Informatics and Gender
Michael Gurstein, Ph.D.
Editor-in-chief, The Journal of Community Informatics
Issues of gender are at the very heart of community informatics just as they are at the very heart of community and communities. Gender-based differences in opportunities for access, differences in required uses, differences in strategies for appropriation are all central to an understanding of how ICT can enable communities.
These issues become particularly evident in many Less Developed Countries where ICT access and use are filtered through the lens of local culture, often one where the position of women and girls is highly determined and highly structured—in very many cases much more than that of men and boys. Issues of appropriate behaviour, maintaining modesty, gender-determined economic activities, gender-based social relations all have their direct impact on the practice of ICT in communities. Very often this is to the detriment of opportunities for women and girls to access computers and the Internet, to obtain training, to leverage the use of the Internet for personal and family benefit and so on.
This filtering of community informatics through the lens of local culture and practice reverberates at all levels within a community informatics framework. The design of public Internet access at the local level in many LDC’s requires that attention be paid to local prohibitions concerning women’s movements and women’s attendance at events with males not members of their immediate family.
In the design of CI applications the specific areas of women’s prescribed conventional area of family and community responsibility—child care, family maintenance and food preparation, caring for the elderly and sick need to be taken into account. As well there needs to be a recognition that in addition to these activity areas, in many instances women have further responsibilities to directly support family income.
At the same time recognition must be given, as noted above, that women may have had less opportunity for conventional education as well as for computer access and training than boys or men. In these cases compensatory policy measures including design features may be required and a fine line drawn between adjusting CI initiatives to existing and often highly discriminatory cultural practices and finding ways to push the boundaries in those instances where women and particularly younger women wish to realize these.
Equally, it can be realized that access to computing and the Internet may be the basis for significant opportunities for change and for opening up of economic and personal areas for employment, professional training and development and for expression (and even it should be mentioned, for emotional release and the development of social relationships). In many instances these can lead to self-development for individuals and even cultural advance at the local level and particularly as younger women gain an education. Also, it may in many instances, through access to some computing and Internet skills, empower especially younger women to seek additional employment opportunities locally but also through urban migration.
Overall it will be seen that no successful community informatics can be realized without responding to the challenges that culturally presented gender relations introduce at the local level.
I am truly delighted at the range of research and cultural and other contexts that are represented in this special double issue of JoCI. This is the first such double issue and it was decided to do this since we could not reasonably fit all of the extremely valuable and interesting contributions into a single issue.
Thanks to everyone who contributed to this and particularly to Anita Gurumurthy who had the vision and the persistence to carry this through even as she was making a huge contribution to her own agency IT for Change, her research work through the Community Informatics Institute in Mysore and her role as a wife and mother to her lovely twin daughters.