AND ACCESSIBLE ELECTRONIC
NETWORKING IN AFRICA
Ruth Ochieng and Jenny Radloff
truth is...how can a woman be interested in information and communication
technologies (ICTs) on a hungry stomach with a child crying on her back
for food and another she is carrying in her arms dying because of lack of
the majority of women in Africa have to be concerned with basic survival
does not mean that we should not encourage those that can to study, use,
manage and develop ICTs.”
comments above reflect some of the debate around the relevance, usefulness
and appropriateness of ICTs for women in Africa. This debate, however, is
not limited to developing contexts. Although the conditions for connecting
to ICTs are vastly different, women in general are marginalized in this
area. These debates include a gender and development dimension. One
“side” argues that the Internet (one aspect of ICTs which is a
collection of computer networks capable of handling large volumes of data
in text, image, voice and video format at high speed) was invented and is
constructed and dominated by men, making it an unfriendly environment for
women. It is claimed to entrench differences between men and women and is
an environment open to control by commercial interests, offensive language
and sexual harassment of women online.
such as Morahan-Martin (1998) argue that the Internet is an electronic
meeting place where people can interact despite differences in race,
class, culture, gender, nationality and (dis)ability. Scholars such as
Chua (1995) argue that not only can the Internet dissolve gender
boundaries, but it also blurs discipline boundaries. It can represent
knowledge as it enables the construction, organization and dissemination
of information through its linking potential. It can connect knowledge and
bring disparate disciplines together; the fluidity presents us with new
ways of looking at old knowledge. Burch (1997) notes that for the
women’s movement networking has been the preferred form of organizing
since the 1960s, and women have readily adapted to this new electronic
networking tool and are already using the technology innovatively.
terms of Africa as a “developing region,” people have argued that the
Internet has important educational, economic and social benefits. If
societies are excluded, they will be excluded from these benefits and the
disparities will worsen. Although ICTs do not offer a panacea for social
and economic development, the risks of failing to participate in the ICT
revolution are enormous (Marcelle, 1998). ICTs are critical for acquiring
and disseminating information for development, and if used strategically
can improve the lives and living conditions of African women.
ICTs have the potential to further entrench differences among African
women if they are not strategically used. It could be asked whether
Africa’s energies should not be directed at addressing other more urgent
Internet, an American import packaged for English-speaking people, can be
seen as new form of colonialism. Services are directed at high-income
users and are beyond the reach of most Africans. The Internet stratifies
individuals into the information elite (in the North) and the information
poor (in the South).
gender activists exploit the transformative potential of ICTs to benefit
grassroots women, it will be one strategy in addressing the different
developmental needs of women in Africa. This requires that African women
involve themselves in ICTs now and make them appropriate in the
from the difficulties experienced by women in accessing computers,
Marcelle points out that Africa has 12% of the world’s population and
only 2% of its telephone lines. Accessing electronic mail and the Internet
depends on telephones. However, the effective use of electronic
communication should not be associated with full access to the Internet.
“Low-tech” information tools such as radio (which is not dependent on
telephone lines or computers), electronic mailing lists, bulletin boards
and the increasingly large collection of information stored in electronic
formats (such as databases) can be effectively harnessed through e-mail.
E-mail does not require sophisticated computer software (as the Internet
does) and is less expensive, more flexible and therefore preferred.
Indeed, the integration of ICTs with other communication networks that are
more familiar and indigenous to Africa could prove to be more beneficial.
This article reports on some of the ways in which women globally and in
Africa are harnessing ICTs.
and the means to get at the information upon which knowledge is based is a
critical element in sustainable and equitable development.”
Women’s Tribune Centre, New York
on the continent have been voicing their views about independence,
development, education and violence, to name but a few concerns of
women’s organizations. When countries were about to obtain independence
from colonial rule in the early 1960s, women leaders mobilized women to
become useful citizens. These included the group Maendeleo ya Wanawake,
which focused on rural development, and the Association of University
Women, which focused on women/girls and education. Today women’s
organizations continue to advocate on questions of importance to women,
including human rights and African women’s independence.
are creators of knowledge and are involved in naming and writing about
their experiences. What has been lacking, however, is the means to get
women’s information and knowledge visible and accessible (Mansell,
1998). ICTs provide tools for mobilization and participation in
decision-making processes and advocacy and lobbying that cut across
artificially constructed borders.
