Title: 89

 89.1 FM: The Place for Development: Power shifts and participatory spaces in ICTD

Revi Sterling, Ph.D.

University of Colorado at Boulder


Sophia Huyer, Ph.D.




Kamba1 women in listening range of community radio station Radio Mang’elete have been able to hear themselves on the radio now for four years, providing market information, notification of social events, discussion forums and entertainment in the forms of radio vignettes and plays. These women are not broadcasters in the traditional sense – they provide their insights from their homes, social spaces and areas of work, using a technology system called Advancement through Interactive Radio, or AIR. AIR enables people to record their voices remotely and without the need for intermediaries to facilitate content production and recording. AIR attempts to fit the infrastructure and economic realities of its intended users - the system is designed to link people off the cellular and electrical grid, and those who do not have time to make special trips to community radio station focus groups and recording sessions, often the only public media venue in the area.

While AIR was introduced into the target communities four years ago, it continues to enjoy success, as women suggest programming and offer content that enables them to speak out publically. Qualitative and quantitative data from ongoing analysis suggests that participants have experienced increased agency and positive self perception as well as recognition of their input from the larger community. Preliminary indicators demonstrate women are not only choosing to participate in this opportunity for public self-articulation, but are realizing how such articulation can contribute to their empowerment as both individuals and women – roles that have traditionally relegated women to “doubly” marginalized roles.

In this paper, the researchers discuss the AIR project as a specific example of a gender-based community informatics initiative in the context of the practical theories and frameworks that have informed the AIR project, as well as the indicators of empowerment resulting from the use of AIR in the participating communities. Using Huyer’s taxonomy of gender empowerment, our research findings demonstrate that community radio, enhanced with modest interactivity functionality, may offer women an effective opportunity to be heard in similar communities served by community radio, offering women a legitimacy and presence that remains otherwise unattainable. AIR, like the field of community informatics, is concerned with personal empowerment and social capital related to information and communications technology (ICT), and aims to inform other gender, technology and development strategies by encouraging technologists and social scientists to focus efforts and attention on the multiple locations, opportunities and manifestations of women’s empowerment as a core implementation and assessment goal.

Project Background

Advancement through Interactive Radio (AIR) is a hardware and software system that records women’s voices and asynchronously routes these voice clips back to their community radio stations, where these voice clips can be broadcast directly on air, or used to inform future programming. AIR enables women’s voices and knowledge to be broadcast in a popular and often trusted local forum – community radio – without incurring the gendered barriers to ICT access and use, including cost, literacy, time, location, safety and perceived relevance (Primo, 2003; Huyer, Hafkin, Ertl and Dryburgh, 2005). Community radio, while described by multiple definitions on the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC) website2, should in general be distinguished from commercial and public radio as radio owned and operated collectively for local development purposes, often in the local language or dialect.

AIR was predicated on the hypothesis that community radio, modestly enhanced with features to encourage bi-directional communication, would prove increasingly effective in representing women’s development concerns and needs by letting women themselves articulate their concerns. Through the use of the AIR system, women create and record programming content and feedback, which is routed through the network of AIR custom handsets until the voice recordings reach the radio station. AIR can be distinguished from other “interactive” initiatives including the well-known Development Through Radio (DTR) efforts (Matewa, 2000; Warnock, 2001) The AIR system was deployed in women’s work groups, or mwethia, in Southeast Kenya in partnership with the local community radio station Radio Mang’elete, following initial field studies, “search conferences” (Stoecker, 2005) with the thirty-three mwethia in the greater area surrounding Radio Mang’elete, as well as open community meetings in the towns and enclaves of Nthongoni, Mtito Andei, Masongaleni and Ivongoni – the major communities that both contribute efforts to, and benefit from, Radio Mang’elete. This work was done in conjunction with EcoNews Africa, a Nairobi-based development communications organization.3.

The technical and social science challenges and contributions of AIR have been previously discussed, as has the methodology, theoretical grounding and research design underlying the AIR project (Sterling and Bennett 2006, 2007a, 2007b; Sterling, O’Brien and Bennett, 2009; Sterling, 2009). This paper does not intend to re-introduce those discussions, but to focus specifically on the application of interactive ICTD in the context of women’s empowerment, and to frame the exploration of women’s empowerment across the indicators and scale put forward by Huyer’s work in gender equity and empowerment (Huyer, 2006).

AIR and Empowerment

While community radio may not enjoy the high-tech cachet of more sophisticated ICTs, it has enjoyed renewed interest in ICTD circles (Buckley, 2000; i4d, 2007), and the development community has long recognized the value of radio as a medium for community development (O'Connor, 1990; FRN, 2004). Overall, radio networks (public, private and community radio inclusive) reach over 60% of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa (90% worldwide), and this coverage grows yearly, in part due to the growing popularity of community radio as a relatively inexpensive ICTD that is locally relevant (Jensen, 2002; WEF, 2003). Radio may offer the greatest reach and accessibility to women, but their workload and lower status in the community result in fewer opportunities to be involved with station management and content production (Wanyeki, 2001). In the report, Rural Women Reporting, Walter and Manji (2008) contend that, while women are rarely heard on community radio, “even more rarely do they actually have the opportunity to create media”. Despite these limitations, community radio is relatively more accessible and popular with women in Africa than other forms of ICTs, especially when it uses local vernacular, more than one receiver is available in the home, and formats such as radio listening clubs are used (Sibanda, 2001).

