WOMEN’SNET: INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY
EMPOWER WOMEN IN SOUTH AFRICA
1998 Internet user survey in South Africa showed that the profile of the
average Internet user is as follows: he is white, 35 years old, earns an
above average wage and has at least one year of higher education.
Eighty-one percent of Internet users are men and 19% are women. This
picture does not show the current state of the Internet as a medium for
enhancing equality or empowerment. It does, however, present a challenge
for development practitioners who see its potential and are seeking ways
of using it in disadvantaged and disempowered communities.
South African Constitution, enacted in 1994, brought constitutional
equality to women in South Africa. Under the apartheid regime women had
held second-class status to men, and black women endured particular
economic and racial discrimination. Since 1994, several government bodies
have been set up to work specifically toward women’s rights and
equality. These include the Office on the Status of Women in the Deputy
President’s Office, the Commission on Gender Equality (CGE), and the
Committee on the Quality of Life and Status of Women. Government
departments also established “gender desks.” South Africa ratified the
Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
(CEDAW) in 1995, which further binds the country to compliance with
certain international equality standards for women. While the
constitutional and legal framework enable equality for women, they are
simply the foundations for beginning to develop women’s equality in any
who have used information and communication technologies (ICTs) have
benefited from the sharing of information and communication. They
recognize that these are key resources in the pursuit of equality and
development. Through the setting up of Women’sNet (womensnet.org.za),
they have begun a process of developing and sharing gender information in
South Africa. This article looks at the work undertaken by Women’sNet,
which aims to use electronic information and communication as a tool to
empower and gain equality for South African women.
the inception of Women’sNet, a brief survey of the Internet would have
shown a number of problems in relation to South African women’s presence
on the Internet. These include:
-- No South African cyberspace was dedicated to the
empowerment of South African women.
-- There was no information and communication forum
focusing on women’s development.
-- There were no interactive communication forums for
-- No clearinghouse existed of relevant,
locally-produced information on women’s development in South Africa.
-- Relevant and useful documents were scattered on
-- Few of the documents available in print relating to
women’s empowerment were also available online.
-- Much of the available print information produced by
NGOs constituted “grey” or informal literature and did not enjoy wide
distribution or exposure.
-- Many “empowered” women, although having
Internet facilities, were not using them fully and were certainly not
contemplating publishing electronically.
issues above include problems of content, communication and coordination.
The mere existence and availability of ICTs is not sufficient to ensure
their use in a particular area. While some women had been active in using
the Internet and e-mail, the overall situation did not present a positive
picture of ICTs use by women. Women’s efforts to establish their
equality in civil society and government were not being reflected in, or
assisted by, the very powerful medium of ICTs.
are certain basic components to the communication and transmission of
information that enable it to be meaningful and sustainable. These
-- partners or a network with which to communicate;
-- shared interest;
-- information to communicate;
-- an accessible and user-friendly means of
-- skills to use the medium.
that promote the medium without content cannot succeed. This important
issue was recognized from the outset by Women’sNet, which is a project
of the Southern African Non-Governmental Organisation Network (SANGONeT).
range and type of information needed includes:
-- information to assist women in full participation
-- relevant information for promoting women’s
development in South Africa;
-- laws, policy documents and legislative processes on
issues affecting women;
-- women’s activities and activism;
-- women’s issues in South Africa and globally;
-- promotion of women’s leadership and role models;
-- information about equality and democracy and the
way in which women can promote their own equality; and
-- topics approached from a gendered perspective.
was set up as a project of SANGONeT (an electronic network that has been
running since 1988 and is a member of the Association for Progressive
Communications) in partnership with the Commission on Gender Equality
(CGE). The CGE is a statutory body set up to promote and protect gender
equality by advising government on legislation affecting gender issues and
the status of women. These two organizations took the initiative to bring
together 33 women from organizations around the country, plus input from
the Association of Progressive Communications to shape a project that
could meet present needs. The creative output of this brainstorming showed
the high level of interest among participants for an electronic platform
to promote gender equality in South Africa.
women developed a mission statement for Women’sNet and provided
information that would serve as a blueprint to guide the further
development of Women’sNet. The blueprint provided information on
questions such as:
-- Why does Women’sNet exist?
-- Who do we serve and why?
-- What products/services do we want to offer?
-- What do we want to achieve in the future?
-- How can we make this happen?
women defined the goals for Women’sNet in the areas of:
-- constituencies and their needs;
-- extending Women’sNet to other media;
-- training; and
-- information sources.
all felt that they would participate in and benefit from dedicated
electronic space, they recognized that the challenge would be to create a
project that benefited more than just a small elite who already have
access to ICTs. The priority would be to target women who historically
have been prevented from accessing ICTs. Women’sNet would therefore need
to reach out to women in all possible ways, including those without
computers and Internet access. E-mail-to-print and e-mail-to-radio are two
such means of increasing access to information. It is interesting to note,
however, that even among relatively computer- and Internet-aware women,
there is still a need for learning about the technology, its use and
capabilities. Most women who helped shape the project were not using ICTs
optimally and wanted to benefit from training offered by Women’sNet.