1991 the Women’s Library and Information Centre in Istanbul (Turkey)
sponsored the first International Symposium of Women’s Libraries to
consider the challenging issues presented by the “Information Age.”
During the Bangkok Global Women’s Conference in February 1994, about 400
women communicators met to discuss the ways they could harness ICTs to
improve communications. In June 1994, over 200 women information providers
convened at Radcliff College in Boston (United States) to debate the
issues of women, information and the future. In September of the same
year, Latin American and Caribbean women met and asserted that women’s
access to information technology is a democratic right.
in 1995, a meeting of women in Sweden developed strategies for lobbying
the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women to include women and the media
in the Beijing Declaration and Platform
for Action. Prior to the Beijing conference, several international
women’s organizations that met in New York resolved to hold a workshop
on information, communication and the use of ICTs by women’s
organizations at the Beijing conference. All the planning and arrangements
for the workshop were successfully conducted through e-mail. This was a
breakthrough at the international level for women’s
organizations—demystifying distance and geographical location—to
organize a workshop to address the role of information and ICTs for
ICTs at the Beijing Conference
Women’s Networking Support Programme of the Association for Progressive
Communications (APC) led a worldwide initiative in the lead-up to the
Fourth World Conference on Women. As Burch explains, the programme opted
to work with groups whose work had a multiplying effect, and to show how
women can channel information to and from groups that are not online using
a variety of communication tools. Many countries had prepared in-depth
information on the debates, which reached people via the Internet. This
was then re-disseminated via fax, radio and at meetings. These methods
contrasted sharply with mainstream media coverage! This experience
encouraged women’s organizations in Latin America to link into the
Internet and develop their own electronic networks and websites.
outcome of the above initiatives made the Beijing conference unique. The
use of electronic media networks made it possible for women to relay
information to and from their countries back to delegates at the
conference. The Beijing Platform for Action highlights the access and
production of information for women as crucial to women’s development.
Phrases appearing throughout the document include research (production of
women’s information) data/statistics collection (availability),
publication, resources, media/information technology, dissemination and
translation. This emphasis recognizes the need for the availability,
accessibility and efficient provision of information to all, and
especially to women, if sustainable development is to take place.
the Fourth World Conference on Women, organizations in Africa embarked on
a number of initiatives to respond to the conference resolutions including
those focused on ICTs, both at national and regional levels. We mention
here some of the mostly Anglophone African initiatives of which we are
workshop held in March 1997, organized by the African Gender Institute
(AGI) in South Africa, brought together information centres in the region
to discuss communication mechanisms and the sharing of information on
gender justice in Africa. Workshop participants noted that information
centres in Africa hold valuable and unique gender collections, but these
are dispersed and difficult to access. They identified the need to create
an electronic network that would link them together and enable resource
sharing and partnerships that would benefit organizations and their user
constituencies. A regional network called the Gender in Africa Information
Network (GAIN) was established.
initiatives include the creation of an electronic mailing list by GAIN,
with the support of the Southern African Non- Governmental Organization
Network (SANGONeT). Women’sNet, a joint project of SANGONeT and the
Commission on Gender Equality, has created a “gateway” to South
African gender-related information, including locally-generated content
and links to other relevant sites. The APC Women’s Networking Support
Programme, which has an Africa section, aims to increase women’s access
to training and facilitate information flow between the North, South, East
and West on gender issues.
and Development Synergy, based in Dakar (Senegal), has a communication
programme for Francophone African women who are active in cyberspace. The
programme acknowledges that the Internet is a reality of the modern world
and (more privileged) African women who are exploring the possibilities of
new information and communication technologies.
For Development, a non-profit organization established in 1991 by African
women, aims to move the focus of development programme policies toward
fuller participation of African peoples, especially women. The
organization has implemented a programme aimed at strengthening the
electronic communication capacities of women’s organizations in Africa.