While community radio stations attempt to address women’s unique empowerment issues, this research sought to understand if women were willing to participate in a public forum, and what kinds of content they wanted to be made public. The results were encouraging--participants in the AIR pilot study were enthusiastic about the AIR system, and were willing to verbalize their perspectives on community issues. Previous research has shown that oracy is considered a “woman’s” form of expression in many African cultures, and has the potential to contribute to women’s empowerment strategies (Zirimu, 1977; Mushengyezi, 2003; Njogu & Orchardson, 2005). These researchers call for women to re-appropriate the oral traditions for their own benefit in order to “create and claim space for empowering oracy to assert their survival needs” (Kaschula, 2002). Citing the recent legalization (2006) of community radio in India, one technology pundit has stated,

It is expected that CR will enable women to create alternative media spaces and solidarity networks to contest the ideologies of a male dominated media discourse. It will help them to highlight regional specificities, influence community decision making and policy formulation, advocate women’s education and health, and highlight issues relating to child welfare, domestic violence, and human rights.” (Gupta, 2007)

While all community radio stations operate under the premise that they are “the voice of the community,” some have employed specific strategies to increase female listener interaction, with the aim of balancing the gender, development and ICT equation. However, these efforts introduce gaps associated with the limits of technology, or with design and implementation limitations. This indicates a need for two-way radio infrastructure, one that listens to, in addition to speaking for, the community. Filling this need is a key contribution of the AIR project. The AIR project was created as a response to women’s information needs, gender divides in communities that limit women’s participation in ICTD interventions, and the inherent unidirectional nature of community radio – given that radio is often the only media available in hundreds of thousands of African rural communities that are off the electrical and cellular grid (Hafkin, 2000; Hambly and Whaites, 2006, IEEE, 2007; World Bank 2008;). AIR allows women to “talk back” to their local community radio station, to field feedback, ask questions and to generate their own programming content. As mentioned, AIR is implemented as a hardware and software communication system in which hand-held wireless devices record, store, and forward voice content over a delay-tolerant mesh network to the community radio station (or any assigned terminus).

From the beginning, the overarching goal of the AIR project has been to gauge if technologies such as AIR supported women in their efforts to attain a greater level of empowerment – as women define empowerment.4 This exploration has been predicated on the supposition that increasing women’s participation in community radio would increase women’s self-perception and visibility in the community. This supposition has been further broken down into two research questions: (1) does a limited incremental increase in interactivity in community radio have a positive effect on the empowerment and status of women in the community, and (2) does creating an interactive virtual “radio space” provide women a place to discuss issues that otherwise are considered marginal or sensitive? In the four years since the implementation of AIR, ongoing data collection and analysis have demonstrated that women participants have been increasingly eager to use the devices, and to talk about development as they defined development. From the very introduction of AIR, mwethia members were adamant about being recognized, stating that they wanted their names on the air and would not use the AIR device if they masked their voices or identity in any way. The women were unequivocal about wanting increased visibility in their community. Through follow-up interviews with women, men and Radio Mang’elete, as well as ongoing analysis of radio broadcast transcripts, the AIR-augmented radio has provided a venue that legitimizes women’s concerns, elevating their status to one that allowed them to be “heard” by men, which has led to interesting research findings in terms of shifting gender relations within the participating communities.

While the researchers have discussed methodology in earlier research, it is important to understand that the mwethia members championed the AIR project before its development and implementation into the community. In community assessments with Radio Mang’elete, mwethia members stated their desire to produce news and send programming suggestions to the radio station – especially those who lived at the far reaches of Radio Mang’elete. These requirements were used to run a small research pilot using digital voice recorders to determine system memory and power needs in order to develop the AIR system, which has undergone multiple refinements based on ongoing requirements feedback. The use of voice recorders to solicit radio feedback and group discussion is not new (Warnock, 2001; Sibanda, 2001), but the direct use of women’s recordings on the air, and the subsequent research to evaluate the impact of this use on the speaker and on the community has received less attention (Matewa, 2002; Sterling and Bennett, 2006; Warnock, 2006; Farm Radio International, 2008). While not a sustainable long-term solution (given the battery requirement and need to collect the digital voice recorders rather than rely on a network to deliver voice content), the digital voice recorders proved to be useful and were quickly adopted; mwethia members began actively submitting content to the radio station.

Starting with the introduction of the digital voice recorders and still ongoing, mwethia members developed two radio programs – the Women and Development program and a weekly debate on contentious community issues, where participants would use the devices to “call” in the week prior to the show. The content of the programs themselves indicate that women consider the program as a way to publically reflect the importance of services mwethia/women provide to the community. According to one mwethia, they participated in recorded interviews because, in their words, “we felt that our time has come for us to be recognized.”

