Challenges”, New York, 12 March 2014.

Date: Wednesday, March 12, 2014

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Good afternoon.

I thank the government of Estonia for holding this event and it is a pleasure to be here today to talk about an issue that UN Women, including our Executive Director, sees as critical to women’s empowerment in the 21st century.

ICT and the Internet shape the day-to-day of many people’s lives through social, political and economic dynamics, and are poised to do so, to an ever greater degree, as more people gain access to the internet and broadband services.

As we look forward to a new post-2015 development framework and take stock around progress under the MDGs and the Beijing Platform for Action, there is an important need to give greater attention to what the information society means for women and how they are engaged in it.

The promise of the information society for the empowerment of women is significant and UN Women has already begun utilizing ICT to advance our work. 

Our work on ending violence against women has been advanced through innovations such as the mapping of unsafe spaces in cities, which are now being done through real time mobile apps. Accuracy, accountability and responsiveness have improved and we are working with Microsoft to introduce a pillar on technology to our Safe Cities programme. 

ICT has also been integrated in our work on women’s political participation, especially through campaigning and constituency building in Jordan, training in ICTs for women’s political leadership in Nigeria, and for reflecting women in voter roles and as recipients of government services in Pakistan. 

In terms of economic empowerment we have introduced electronic payment systems in markets in Papua New Guinea to improve safety for women and reduce corruption. We have connected women home-based workers in the Philippines to share experiences and advocate for their rights and give visibility to their needs, and we are introducing a farmer information system platform in Kenya, providing women farmers with up to date information on prices, the policy environment and the  weather, while also building a community. In addition, we have a number of programmes which seek to increase women’s capacities and use of ICTs for economic purposes and entry into the ICT sector.

Also, in order to share knowledge and improve networking and mobilization amongst women, we have been increasingly integrating these dimensions into programming at the national, regional and global levels – including the Virtual Centre for Ending Violence against Women, the Knowledge Gateway for Women’s Economic Empowerment, and iKnow Politics. ICTs can be instrumental in enabling women to present different narratives of women’s experiences and perspectives in a decentralized way that bypasses the more patriarchal mainstream.

Yet, realizing this broad potential depends on deliberate action and quality of access, relevance of content, the capabilities of all women to engage, and significantly increasing women’s leadership in public and private side of ICT sector. Moreover, it requires looking at the overall shape and nature of the information society itself.

At present, there are a number of direct threats and barriers that must be overcome. 

First, women are left behind and are constantly catching up. There is an emerging threat of virtual violence against women. It has been estimated that 95 per cent of aggressive behaviour, harassment, abusive language and denigrating images in online spaces, are aimed at women and come from partners or former male partners. Other surveys show that the victims of cyberstalking are predominantly female. 

Second, ICTs and their use can consolidate and exacerbate negative power dynamics. Studies have shown that 42 per cent of the online news stories were found to reinforce gender stereotypes while only 4 per cent challenged them, and the majority 54 per cent neither reinforced nor challenged stereotypes. 

And third, there is the danger of false promise or disconnect from real world contexts. ICTs are not a substitution for democratic and empowering practices, nor are they successful if other mitigating offline factors are not addressed such as broader issues around gender norms, access to resources, and harmful legislation. The Arab Spring is an example of this, where women’s online activitsm and leaderhip did not translate into power in the real world political corridors. The on and offline world need to connect and complement. 

However, in order to avoid these threats there are some bigger issues that must address when and where women must be engaged.

Foremost amongst these, are issues of governance, including at the global level where regimes such as the openness of the internet, intellectual property rights, and issues of the internet such as a public commons, are addressed. This also includes issues of privacy, security, and related to this, women’s confidence in the online environment. Unfortunately, gender perspectives are often largely absent from these debates. 

We must also better connect rights instruments, frameworks as well as their implementation and reporting, to the new realities of the information society.

I am happy that at the agreed conclusions of the 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women on ending violence against women, reflected both the threats and the opportunities the online environment presents. I am confident that this session of the Commission will also include the ICT dimension in its agreed conclusions. 

There is innovative work in the Philippines where our colleagues here from APC have been working with the government to include issues around ICT and online manifestation of rights in reporting on the Convention on the Elimination of the Discrimination of Women.

Also, laws must keep up with developments online. Cyber security on the one hand and ending violence against women laws on the other are examples where, generally, neither are  adequately responding to online threats to women. Same with balance between issues of hate speech and freedom of expression, as well as risks from surveillance and censorship. The Special Rapporteur on promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression established a model practice in tackling the evolution of rights in the context of the information society.

It is also important for women’s national machineries to be more engaged and influential in discussions at the global, regional and national level on ICTs, the information society and their intersection with women’s empowerment and rights. There has been a consistent call for greater capacity building on both sides of the equation – women in ICT policy and ICT policy makers on gender issues.

Finally, I would like to emphasize that we must address all of these issues in a more holistic manner with a focus on quality. We cannot just talk about access disconnected from capacities and content, sectors disconnected from each other, ICT disconnected from development, or any of these disconnected from gender perspectives. Rather, we need to be building an ecosystem where gender equality perspectives are integral.

As we move over the coming year into discussions around Beijing+20 on the critical area of ICTs and the media, we hope that we can successfully move from problemetizing to developing the right modalities, partnerships and investments to not just to shift debates and thinking but also action on the ground. UN Women plans to be very actively engaged and invites you to join us in this effort.

Thank you.