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30 October 2006


Brenda Zulu

It is a pity there is still silence on gender with regards to the IGF.

In accordance with the Tunis Agenda, Internet Governance for Development has been chosen as the overall theme for convening the on going Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Athens, Greece with capacity building as a cross cutting priority.

The Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) had come up with the following definition of Internet Governance:

“Internet Governance is the development and application by Governments, the private sector, and civil society, in their respective roles, of shared principles, norms rules decision making procedures, and programmes that shape the evolution and use of internet.”

Multi-stakeholder policy

Themes for the IGF include Multi-stakeholder Policy Dialogue: setting the scene.

The forum is expected to provide a platform for discussion of cross cutting public policy issues not adequately addressed by current mechanisms.

It is hoped that this theme will adopt a consultative multi-stakeholder approach that would benefit both women and men on equal footing, to provide funding for projects aimed at bridging the gender digital divide, supporting the use of appropriate information communication technologies such as community radio and to ensure the participation of women in all information society decision making structures.

For gender advocates it is worth pointing out that the section on Internet Governance in the Tunis Agenda does not contain any reference to gender equal representation in Internet Governance and the IGF. There is need to push for inclusion in scenarios like these, since they might evolve into crucial sights where power over the information society is being brokered, even if firmly, no political decisions are taken in them.

IGF Sub-themes include “freedom of expression, free flow of information, ideas and knowledge.” The issues under these sub themes are empowerment and access to knowledge.

A founding principle and characteristics of the internet has been its openness and broad reach. Indeed it is precisely this open nature of the internet that makes it so special and one of the most important tools ever created to advance human development. The internet’s robust and unencumbered exchange of information has allowed for millions of individuals all over the world to trade ideas and build on them further, increasing the wealth of knowledge for everyone, especially future generations. Access to knowledge is key to human development in an information society and crucial for democratic participation, and social and economic empowerment.

What are the challenges for women arising out of online environments to free flow of information, to freedom of expression rights and to people being empowered through access to knowledge?
Freedom of expression and human rights should be cross cutting in Internet Governance issues and therefore there is need for a clear definition of ‘harmful’ content that is based on human rights norms and standards.

When it comes to Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) knowledge ideas are seen to be the key resource in the global economy. Many women in Africa are concerned of having their indigenous knowledge duplicated for much more profit especially in the Western World.

On economic issues it was clear that issues of e-commerce and consumer protection or trust and regulation were vital. It is the women in Africa who are mainly involved in cross border trade. Some women in Zimbabwe are involved in selling dried vegetables on the internet. If women had the knowledge of e-trade, many would be selling their items using the internet. Many African women need their capacities to build as they lack knowledge in the area of e-trade.

Social aspects of the digital divides encompassed a variety of issues including literacy, ICT skills, training, education and language protection. Many of these social issues affect African women.

African women need local content on the internet. Currently, Africa has very little local content which can interest women. There is need for African content creators to create local content which can help benefit women of Africa.


The sub theme is creating trust and confidence through collaboration. The issues here are protecting users from spam, phishing and viruses while protecting privacy. The internet has the potential to enable everyday users to access a wealth of information and opportunity. At the same time spam, phishing and viruses can undermine users’ trust and confidence in the internet. Numerous initiatives are being undertaken by a variety of actors (across governments, private sector and civil society) to meet these challenges, However there is a balance to be struck between maintaining security and protecting privacy.

What initiatives are being taken to overcome spam, phishing and virus and in particular how are collaborations between stakeholders improving trust and confidence. How safe is a woman in cyberspace?

Security issues included data interception, data interference, illegal access, spy ware and identity theft. Possible perpetrators include hackers, cyber criminals, cyber-warriors or cyber terrorists. Targets are numerous from individual to private companies and public institution to critical infrastructures, governments and military assets.

Cyber attacks are the order of the day for many women who are seen to be online by mainly men in cyber. Just like walking on any popular street in Africa a woman is always attacked in cyber space. Cyber terrorists always send women unsolicited e-mails and always want to steal their internet time by wanting to chat with them only when one is identified as a woman.

Spam or unsolicited e-mails mainly used for commercial promotion, social activism, political material was also one of the IG issues which affect the normal functioning of the core applications especially e-mail.


Diversity is another theme for the IGF and has a sub-theme promoting multilingualism and local content. The ability to communicate across communities, to give effect to cultural expression and to access and share knowledge for development, makes it critical that internet user’s can investigate across linguistic boundaries and become content creators in their own language.

How can the internet build a multilingual internet to increase participation on the internet? This includes new initiatives on multilingualism such as internationalized Domain Names (IDN) and overcoming barriers to the development of local content.

Many women in Africa are illiterate and only communicate better in their local languages. With Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) in place, women in Africa can communicate well because they would be able to understand and articulate the issues in their own language like they have embraced the mobile phone. Sadly, the main languages of the internet are foreign languages with a lot of content being in English.

Africa is also concerned about the potential loss of revenue from the new telephony system such as VOIP as this would also affect governments to provide gendered universal access to ICTs.

It should be noted that short term compensatory measures supported by the international community should be set up to assist Africa to offset these losses.

The inclusion of content and use of the internet within the framework of internet governance illustrates the importance of end users applications of information Communication Technologies (ICTs), therefore placed content at par with structural and technical aspects of technologies.

Including content in the definition raises concern on the broader consequences to freedom of expression given that governments in Africa, Asia and Saudi Arabia had already sought to regulate content.

It was observed during the WSIS in Tunis, that there were differences in approach between the traditional freedom of expression and the African women’s movement with respect to for example pornography.

