COMMUNICATION: A CHANCE
SEIZE BY WOMEN IN FRANCOPHONE AFRICA
A rather disillusioned observation was recently made during a pan-Africa
conference: (1) African women consider
new information and communication technologies as “futuristic” rather
than as tools for development to be used today. If initiatives are not
taken now to thwart this attitude, activities by women in Africa to
promote sustainable development that also benefit them will take even
longer. This will be especially true in regions on the continent where
English is not the common language.
A Recent Tool for Development
Use of electronic communication is a relatively new phenomenon in Africa
compared to other regions. During preparations for the 1995 Fourth World
Conference on Women, held in Beijing (China), electronic infrastructures
almost completely bypassed Africa except for South Africa. The rest of the
continent was “terra incognita” similar to the blank unexplored
regions of the world portrayed centuries ago on explorers’ maps. (2)
During preparations for the Beijing conference, the Gender and Development
Synergy team of Environment and Development in the Third World
(ENDA-SYNFEV), (3) launched a Communication for Women programme in
Francophone Africa. At that time, no women’s organization in Francophone
Africa was connected to electronic mail, and access to Internet in
Francophone Africa was practically non-existent.
situation highlighted the urgent need for women’s groups in Francophone
Africa to be “connected” in order to establish the beginnings of an
electronic network. If endogenous initiatives were not implemented, there
was a risk that development actions launched through electronic
communication would only reinforce the region’s tendency to be
the years since the Beijing conference, the situation has greatly evolved.
However African countries all still lag behind in the availability of
communication and information technologies. The possibility of Africa
integrating itself into cyberspace is much more encouraging than a few
years ago, and the continent now has a stake in this medium. But what will
be the role of African women in this process, especially those in regions
that only recently became connected?
A New Space for African Women?
it has become an important component of today’s world, cyberspace
appears to be only a vague abstraction to the majority of African women.
Even if they are not actors in cyberspace, African women will still be
affected by it.
including those in Africa, have traditionally been confined to domestic,
“private spaces,” although they are beginning to conquer public ones.
Are we going to let ourselves be marginalized in this medium? Fortunately
some have ventured into cyberspace and have understood the stakes
cyberspace, an invisible form of digitized information and messages,
certain relations are assumed between people and organizations. It is
dynamic and inspiring, it is everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
There are no borders in cyberspace and it is constantly evolving. However
it isn’t always welcoming or accessible and is often cold and onerous,
hermetic and Westernized. Cyberspace is especially a world of men. It
reminds one of a badly organized library humming with conversations that
are of little interest.
can cyberspace offer women? What will be our place in it? We haven’t
been forgotten in this medium, mainly as cyber consumers and cyber-workers
on the information highway that is about to invade our lives. If
information important to us isn’t available, we must produce and publish
it. We must also find ways to meet in larger numbers and create networks
among ourselves to reinforce, as cyberspace does so well, coalitions,
strategic alliances and actions.
want to be active in the process of developing and structuring cyberspace.
The “info-poor”—those without access—will surely suffer
discrimination compared to the “info-rich.” In fact access to
information will be a crucial factor in making a difference as the world
moves into the coming millennium. For these reasons, women activists are
working for, among other things:
-- equal access to the
knowledge and skills necessary for access to cyberspace and exchanging of
-- reinforcement of
public regulations of cyberspace in order to prevent commercial abuses and
violation of individual rights, as well as to guarantee equal access to
-- gender equality in
the organizations and forums in which decisions are taken about the
development, structure and organization of cyberspace. (4)
general women have been confined to actions promoting development that are
“traditional” and conform to their place in society: literacy, health
(especially reproductive rights) and income-generating activities.
Recently, women have become more involved in areas of public management by
participating in decision making, politics and good governance, actions
for peace, and in the media. However, women are still under-represented in
certain sectors, especially science, technology and information.