Many of the recordings highlight the accomplishments of mwethia. They implore those who are not part of a work group to join, as members view mwethia association as a road to development--as do many researchers who have noted the historical importance of a collective approach to development activity among the Kamba (Thomas-Slater and Ford, 1989; Rocheleau, Benjamin, and Diang'a, 1995; Wangari, Thomas-Slater, and Rocheleau, 1996; Kamar, 2001). Following the introduction of AIR, mwethia membership – and community respect for mwethia members -- has strengthened even further since the women were interviewed on the Women and Development program. More importantly, women participants in the AIR project stated repeatedly that they had perceived a rise in self esteem, positive community responses, and increased experiences of empowerment; the results of interviews with mwethia members, and the larger community, are discussed in the next section.

While discussions of empowerment can be held at the level of the individual or at a macro-societal level, this research uses the definitions of empowerment put forth by Malhotra, Schuler and Bonder (2002) and connected to technology in Huyer’s work “Understanding Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in the Knowledge Society (2006).” In this context, empowerment is the ability to exercise “options, choice, control and power” in one’s life in order to pursue greater individual agency and equality in the community. Such empowerment can only come from those who experience and understand disempowerment (Kabeer, 2001; Malhotra et al., 2002) – and who are willing to challenge the status quo. Empowerment comes in many forms and strategies – economic, political, educational, legal, socio-cultural, and psycho-social – depending on the scope and purview of the community. While ICTs have the potential to support women’s empowerment in all these forms, there are environmental, contextual, economic and civic conditions which must be met for ICTs to be useful in the struggle for gender equity (Huyer, 2006).

In the case of the Kenyan communities involved in the AIR research, women most often defined empowerment as economic freedom, which underscores why most women join mwethia – these work collectives primarily function as income-generating occupations. While economic empowerment had primacy in interviews with women at the start of this research, it became evident that the AIR project technology afforded women the opportunity to experience increased socio-cultural, personal, and psychological empowerment. This research thus explores how the AIR project supports the empowerment factors that play a role in enhancing individual and group participation; and how such spaces must be considered in the evaluation and valuation of an ICTD intervention. Of interest to note, the participants in the AIR project often used empowerment and development synonymously, and in English. This may be due in part to past international development efforts in the region, community radio programming, or a number of other global/local intersections. While the term development is as contested a term as empowerment; in the case of mwethia members, it is a destination, a marker of achievement. As interview data demonstrates, a developed woman is an empowered woman, and vice versa.

Empowerment, according to Huyer (2006), also involves the ability to act upon information. Access to, and use of, technology is a critical concept in gender, technology and development studies. Women in this research also demonstrated a desire to produce information, stating repeatedly that they had valuable information to share and that they wanted to be heard. Thus, voice, and the concept of being heard, became the focus of the AIR project as well as its largest contribution to development studies – this research was able to show a direct link between voice and empowerment that supports future investment in two-way information and communication technologies (ICT). This link was explored in the context of gender and development theory (GAD) and feminist post-structuralism; two different theoretical approaches to women’s empowerment that together provide perspectives of both the individual and community responses to AIR.

Theoretical Frameworks

In order to discuss indicators of women’s empowerment in the context of the AIR, it is necessary to touch on the underlying theories and approaches that informed the creation, deployment and analysis of the AIR project. The AIR approach to ICTD is political one in that the researchers share the belief that technology can and should represent opportunities for women’s empowerment in the targeted communities. The researchers thus grounded the AIR project in an overall Gender and Development (GAD) approach as advocated by those doing early work in GAD in the context of ICTD (Parpart, 2000; Rathgeber, 1990), heavily influenced by feminist post-structuralism (Lather, 1991; Weedon, 1997), Participatory Action Research (Chambers, 2005; Cornwall, 2003; Cornwall and Jewkes, 1995; Greenwood and Levin, 1998; Maclure and Bassey, 199l; Stoecker, 2005), as well as feminist approaches to participatory research (Gujit and Shah, 1998; Maquire, 1987; Mayoux, 1995) and some of the spatial theories that have emerged from human geography and that have social and gender empowerment at their core (Howley, 2005; Low, 1996; Massey, 1994, 2002; Rubinoff, 2003).

GAD was particularly germane to the AIR project because of its focus on the transformation of gendered power relations. As in many communities, these gendered roles are layered and complex, and imbued with economic, social and political nuance. At a basic level, the gender dynamics of the Akambani communities studied – women’s workgroups (mwethia), a most male-run community radio station (like so many of the community radio stations worldwide (Wanyeki, 2005), and near-ubiquitous listenership by both genders – required the comprehensive theoretical framework that analyses the potential for sustainable community transformation involving both women and men.

In addition to providing an experience for mwethia members to interact with an ICTD intervention, the AIR project enabled individual women to speak out in a public forum, which necessitated a study on the power of voice at the level of the individual. Feminist post-structuralism, focuses on language as the site of personal resistance, and personal resistance multiplied as a path to group resistance and shifts in power structures. As the AIR project is operated by voice, feminist post-structuralism theory was one of the approaches used to frame the analysis of transcripts of the women’s recordings, as well as post-recording interviews with participants. The AIR project endeavored to provide the means for women to literally air their experiences and differences, with the goal of creating new discursive practices and power shifts. AIR attempts to bring individual knowledge forward in order to unmask differences in the community, differences that may limit successful community development. As a consequence of the AIR project, multiple realities of women’s experiences, in addition to different perspectives between genders, have been represented publically on the radio for the first time.