The programme, which also aims to strengthen connectivity and content, has
held training workshops in various countries in Africa.
similarity these initiatives share is a realization that for women to
participate effectively in harnessing ICTs for development, they must know
how to use, adapt and manage electronic communication tools for
themselves. There is a greater emphasis on the communication potential
rather than the technology itself. Training methods are gender-sensitive
and designed to overcome specific barriers that inhibit women from using
ICTs. A critical area recognized by women’s organizations involved in
ICTs is developing relevant content. Information on the Internet is
overwhelmingly Northern-oriented and male-focused. Women’s initiatives
see the need to develop locally-generated knowledge and information and to
add our understanding of equality issues to the Internet.
all these initiatives women’s information in Africa is still
marginalized by most publishing houses, which are the traditional
producers and distributors of information. The publishing industry in
Africa faces many challenges such as poor infrastructure, lack of
financial resources, and weak distribution channels—which are being
creatively addressed through initiatives such as the African Publishers
Network, African Periodicals Exhibition and the annual Zimbabwe
International Book Fair, held in Harare. Women’s information centres in
Africa are battling to provide accessible and indigenous information to
information seekers. Information centres have realized that to collect
material on gender-related issues they need to be linked into networks of
women’s organizations that publish newsletters, magazines, conference
papers and seminar proceedings. This information (which is often referred
to as “grey” or “fugitive” literature) is not published in the
conventional sense. It does not move through the stages of editing and
peer review, but is valuable because it is lived, debated and written by
African women. To collect this information and make it both visible and
accessible, information centres need to have reliable communication
mechanisms in order to share and effectively disseminate appropriate
is a substantial increase in the number of academics, activists and policy
makers in Africa who are using e-mail as a means of communicating, sharing
information, lobbying and learning. They are integrating this into their
work and the marketing, sharing and dissemination of organizational news.
E-mail discussion groups (also referred to as listservers) are growing in
number and often organized around sectoral issues such as preventing
violence against women or general “spaces” where people discuss, share
and debate gender-related matters. Not only is this medium fast, it links
up different groupings of women and men to create dialogue across
boundaries, cultures, languages and social hierarchies.
have highlighted the importance of information as a tool for empowerment
and development, and the need for locally produced information to be made
visible and accessible for it to have value and use. A critical aspect for
working toward the visibility of gender-related information is the impact
it can have on policy making at both civil society and governmental
levels. Without relevant and readily accessible gender information, policy
making will ignore gender concerns and become ineffective and
for the inclusion of more African women in the use and application of ICTs
is necessary in order to overcome the many challenges and barriers that
hinder African women’s full participation in shaping the global
information society. Marcelle argues that “the first step is to define
an agenda for transformation which specifies a set of interventions which
African women and their allies can make as they move towards making a
gender-balanced information society a reality in Africa.”
organizes key actions for this agenda under the following topics.
Focused public policy intervention:
– allocate ICT development
resources to women
provide and improve infrastructure
build technological capability
Human capital component:
facilitate and encourage the involvement of women in technological
create culturally resonant content
design appropriate mechanisms
increase effective demand for ICT products and services
we are serious about ensuring that information by and about women in
Africa is to be made visible and accessible, we cannot ignore the
potential of ICTs in achieving this goal. To ignore and exclude our voices
from these technologies will effectively silence us. At the same time we
have to acknowledge intra-African differences and make real attempts to
find creative ways of sharing the benefits of ICTs. By impacting policies
through lobbying governments and advocating for access to ICTs by civil
society, we can make our voices visible, valued and accessible.
Women and Economic Development, 1998, Internet Working Group (AFR-FEM)
listserver from discussion on value of ICTs.
S. (1997). Latin Women Take on the Internet. Available online
K. (1995). Gender and the Web. Paper presented at the Southern Cross
University conference, First Australian World Wide Web Conference
Information Centre and Archives for the Women’s Movement, IIAV (1997).
IIAV organizing team concept paper, Amsterdam.
R., ed. (1998). Knowledge Societies: Information Technology for
Sustainable Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
G.M. (1998). Strategies for Including a Gender Perspective in African
Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) Policy. Written for the
International Development Research Centre as part of its contribution to
the United Nations Economic Commission on Africa (UNECA) Conference on
African Women and Economic Development, Addis Ababa.
J. (1998). Women and Girls Last: Females and the Internet. Paper presented
at the University of Bristol.
chapter is an edited version of “Relevant and Accessible Electronic
Information Networking in Africa” in Agenda, 38, 1998, by the feminist
project Agenda, Durban (South Africa).
Voices from Africa no. 9