Advisory Group set up by Women’sNet represented a range of communities
including rural, training, the media, NGOs, government and the information
technology community. The Advisory Group aimed to provide strategic
direction to Women’sNet, taking into account the needs of the various
communities. An Information Strategy Team worked on the information
content and form of Women’sNet. At an information strategy workshop in
December 1997, convened to create the Women’sNet website, women from
Uganda, Senegal and Zimbabwe were invited to participate.
a remarkable effort of collaboration and participative learning, the
Information Strategy Team designed the structure and content of the
website, learned HTML skills, and set up the site within two days. The
team continued to participate in site development after this meeting
through the listserver, although basic functions of running the site and
the project were taken over by staff. The experience of this workshop was
drawn up into a curriculum module and posted on the site
(womensnet.org.za/about/curric.htm) for other women to use.
areas that the workshop identified as important information priorities
-- human rights;
-- information and communication technologies;
-- violence against women; and
developed these areas and later added:
-- women and enterprise;
-- Internet links;
-- gender in Parliament;
-- job and study opportunities; and
on the new additions to the site are sent out weekly to a listserver
comprising 350 members. The site also has a bulletin board and a search
the process of setting up and running Women’sNet, one of the benchmarks
has been consultation, involvement and participation of women and
organizations. Information partnerships are seen as totally essential to
the success of Women’sNet. The Information Strategy Team members are all
involved in sharing women’s information and using e-mail as part of
their daily work. According to staff member Lynn Danzig, Women’sNet does
not aim simply to deliver information content to women. Rather, it
involves them in the process of information development.
of Violence Against Women Site
was launched in March 1998 to coincide with the Southern African
Development Community (SADC) Conference on the Prevention of Violence
Against Women, held in Durban. For this event, a section of the website on
the prevention of violence against women was set up. Statistics show that
this resource has become the most frequently-visited section of the site.
Women’sNet held a three-day workshop in July 1998 to do more work on the
site. Seven women working in the sector came together to critique the
site, build an information partnership with Women’sNet, and provide
ideas for developing the web resource.
formulated new sections for the site based on user profiles. This has
resulted in a multi-level selection of information that can serve a
variety of women’s needs—one of Women’sNet’s aims for empowering
interactivity and participation are important possibilities provided by
e-mail and the Internet, and areas that Women’sNet has tried to use
extensively. The website includes interactive features such as feedback
features, opportunities to send information to the site, bulletin boards
has used listservers before and after each workshop to introduce women to
each other, encourage a useful dialogue prior to the meeting, enable the
flow of information, and to continue discussion after the meeting has
taken place. With a common area of work and interest, the technology has
facilitated women’s participation and networking. The Prevention of
Violence Against Women listserver initially focused on the declaration at
the SADC conference, but has been broadened for the discussion of other
violence issues. This has enabled discussion among women and sharing of
views and continued interaction, even after completion of the conference.
in mind the lack of telecommunications infrastructure in certain areas of
the country—particularly rural areas and townships—Women’sNet is
linking up with a telecentre project being spearheaded by the Universal
Service Agency (www.usa.org.za), a statutory body that aims to facilitate
access to telecommunications and information services for South African
communities. Telecentres, which provide telephones, faxes, computers and
the Internet, allow people who don’t have access in their own
organizations or homes to use ICTs. This begins to remove the elite
connotations of ICT access and makes it more accessible to communities.
only does the Universal Service Agency facilitate setting up of the
telecentres, it also provides training in ICTs and support in management
of the centres. It has a policy of training at least 50% of women
participants. Women’sNet is working with this initiative to promote
gender-sensitive training, employment opportunities for women, and the
development of local content.
and ICT Policy
experience gained by Women’sNet highlights the importance of engaging in
the area of policy development. Telecommunications, like other resources,
are not gender-neutral. They risk not being relevant, attainable or
beneficial to women unless we ensure that the position of women is
presented at the policy-making level. The seminar highlighted the need for
women’s activism in this area. More visible and accessible gender
information will influence policy-making, both within civil society and
government, according to Ruth Ochieng and Jenny Radloff.
the short time it has been running, Women’sNet has made groundbreaking
achievements in process and in product. As its work proceeds the needs,
plans and ideas of the initiative multiply. The project’s work
constantly highlights the many challenges that need to be addressed, both
by it and by people working in the area of women and ICTs in South Africa.
Some of the major challenges will be highlighted below.
to computers and the Internet has been highlighted as a major challenge.