Feminist post-structuralism and GAD share a complementary change agenda, as one focuses on gender empowerment at a systems level; and the other operates at the level of the individual, while informing and supporting women’s empowerment activities across individuals, households, families and communities. They are relevant to analyzing the act of producing radio content as a way of encouraging equitable participation of women in the community and with the community radio station, and in the sense that the topics that the women choose to discuss on the air via the AIR handsets is left to the individual. Participatory Action Research (PAR) is based on the tenets that community participation must be integrated into all aspects of the research in order to utilize the research process and findings in an activist manner, which results in positive changes against the status quo (McTaggart, 1991; Whyte, 1991).

PAR also has a social change and emancipatory agenda similar to feminist perspectives5. One of the primary goals of PAR is to create new spaces for discussion and to bring marginalized voices to center stage. It is in these new spaces that knowledge is generated and tested for validity – hegemonic principles are challenged and new meanings for a society are contrasted (Lather, 1991; Greenwood & Levin, 1998). While the initial conceptualization and project design of AIR was not influenced by PAR, key goals are shared – to bring hidden knowledge and marginalized voices into the mainstream, so that they can be heard and acted upon for the benefit of the entire community. PAR practitioners assert that societies only use a small portion of their collective knowledge and capacity for problem solving, based upon who has power within the community. Most are excluded from knowledge production and dissemination (Maguire, 1987; Greenwood & Levin, 1998). The researcher, then, should develop avenues to identify “alternative” knowledge and create opportunities for power shifts, so that knowledge production is returned to all members of a society (Maguire, 1987). AIR aims to seek out and broadcast the knowledge held by women, so that the community can move towards women’s empowerment and closer to gender equality.

Voices on the AIR

When I hear my names mentioned at the end of a program being credited for my contribution, it makes me feel important in the society.”

Such sentiments were often echoed when the researchers conducted follow-up interviews with women who had been featured on the Women and Development and Cake Share programs. One year after the deployment of the AIR system, the researchers identified a significant increase in women’s participation in radio programming, in women’s confidence with the technology, and in women’s perceptions of themselves as important members of the community. Of the fifty-five women who participated in on-air programming due to the AIR system, 93% of the interviewed participants stated that the process of recording and broadcasting had been a positive one. Three women had not listened to the program in which they had been featured for technical reasons – either the radio station had “lost” the recordings (hard drive failure) or the women’s radio receivers were out of batteries. The participants in the Women and Development program were in nearly unanimous agreement that airing issues on the radio trumps the potential risk to the speaker. When asked specifically about fears of personal safety related to topics that have historically remained private, women answered that “when women speak they get empowered” and that when “a woman speaks up she gets strengthened.” According to one participant, speaking out about contentious topics enables women to share “great and brilliant ideas.” Another offered, “When brilliant ideas are aired, people from all walks of life listen to them and this changes the community.” This reflects the transformative nature of Lefebvre’s social space, where a space influences perceptions and practices (Lefebvre, 1991). It is not possible to determine yet if this perception reflects sustainable shifts in male and female relations. Ongoing monitoring and evaluation may indicate to what degree these women change not only their self perception, but the community’s perception as well.

Another indication of a perceived connection between technology and empowerment, was that once women’s voices were aired on Radio Mang’elete, the station staff and the researchers observed a growing interest to engage with both the technology and the process of information creation – certain mwethia and mwethia members requested additional interview time and air time, and there was a steady increase in content being produced. While this willingness to engage does not support directly a link between participation and power, it confirms the observations of Bourdieu and Myles – that mwethia members are deriving public acknowledgement from sharing their opinions and experiences, and that radio legitimizes this information (Bourdieu, 1991; Myles, 2000). Mwethia have taken the initiative to produce plays to introduce issues such as alcohol abuse, violence against women and money management; they are also producing “educational” programs based upon the unique knowledge of individual mwethia, such as planting trees and raising bees.

In addition to the fifty five women, eleven similarly-structured interviews were conducted with non-mwethia members – ten men and one woman, solicited at a community market. These interviews demonstrated support of the new broadcasting model; men unanimously stated they would encourage their wives’ and daughters’ participation in the programs. While this small sample offers a positive perspective on AIR, the men are likely not a representative subset of community, as results from interviews with the women (as well as the reality of sexism in the community) demonstrate ongoing resistance to gender equity. However, these interviews with men suggest that radio may be the most appropriate and successful venue for women to discuss their unique development and community concerns. Men stated that they would be proud if their female relatives participated in the program, as this would reflect well upon the family. Several of the men offered the view that women needed to exercise their rights. Commented one man, “Now things have changed, everyone is important in the development of the country. The days when women were termed as useless are gone and their views and needs are as important as those of men.”

While the women showed little reticence in participating in the recordings and interviews, concepts of public and private information were framed in terms of women having a voice. It was the male interviewees who first discussed this division, noting that women may be able to speak on radio about contentious topics, but not at home, as illustrated in the following quotes:

They should speak for themselves because in some homes, men are very oppressive that they do not give the women a chance to express themselves. In this program they express their problems and also reach out to the others who are oppressed by their husbands to show up and express themselves too.”