This had come to the fore with the recent decision by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to defer the decisions to allow xxxgTLD.

Content should not be regulated by governments given the fact that abuse of women’s rights and human rights has been justified on the pretext of protecting women.

Radio was seen to be an avenue for African women to access and create local information as it was most accessible to many African women. Community broadcasting has been especially seen as a community ownership control in which African women could participate as it was not for profit. It has also been seen as a media that could serve as a means for communities to engage in debate on development, governance and human rights at local level and the promotion of local culture and indigenous knowledge.

Despite the significance of community radio as a participatory ICT, many African countries are yet to provide a conducive regulatory environment for public and community broadcasting.

Women in Africa are voiceless when it comes to the media in Africa but with the use of community radio women have slowly found themselves contributing to development through the radio. This is because community radio broadcasts in the local languages which many women can speak as many are illiterate in the foreign languages.

It is therefore in order that radio content is also broadcast on the internet and also stored for future use to enable many women from Africa access information stored by radio stations on the internet and also increase generation of local content on the internet.

Under multilingualism it is clear that this was to help Africans communicate across communities and give effect to cultural expression and to access shared knowledge for development. The idea is to make internet users to navigate across linguist boundaries and become content creators in their own languages.

Many African women also know how to use the mobile phone and are able to make calls to the community radio stations to participate in radio programmes such as on issues of health, governance, HIV/AIDS, etc

Internet governance should at national level promote the necessity for an independent broadcast body to regulate airwaves. Given that the radio spectrum was a national resource, governments should distribute it in an open and transparent manner with the full participation of stakeholders.


Access is another theme of which its sub theme is internet connectivity and also looking at policy and cost issues.

The role of the internet in assisting social and economic development is strengthened to the extent that it can be extended to as many people as possible. Access, and therefore participation, is virtually important in empowering individuals to exploit this new and powerful resource.

It is important for this section to explore the role of both international connectivity prices and costs and of national policies that influence the spread of the internet in developing countries as well as the ease of access to it. International connectivity de facto prices and costs have historical roots in an internet that was North American centric, which some developing countries believe do not change reflect the changing patterns of internet use and are therefore both inappropriate and unfair.

What are the intermediate research results obtained to date that provide evidence for addressing how appropriate these policies still are in the internet’s substantial global growth and penetration.

It should be noted here that the role of national governments in establishing an enabling environment for the internet is very important. Progressive national policies encourage investment in capacity and growth, support the establishment of Internet Exchange Points (IXPs), and create a favourable legal climate for supporting e-competition in the ISP industry that lowers prices. There is need for this session to explore the linkages between those and other policy levers that can accelerate the spread of access to an affordable internet for all.

For African women, it should be observed that Infrastructure is vital to provide universal, equitable and affordable access to ICTs that would create access to opportunities for all.

“This would however remain a myth in Africa, already faced with an urban-rural and gender divide, unless the issue of infrastructure is dealt with.”

ICT costs affect Africa women’s access to and use of ICTs for development. Internet connection costs are therefore a key issue in closing the gender digital divide. Even regional initiatives such as the East African Sub Marine Cable System (EASSy) once operational should have a plan for reaching the people in the rural areas where the digital divide is very real compared to the urban areas. Issues of last mile connectivity should be put in place to enable every person have access to the internet.

Emerging Issues
A panel of young people will look at emerging issues and issues of concern to youths, both from a technology and public policy perspective.
There are so many issues of concern to youths in Africa especially in Africa.

Governments should include issues of youth in all areas of ICT for development. African governments should create youth friendly policies and include youths to every plan of action that is made for specific countries.

Youth issues should not be lumped together with those of women or the vulnerable in society because when it comes to funding there will be a problem of specifically allocating funds to youth issues.

It is a sad development that we still have very few girls taking up science, mathematics and later IT courses. Girls should be encouraged to take up such courses and get involved in being part of the policy making decisions.

Youths who have been actively involved in ICT issues are male where as females are still very few.

Governments in Africa need to include ICT education in their curriculum. They also need to deliberately create ICT enterprises for Youth.

Computer science education is vital for youths in Africa because it is from here that youths have created succefull ICT tools such as google, e-bay etc we need youths to be creating programmes that would be used by African institutions.

There is need to remove gender barriers to ICT education and training for girls and women and girls ability to produce their own ICT content. Youths should also include all cross cutting issues in their plans including gender.

Youth’s caucus should also include youths whose expertise was ICT and telecommunication. Youths skills, leadership and different ways of communications and women’s rights are key values of operation.
The opposite is however happening in Africa with youths. They are using the internet to steal cash from new users of the internet and therefore we now have an increase in spam.

Rina Mukherji

One hears so much talk of ICTs and communication for development. It would be nice to know of the type of difference ICTs have made to women's lives in the developing world, as and where computer literacy has spread. The truth is - a literate woman spells a lot more in terms of development since she manages the family.

Internet governance will not mean much to rural folk in the Third World. But better access to information via the internet will prompt women to ask questions and demand better e-governance at the local level. This should automatically translate into a better deal for communities in general. It is hence surprising that there was hardly any discussion on the gender dimensions of ICTs at this forum.


Houses are not cheap and not everyone can buy it. Nevertheless, business loans was invented to aid different people in such kind of hard situations.

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The i-Witnesses

  • This blog is written by Murali Shanmugavelan, with help from the i-Witness team (Victoria Room and Nicky Lewis).

    It's a place for journalists - particularly in developing countries - to read commentary and share insights about the information society, what it means for ordinary people in the global South, and how it can be reported in a meaningful way.

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