Will technology propagate or curb violence against women? [Archives:2005/818/Community]

February 21 2005

For the Yemen Times
In recent years, new information technologies like the internet have emerged as a major medium of spreading notions of masculinity and 'manliness'.

And these notions so deeply connected to the display of sexual power over women, including through, for example, multiple partners to demonstrate virility. Even if we ignore the pornographic material on internet and look and generally at the kind of messages that are being communicated through information technologies, there's a huge amount of subtle material that stress aggressiveness and dominance and lack of responsibility in sexual relationships as 'manly' qualities or traits.

But the use of information technology (IT), especially the internet, is disseminating messages of pervert sexuality, homosexuality and violent sex with women and children, bestiality and so on.

In many parts of the world, for example in India, it is not uncommon to find a load of flesh when you click on a webpage saved on the desktop in an internet cafe. I have come across websites that explicitly promote rape and encourage sexual violence against children.

The messages and sites are not general. They are targeted at men. What the internet has done is made these messages and sites easily accessible to anyone who could afford to pay YR 10-15 per hour, a price far cheaper than a pornographic magazine or a book.

In addition, the video and webcam images offer much more perverse excitement. The cost effectiveness of this medium in disseminating violent sexual messages and images and its easy access are the kind of challenges that are extremely hard to meet.

Image trafficking

Issues like trafficking in women have acquired a worse dimension. Now along with the trafficking of women in person, we have to deal with trafficking in images – usually taken under force and through violence.

Among other main challenges to moving forward on gender equality ending VAW are deeply entrenched negative attitudes and stereotypes about women, which are institutionalized in the various systems. This makes it extremely difficult to engage in preventing and countering the messages of violence against women and sexual violence against children in equal proportion and with more intensity.

Breaking down the barrier created by the decision makers or power holders in the IT business, who put business before ethics and rights of women, and disadvantages that anti-VAW activists face in one way or another, requires tackling deeply entrenched values, norms and attitudes that work against women.

It also requires changes in national and international IT policies. These policies are more or less gender neutral and have so far treated IT only as a medium of business and education. It has also heightened the challenges in increasing women's access and participation in expression and decision making in IT. It is no longer just a matter of women's numerical equality in communication and representation of women's basic needs and their solutions. There's a need to broaden and redefine advocacy related to gender and IT to address violence against women through IT.

Traditionally, communication has been an extremely sensitive and critical for advocacy and action against violence against women. However, male monopoly over access and technical training, gendered segregation of ITT jobs, language of ITT education, training and services, etc have practically kept women out from decision-making and wide-scale use.

This implies that the anti-violence-against-women advocates remain at the mercy of the power holders despite a boom in IT which has space to address women's concerns, new manifestations of violence, and to promote women's rights. As a result, at the mass advocacy level, grassroots activists have not been able maximize their advocacy efforts through the use of new ITs.

Transnational advocates and advocates backed by institutions have been more successful in using IT. And a significant aspect of this engagement is that new ITs have provided a space for researchers, activists and policy makers to exchange understanding, information, experiences and approaches. Anti-violence researchers have also used new ITs extensively and engaged in collaborative research. Similarly, gender and development professional working with international NGOs and other institutions have widely used ITs for cross-sectoral integration of anti-violence efforts.

IT to end violence

There's no choice but to look at ICTs as one of mediums to end VAW. New ITs are being used by activists and women's organizations to promote their initiatives, forge linkages, build networks and exchange information.

Perhaps it is not possible to use IT in equal measure to counter violence against women being inflicted through IT, but ITs must be used as a critical tool in fostering awareness and action on such violence.

Such usage of IT must be supported by advocacy for policies that recognize and address challenges arising from IT as a tool to perpetrate violence against women. This kind of engagement today may create a situation when violence coming through ITs could be prevented.

What also need to be emphasized is that violence communication and information sharing through IT should strive to be more inclusive and representative. Roles of men in ending violence, promotion of men's groups who are challenging stereotypes and addressing men's roles and responsibilities in sexual relationships, positive sexuality, sexual rights, sexuality education, etc are some of the issues having a strong link to violence against women which need to be taken up through new ITs.