African women have only a modest presence in the area of information and
communication technology; for now they are limited to using elementary
facilities provided by these tools. The obstacles facing them are
enormous, especially when compared to the rest of the population. Women
have very high illiteracy rates—especially in languages used for
international communication. The common language of Francophone Africa is
a “minority language” in cyberspace. The cost of access is relatively
high for women, who make up the majority of the poor in poor countries.
Their additional responsibilities of survival, production and reproduction
often prevent them from benefiting from an adequate education. In addition
technical support, training and maintenance facilities are not adequate
for the needs of many women.
goes without saying that in this context, Francophone African women are
strikingly absent from the spheres where decisions and initiatives are
undertaken concerning information and communication technology policy and
equipment. They also lack information about
international events that would be of interest to them, and
therefore have little possibility of playing a role in them.
the same time, it is obvious that efforts must be prioritized in this
direction on the part of donors and policy makers, governments and
especially by women and their organizations. Today, there is a consensus
that educating women is a central necessity for development, the fight
against poverty and protecting the environment for future generations.
Women, and especially women’s organizations working for sustainable
development, make up the major category of potential “strategic users”
of information and communication technology.
the Tool to the Contents
after tackling these primary obstacles linked to access, use of electronic
communication by Francophone African women shouldn’t be taken for
granted. Solving the basic problems that limit women’s access to
cyberspace—illiteracy, prohibitive costs, lack of equipment and access
to technical formation—won’t guarantee that women will actively use
information technology. This is one of the lessons learned from
experiences of the private electronic conference <femmes-afrique>,
established after a training workshop on electronic communication for
women held in February 1996 by ENDA-SYNFEV. The electronic list membership
hasn’t stopped growing since.
analyzing activities of the electronic conference, the facilitators
noticed that individual women and women’s organizations used the basic
functions of electronic communication for interpersonal communication
(from one to many). In this way, women are confining themselves to a
passive role as receivers of information coming from the outside, rather
than playing an active role in producing and diffusing their own
information about their activities, their concerns and their context.
crucial issue of endogenous production of information is continuously
highlighted by organizations working for sustainable development through
information technologies. They stress that the contents of information
available is much more important than the constant development of
sophisticated new tools. (5) Mastering the technology is an important
step, but beyond that new possibilities must be explored and used for the
advancement of women’s agendas. The Communication for Women programme in
Francophone Africa hopes to develop useful activities that are
action-oriented in this way.
Access to Action: One Step Forward
in Francophone Africa need access to follow information and communication
technologies because these will allow them to change the level at which
they communicate. With these technologies one adopts a new perspective on
the world: one lives locally but becomes more aware of what is going on
globally. In turn, this knowledge helps transform one’s local actions.
main issue is not—as some still think today—of deciding if it is worth
adopting these new technologies. Just like globalization, no one has the
choice of deciding whether to be involved in such a process. These
technologies will influence our lives whether we accept to use them or
not. For this reason instead of fearing them, African women should
consider how the new information and communication technologies can allow
us to change the world and contribute to determining our own future.
Eighth summary, AFR-FEM Virtual Working Group organized by the World Bank
in March-June 1998 around the 40th Anniversary Conference of the United
Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) on African Women and Economic
Development, Investing In Our Future, Addis Ababa, 28 April-1 May l998,
For example see the November 1994 map of the Association for Progressive
Communications, a network of electronic networks for development
The ENDA-SYNFEV Gender and Development Synergy is a team of ENDA Third
World, an international non-governmental organization headquartered in
Dakar (Senegal). The Communication for Women programme has been
implemented since 1995 by ENDA-SYNFEV for promoting the use of electronic
communication by women’s groups in Francophone Africa. ENDA is a member
of the Association for Progressive Communication (APC). ENDA-SYNFEV is
coordinating the Africa regional programme of the APC Women’s Programme.
More information on ENDA is available at websites (www.enda.sn) and
Atelier de formation en communication electronique pour les femmes
d’Afrique francophone, February 1996, in collaboration with the World
Association for Christian Communication and the Women’s Networks
Supports Programme of the Association for Progressive Communications.
5. Translated and adapted from a text by Maja Van der Velden, with her kind authorization.
Voices from Africa no. 9