It's good for them to be given that chance because some cannot speak direct to their husbands because either they are drunk but when they speak through this program they can (say) everything they want their husbands to hear and a lot of women get advice when they hear the other women talk on how solve problems.”

This view indicates that the virtual radio space is perhaps more authoritative, more socially equal than the actual domestic space, a conversation that invokes Habermas and all the work on gendered and public/private spaces, including radio, that such research catalyzed -- although most of the related work is set in a “developed” community context (Sterling and Bennett, 2006). The community radio ether appears to offer a legitimacy and presence that women of the community do not currently enjoy off-air. In this way, the benefits of ICTD are compounded – there is the ICTD intervention itself, and there is the space in which its effects are evident. Both are important to the real objective -- advancement of the served community. The new radio programs may give women a place to talk to men through channels previously closed to them. The creation of this kind of social space for “free speech” and “safe” community commons may be an overlooked benefit of ICTD interventions that aim to primarily provide a tool for information exchange.

Figure 1: Advancement through Interactive Radio handset

Indicators of Empowerment

The act of being aired and hearing themselves on air proved to be an almost uniform positive experience for the participants, both in terms of participating in something novel, and in perceived self-worth. The AIR project provided two key opportunities: the ability to articulate one’s voice publically in a respected venue, and the opportunity for women to experience technology positively to their unique benefit. The production of voice, as a precursor to the other development discourses, is empowerment a priori, supporting the theories that link make a between voice, gender and power.

Radio transcripts from the two programs that mwethia members started depict several local discourses around empowerment and development, which offer opportunities for future research on gendered power differentials and potential development interventions. In the nine months following the introduction of the DVRs and the associated new radio programs, at least sixty-two individual women (several women were featured in more than one program), and three men, contributed their perspectives for the million or so listeners of Radio Mang’elete, which included self-reporting on experiences of a variety of forms of empowerment.

Empowerment as connected to ICTs, in Huyer’s model, invokes a scale from the personal to the public; transcripts and interviews indicate that several forms of empowerment were experienced (and valued) by participants in the AIR project, which consisted of: (1) empowerment through participation in mwethia, (2) political empowerment, (3) familial empowerment, (4) empowerment through religion, (5) empowerment through education, (6) personal empowerment, and (7) psycho-social empowerment. By identifying the areas where women locate centers of empowerment, the power structures in the community have become more evident, and opportunities for future interventions, as well as potential tensions between types of empowerment, have become more apparent. Of these seven forms of empowerment, only a few have a direct link with the DVRs or community radio, supporting Huyer’s argument that well-planned ICTs can positively affect women’s development. The other forms of empowerment have an indirect link – they already existed, but are highlighted and brought into the public space by the ICT. Examples of these discourses of empowerment are listed below, demonstrated with short examples from the transcripts.6

Empowerment through Participation – Mwethia Membership

An individual’s sense of empowerment through women’s unity and participation in mwethia membership is in some ways a meta-empowerment strategy, as it includes elements of socioeconomic empowerment – increased wealth, public visibility, increased personal and familial status, psychological support, and education. These factors underlie both the importance of joining a mwethia, and the important roles mwethia play in the community – it is through mwethia membership that their status increases (Sterling, 2009). While the AIR project provided an avenue for women’s voices to be heard, women have found increased status in the community through mwethia membership for decades. Mwethia literally set the development charter of the community, through their agricultural and civil service activities (although it is unclear how many of these tasks and services are traditional and how many have a progressive social agenda). Aware of strength in numbers, individual women gain considerable power and status in the community when they become part of a collective (March and Taqqu, 1986; Mbilinyi, 1971). On-air interviews of mwethia members gave women the opportunity to reflect upon their community development achievements to the larger public. According to one participant – and repeated by many -- “This group is truly a development tool without comparison. I didn't have a goat before I joined the group. But now I have three goats. The merry-go-round7 helps us pay our school fees and buy household goods.”

Participation in mwethia, some of the women stated, was the only opportunity women have to positively contribute to community development, even if the work that the women do is not “respected” by men. These communities, like many others worldwide, have experienced significant disappointment by NGO and donor efforts which have not been sustained, as is reflected in several of the recordings. According to Radio Mang’elete, people in the community view mwethia membership with growing respect -- since the mwethia have been given air time, they must be important. This has resulted in some early shifts in gender and community relations -- mwethia members who have been featured on the radio claim that their social status has increased because people call them by name and associate them with important community tasks. Mwethia membership itself has increased with the introduction of the Women and Development program, which has publically reminded people of the role of mwethia in the community, and therefore given the mwethia more visibility as an institution. Perhaps women who are not mwethia members have realized the link between mwethia membership and the socioeconomic empowerment(s) that accompany membership.