As long as many women do not have this access due to lack of
infrastructure or lack of resources, they are largely excluded from the
world of electronic information and communication. It is not anticipated
that Women’sNet can solve such a major developmental problem, but it is
one area that needs attention. While the Universal Service Agency is
trying to deal with universal access practically, it is perhaps at a
public policy level that a gendered perspective on ICTs needs to be
provided. Women’sNet, together with the Commission on Gender Equality,
may be well-placed to contribute input on these policy concerns.
is widely acknowledged that ICTs will not directly bring development to
the poor. However if they are not used in developing countries, the
countries run the risk of further marginalizing their poor. Lack of ICT
policies, infrastructure and knowledge will further isolate these
countries and exclude them from the global ICT-enabled community. South
Africa has recognized the need to develop ICT infrastructure and to reach
out to communities by providing facilities for ICT access. However a
gendered approach to policy or to implementation has been lacking—we
need to acknowledge that ICTs, like other resources, will touch the lives
of men and women in different ways. Discrimination against women needs to
be minimized and opportunities for growth and democratization emphasized.
an immediate resource level Women’sNet is aware that it has not yet
explored partnerships with the private sector, which could assist in
providing computers, software and connectivity. Women’sNet has discussed
establishing partnerships with businesses with a social responsibility
focus to begin to provide access for women’s empowerment. An example of
one such partnership is the recent provision by M-Web, a major Internet
Service Provider, of an Internet café to the National Council of
Provinces in Parliament.
has not yet been able to develop a training programme, although training
has taken place in all the workshops. Reaching out to women with the
possibility of information and communication has highlighted the need for
even more basic computer skills to be provided for women. Women’sNet
sees the provision of skills as a priority.
believes that favourable learning environments where women without
previous technical skills can safely participate and contribute need to be
created. Women’sNet has hosted Internet cafés for women to come, ask
questions and gain hands-on experience. It will be a challenge to increase
the scale of training offered and the range of communities that can
projects that work across different media may be able to render their
communications more accessible. Cross-media outreach was one of the needs
put forward in the first brainstorming workshop, and one that Women’sNet
plans to pursue. Radio has a broad reach, even into rural areas, and this
is one way in which Women’sNet can effectively use electronic
information. Radio stations do not appear to have access to information
about the activities of women’s organizations. They are at times sexist
and lack an understanding of gender concerns. By raising the profile of
women’s activism and issues, and creating a regular flow of information
and training on the use of ICTs, Women’sNet may begin to influence the
content and approach of radio stations. This could increase the flow of
information for women’s empowerment that is broadcast on radio.
is arguable whether the Internet is male-dominated and unfriendly to
women, whether women can use ICTs when their basic survival needs are not
being met, and whether the Internet is a medium that can empower, inform
and network women in an unprecedented way.
Without ignoring the complexities of the issue, using the Internet
can give women an opportunity to overcome their disadvantages and begin to
use ICTs for their own development and empowerment. This is the option
chosen by Women’sNet.
of the major successes to date of the fledgling Women’sNet project,
highlighted by Rebecca Holmes, is the fact that the website was built
collectively and directly in accordance with women’s needs. In
particular, it was built by South African women who previously did not
have the technical skills to build a website. It has successfully
demystified these skills and enabled the women to use them creatively.
Women’sNet has also established and nurtured information partnerships
with organizations and individuals, which enables it to develop
information content in a sustainable way.
content for women’s empowerment in South Africa needs to be taken
further. We can see the benefits of using ICTs. However we can also see
the risk of not participating in the global information revolution and
thereby again placing women at the bottom end of the resource chain. We
need processes for engaging women, and we need to reach further into
disadvantaged communities. We need to enable women to use ICTs effectively
in their work, and we need to learn from each other’s experiences.
Training is also a crucial component of empowering women. Recognizing
these many needs, we must build Women’sNet and other projects that begin
to address these issues and that will assist women in achieving equality
and human rights.
on Gender Equality (1998). Annual Report of the Commission on Gender
Equality, April 1997-March 1998. Johannesburg: CGE.
Africa (1998). Media Africa: The 1998 South African Web User Survey:
Executive Summary. Available online (www.mafrica.co.za/webusers.html).
Ruth and Radloff, Jenny (1998). “Relevant and Accessible Electronic
Information Networking in Africa” in Agenda, 38: 63-69. Durban: Agenda.
Gail (1998). “Women Working on the Internet: New Frontiers for
Exclusion?” in Agenda, 38: 70-77. Durban: Agenda.
(1997). Women’sNet Brainstorming Workshop Report. Available online
(1997). Building a Web Site Together—How the Women’sNet Site was Born:
Curriculum for Team Web Site Building Workshop, based on the Women’sNet
Information Strategy Team Workshop, 11-14 December 1997. Available online
with Gail Smith, Women’sNet Project Co-ordinator, 17 August 1998.
with Lynn Danzig, Women’sNet Information Manager, 17 August 1998.
with Rebecca Holmes, Consultant to Women’sNet, 17 August 1998.
Voices from Africa no. 9