In the words of Nandini Chami: "The conversation on ICTs needs to move beyond just accessibility"

Date: Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Nandini Chami IT for Change, India. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
Nandini Chami. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

Nandini Chami works on policy research and advocacy on the intersection of ICTs, gender equality, and development, at IT for Change, an NGO based in Bengaluru, India. She was part of the IT for Change team that developed a toolkit on mainstreaming gender in e-government ecosystems for policymakers in the Asia-Pacific, with support from UNPOG and UNESCAP. She also supports Prakriye, a centre in Mysore, in developing training programmes for women’s rights groups on adopting digital tools in their field practice, and ‘education for empowerment’ for rural adolescent girls. Ms. Chami recently spoke to UN Women at the 62nd session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW62).

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At IT for Change, we believe that information and communication are a vital need for women to advance their political and socio-economic empowerment.

The conversation on ICTs needs to move beyond just accessibility—even though access is still a basic concern, as we know that there is a huge gender, and an urban-rural digital divide. The conversation should [also] be about meaningful accessibility. It should focus on affordable and context-appropriate use of digital connectivity, and building a woman’s capabilities to engage [with ICTs] in ways that can expand her strategic life choices.

For example, our organization has been working in the villages of Mysore, a district in southern India, where female literacy levels are low and child marriage rates are very high. Here, we partner with women’s collectives in 55-60 villages to build a network of ICT-enabled information centres. These centres use a range of technologies, such as mobile-based information outreach tools that spread information about various social welfare schemes and entitlements. A young woman intermediary selected from the local community, and trained by our team, manages the day-to-day operations.

We have also worked with 13- to 17-year-old girls from these villages to build their leadership, agency and empowerment by using digital tools such as photo essays, audio stories, videos and various other techniques to deconstruct gender norms and inform them about their rights.

In these villages, girls rarely go to colleges. By law, parents have to wait until their daughter is 18 before she can be married. But as soon she does turn 18, it is seen as completely acceptable to marry her off. The good news is that some of the girls whom we worked with have successfully negotiated with their parents to let them go to college in the nearest town and not get married right away.

Now, we see more girls taking public transport and travelling to neighbouring villages for tuition or to attend training.

Girls are also becoming more vocal in public spaces. In Karnataka, the State has a very interesting initiative where local government leaders visit schools, and talk to teachers and children about the different issues facing the village. Girls have raised problems such as lack of infrastructure in the Dalit communities and lack of sanitation facilities. These are wonderful changes! [In these areas], women have been historically excluded from governance. As governance systems go digital, we need to ensure their accessibility to women as a basic right.

Appropriately used, e-government can open opportunities for women’s empowerment, whether it is through access to employment or educational opportunities, for crisis support, or increased participation.

Another important issue that must be addressed is gender-based cyber violence. We have carried out a research study on the existing legal institutional policy responses to gender-based cyber violence in India and Bangladesh. We noticed that whenever this is discussed, there is a huge contention about free speech. I feel this is a very unproductive way to frame the conversation. The right to free speech should not come at the expense of the right to freedom from violence.

We know the chilling effect that trolling can have on a woman’s right to free speech and her right to participate. But existing laws do not recognize gender as a basis for hate speech. The idea that sexism and misogyny in online spaces is psychological violence against women must gain widespread acceptance among lawmakers and law enforcement institutions.”