Mwethia members recording a radio drama

Political Empowerment

Political empowerment is the understanding and participation in the political system, which includes the representation of women and their needs in informal and formal political processes. Political empowerment is related to legal empowerment – if women understand that they have rights (e.g., to land, education, and safety), they can act upon these rights, and challenge the status quo that keeps them under-developed relative to men. As in most African communities, it is the women – especially widows, divorcees and orphans -- who are marginalized in the legal process. The Women and Development program produced shows to discuss women’s traditional and legal rights, and interviewed women who either worked with gender-based NGOs, or were running for local office. The featured interview participants offered support for the political and social protection of widows, drawing attention to laws designed to protect widows from discrimination. Community members were discouraged from land-grabbing and otherwise abusing women of marginalized status. Inheritance and land rights are poorly understood in the community; snippets from interviews regarding rights provided both public education and admonishment:

I caution them to be very careful because the widow are protected by law and they have their court in Nairobi where (they) even can go for free where they are also attended for free”

We are saying let women come up and claim leadership in our country because having them in leadership will safeguard the unfortunate women in the community. For example a certain man had bought a plot and had not shown her wife and when he died her wife had no room to claim this plot and this is why we need human rights to cover windows and orphans, that they may have the rights to inherit everything left behind by their husbands and parents respectively… Most of women die a short while after their husband's death because of a lot stress from their family members who normally wants to take everything from her. To some extent they get HIV AIDS in negotiation (sex) of their husband's wealth from his relatives and former bosses as they use that way to seek their favors.”

During these interviewees, members stressed that each mwethia had the responsibility to discuss women’s rights, as well as utilize Radio Mang’elete to publicize (mis)information. According to one woman, “for example through this radio they can raise their worries and we will be in place to assist them through this program.” There is a promise that accompanies this responsibility, one that equates technology with development: “you will get the right help through listening to our radio which will help solving most of the problems faced by women.” However, while these programs demanded that women be afforded their rights, there was little discussion about gender equality between men and women. Those interviewed supported justice; they did not espouse equality as they defined it. This seemed to stem from a conceptual mismatch between local NGOs and international gender and development efforts. According to one mwethia and NGO leader,

The issue of rights of women in Kenya brought from Beijing8 was different. They went to Beijing to fight for their girls to be given chance to work but when they came back Kenya it was said that women are equal to men which brought a lot of differences in our country. Women are not equal to men because in the bible and Quran they implicates that Adam was first created, what we are fighting for is that our girls/women be given a chance to work.”

This is a critical point – the view that emerges here is that women’s empowerment encompasses rights and leadership capabilities, but not gender equality. According to the same woman who reported on Beijing, “there is no way that a woman will be the leader of the family even if she is learned…What we normally want is women to be given their rights and we want to maintain peace in our families but we do not want leadership.” Laws keeping women safe are important, as are conflict-reducing strategies; gender parity in a Western sense is not. This is explored more in the next section on empowerment in the domestic sphere.

Familial Empowerment

Familial empowerment is the power to make choices and exercise authority in the domestic space. Increased empowerment within the home and between women and men leads to the heightened status of women and their needs, including access to family holdings, and a voice in family economic matters and family planning. To this end, addressing unequal gender roles can start at home, which has the added benefit of providing a positive role model for children.

Several Women and Development programs discussed development within the context of the family and the home, although the definition of development in this context was elusive:

I started campaign of development while I was 20 years old… I have known that it is good to be developed. Let me advise my fellow ladies it is good to be developed. Advise your in-laws on the importance of development in the families. Teach them on how to cooperate with their husbands and children. Now I'm 50 years old and know development is worthy in the community”

Probing for definitions resulted in a somewhat circular and tautological answer, “development is development.” Nonetheless, several women interviewed agreed that development at home and between married couples was both a woman’s responsibility and a priority. From the transcripts, development within the domestic context points to the concept of the ideal woman. This invokes a struggle well-known to Western women – the expectation that women must be a model wife, mother and member of the community while not discounting their legal rights:

I want to tell the listeners that what we are taught about fighting for child and women rights is that, we know that some men deny their wives their rights and we urge them to know that they did not marry slaves and instead a helper given by God. Let no man be inhuman to women and above all, women on the other hand should respect their husbands.”

Good relationship in between a husband and a wife promotes development and this is brought by Godly behavior”

I would like you take your time and sit down with your husbands and you will be permitted to be attending developmental group meetings. You should also make sure you come back early to do your house chores.”

These perspectives offer a local, complex view of empowerment where religion, tradition, image and women’s rights appear to be in a tenuous balance. The implications of this potential divergence of development and empowerment discourses at global and local levels, and its implications for women in developing regions has not yet been fully explored.

Empowerment through Religion

Religious empowerment can offer women increased self-esteem, visibility in the community as a churchgoer or church leader, and opportunities to participate in an important community institution. While the “church as institution” is routinely described in the purview of Western development studies as an institution that subjugates women, the mwethia members interviewed held the church in high esteem, linking religious adherence with development. The concept of being “saved” in the eyes of the Church was thus considered a powerful signifier of development; it located women in a place of respect in the community. Throughout the Women and Development programs, mwethia leaders made references to being saved, and instructed others to follow suit. Being saved was considered to put people in good company – they became worthy in the eyes of not only the Church, but of mwethia leadership, drawing a link between the power and status of the church, and that of the mwethia head: “If you will humble yourself you will see what God will do for you. He will uplift your life and change family to be an institution of peace, love and harmony. If you have made your mind fully to get saved our chairlady will pray for you.”

While this may be connected with strands of Liberation Theology, this topic is not explored here, it presents an interesting avenue for future work, especially as a potentially positive link between religion and women’s empowerment has not been discussed in ICTD literature. In the local context, however, women discussed church and its connections to empowerment through increased status in the family and community, as: “The importance of a woman in the church is that, women are highly populated in the church and are also Pastresses.”

Empowerment through Education

Educate a woman, and you educate a nation” is a popular development axiom, and underlies the Millennium Development Goals, especially the three that directly concern women.9 Educational empowerment stresses literacy first, and then access to education and information, at both formal and informal levels. Educational empowerment has direct links to all other forms of empowerment – economic, socio-cultural, familial, political, personal, and psychological – much as a voice cannot be unheard, knowledge cannot be “unlearned,” but it can be acted upon for the betterment of women’s lives the world over. Education as empowerment was discussed during the Women and Development radio programs, although not to the degree of the other development discourses. It is unclear why this was the case – it could be a matter of programming direction; there is also a weekly educational program targeted at younger listeners that delivers health and job information. The topic of education was only raised in the context of mwethia educational needs: in addition to raising money for school fees and encouraging families to send their children to school. Literacy was rarely mentioned; one mwethia leader could not answer questions about the mwethia establishment, saying “because of my illiteracy, I can't recall the year but it's a long time ago. What I have is the certificate and I'll bring it to you so that you can know when it was formed.” While most of the older mwethia members are illiterate, younger members have a higher degree of literacy, and the most educated member of the mwethia is usually appointed as the group secretary in order to maintain mwethia records.

Mwethia members pointed out that a lack of general business knowledge was seen as an impediment to development and mwethia well-being. Members blamed illiteracy and poor organizational skills for mwethia mismanagement, and presented ideas for creating capacity building programs in major towns. The AIR project and the radio station play a direct role in education as they provide the infrastructure and venue for educational content – mwethia members mentioned that they planned to use the AIR system to demand radio content on skills building and literacy.

Personal Empowerment

Personal empowerment pertains to self-esteem and agency, or the act of being able to take responsibility and control for oneself. One of Huyer’s main arguments relating to gender, technology and empowerment is the concept of agency as the ability to act upon information (Huyer, 2006). Empowerment in this context represents development through personal choice and action. Mwethia members gave many examples of engaging in direct action based upon radio information; this further supports community radio as a powerful information and communication means. They cited “actionable” examples of programming content, including the Women and Development program, health information and domestic violence prevention information, as well as information about a poisoned maize scare that was contained due to Radio Mang’elete’s broadcasts regarding the potential danger.

While the mwethia are proud of having started Radio Mang’elete in the first place, the introduction of the AIR system has provided a mechanism by which women can act directly on information by creating it:

Right now we have a program that we are recording so that we can reach the other groups within this region and educate them about planting trees. We are meeting soon to decide on what will go in to the program. We also want to discuss farming in another program. We plan to set up an appointment with the radio staff such that they visit us periodically and record our programs.”

In fact, there is a very big change because nowadays women have freedom to expose their feelings through this station and now we have few cases about family violence.”

In subsequent post-recording interviews, women stated repeatedly that they had valuable information to share and that they wanted to be heard, and identified by name and voice, by the larger community. Initial concerns about the anonymity and discoverability of participants, while not entirely abated, were lessened by reassurance from women participants that “our time has come for us to be recognized;” it is the technology that makes this a possibility.

Psychosocial Empowerment

Acting upon, and producing information, may produce a positive psychosocial empowerment effect – the recognition of one’s ability and agency. Post-recording interviews demonstrate the positive connection between creating content, having a voice and being heard, and heightened self-image. These interviews also gauged public reaction to women’s voices, which was again a net positive experience. An interesting example of psychosocial empowerment developed during the AIR system deployment, suggesting a deeper relationship between voice, power, and space. While one of the premises of this research was that broadcasting women’s voices would lead to women’s increased empowerment and stature in the community, this premise did not anticipate the empowerment “spike” that resulted from the DVR trainings. In order to “pass” the training, women were required to demonstrate proficiency in recording themselves and playing back their recordings. The first experiences with playback were remarkable – women heard their voices publically for the first time. Without a radio audience, women continued to play back the recordings they made, stating over and over, “That’s me. I have a voice.” This was a powerful recognition of will and ability; it was proof to the women that voice is power. It was the interaction with the technology, and not the anticipation of being broadcast, that had a profound psychological effect on the women.

The societal and development inequalities that women discussed in the Women and Development programs – land rights, alcoholism, finances, treatment of widows, HIV/AIDS, sexism – led to the creation of the radio “debate” program, in which both men and women debated topics of immediate local concern. To date, two such programs have aired. One program debated the merits of traditional punishments for marital fidelity; one group, a balanced mix of the men and women, supported the time-honored but severe punishments, the other group made various arguments to demonstrate that “mbingo” was outdated, humiliating, and caused additional social problems. The other program discussed the growing phenomenon of younger men – married or single – having sex with older women, married or widowed. Mwethia members expressed very different viewpoints, from condoning the practice as a way to curtail the spread of HIV/AIDS and to decrying the practice as an act of irresponsibility and even witchcraft. Each program resulted in more than fifty mobile calls and SMS messages to the station, and at least two dozen letters, which far exceeded station expectations given the taboo nature of the subject.

The creation and acceptance of this new radio program supports the argument that the airwaves can represent a safe and respected place for such discourse, which can potentially lead to changes within the physical reality of the community. The debate program also demonstrates the plurality of voices that is a hallmark of feminist post-structural theory, and highlights the complexity of social issues within any given community. While topics related to gender, sexuality, equality and modernity were (and still are) considered marginal and private prior to the AIR intervention, this program demonstrates that, given a useful technology and community creativity, the community will develop new and alternative routes to address problems. By creating new programs and opportunities for advancement, the community is not only engaged in this research, they are charting its future course. It also demonstrates that language/space on air can lead to both perceptions of self-empowerment; and interesting implications for the opening up of spaces to and for men and women to examine more closely the implications of changes in gender relations in the community. Not enough data is available on this at this time to make any conclusive argument, but ongoing follow-up work on the reactions of men in the community may provide some answers.


Four years into the AIR project, qualitative and quantitative data has demonstrated that women are not only willing to produce radio content via ICT, but interested in talking out and talking back. This issues a challenge to the audience, as the airwaves take on an entirely new sound – that of women’s myriad voices and perspectives. Through the lenses of GAD, feminist post-structuralism and PAR, the AIR project has demonstrated that technology can shape and increase women’s presence and sense of empowerment at a variety of scales, from the personal to the public.

To date, the AIR project has confirmed that women are willing to discuss the marginal issues that stem from underdevelopment – HIV/AIDS, prostitution, witchcraft, migration, education – and are proactive about putting their voices and names on the airwaves, in part because community radio is seen as the “place for development” – Radio Mang’elete’s motto. The women who participated in the project wanted to partake in information exchange, especially when given the opportunity to offer advice or to demonstrate their expertise to other women. While future longitudinal studies will investigate the degree to which people learn and act upon the information in this new radio programming, interest in participation in the programs has continued to grow over the last ten months. Interview data suggests that women’s sense of self-esteem and visibility increased after being featured on the radio discussing subject matter that they know. However, men interviewed had a somewhat different perspective on women’s increased public presence.

The men noted that women should be allowed to advise other women, but did not comment on the quality of information on the new talk shows. Instead, men observed that the programs gave women a place to talk about topics that they cannot discuss at home, given existing gender and cultural dynamics. The radio, men said, gave women a place to have a voice in a respected public venue, implying that the rules are different in “radio space.” By opening an avenue for content creation, AIR has offered women another way to act upon information – by creating and presenting it, thus taking up space on the radio programming schedule. This space represents prime virtual real estate; radios are ubiquitous, and nearly every radio in the community is tuned to FM 89.1. Radio Mang’elete in this way represents a place for equality in participation which can lead to social transformation. This may do more to advance the status of women in the community than information exchange only: Audiences can actively listen, passively listen, try to ignore, or turn the radio off – but for two hours every week, women inhabit and own the airwaves.


1The Kamba are the fourth largest tribe in Kenya, who mostly inhabit the Southeast area of Kenya. Even with a large population, the Kamba have remained primarily marginalized in terms of economic and political development. Their language is KiKamba. This information is primarily taken from http://www.bluegecko.org/kenya/tribes/kamba/

2See AMARC: http://www.amarc.org/index.php?p=What_is_Community_radio?&l=EN

3The Advancement through Interactive Radio project was in part funded by Microsoft Research under a Digital Inclusion grant, as well as private funding through philanthropic organizations.

4While this research discusses women and development in the context of empowerment, the term advancement is used to comprise the AIR acronym, which reflects the terminology employed by the UN Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW) and UN International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (UN-INSTRAW).

5GAD and PAR are closely linked to the point that many GAD initiatives are also PAR initiatives – web searches reveal that many descriptions of GAD projects claim to use participatory action research methods. Gujit and Shah call on PAR practitioners to include a gender perspective; Cornwall and Jewkes claim that GAD is necessary in PAR projects in “identifying strategies for amplifying voice and access to decision making of those who tend to be marginalized or excluded by mainstream development initiatives” (Cornwall and Jewkes, 1995; Gujit and Shah, 1998). PAR and feminist post-structuralism may seem less closely related given that one appears quite practice-oriented while the other, more academic. Several PAR researchers have made the argument that the two can and should inform and advance each other because both feminism and PAR are concerned with underlying relations of power and ethics in social transformation, and they often share epistemological and political principles (Cornwall, 2003; Greenwood & Levin, 1998).

6The entire corpus of transcripts and empowerment examples is available in an extended format in Broadcasting Women: the Advancement through Interactive Radio project. (Sterling, 2009).

7Refers to microfinance programs where group members contribute in order to cyclically benefit.

8The United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, 1995, often called the Beijing Declaration. (http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/instree/e5dplw.htm)

9Goal 2: Achieve universal primary education; Goal 3: Promote gender equality and empower women; and Goal 5: Improve maternal health.

The Journal of Community Informatics. ISSN: 1712-4441