BLOG POST: Women, technology and empowerment – Laura Hakimi

LauraThe Learning and New Technologies Research Group has just (17/1/14) hosted a presentation by Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. Dr Mlambo-Ngcuka is currently United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, following a distinguished career as an educator and a politician. Having recently received a doctorate from the University of Warwick, she came all the way from New York to Oxford to speak about her own research, and to talk about the work of UN Women. Her research explores ways of using technologies in South Africa to enhance educational opportunity.  With a specific focus on supporting teachers to establish collaborative networks and communities of practice, her study examined wider uses of ICTs through the formation of peer networks, as well as supporting the learning of school students in relation to their own studies.

It is really inspiring to listen to a speaker with such experience, passion and commitment, not only to her own research, but to the empowerment of women across the world. It is also a sobering reminder that, in many communities, women remain disproportionately affected by poverty, exploitation and violence. Gender discrimination means women often end up in insecure, low-wage jobs, and constitute a small minority of those in senior positions. It also curtails access to economic assets such as land and loans. It limits participation in shaping economic and social policies. And, because women perform the bulk of household work, they often have little time left to pursue economic opportunities.

There is a strong belief from the UN and across international organisations that technology has the potential to provide opportunities for the empowerment of women. Such empowering activities might include access to information, education, employment or political engagement. The proliferation of readily available and relatively affordable mobile phones across marginalised communities has placed device at the forefront of many encouraging initiatives: UN Women, UNICEF and UN-Habitat have together launched an online website which also works as a smartphone app to bring together information on support services for women and girls who are survivors of violence. Online and mobile banking services allow women to access affordable and secure banking services, which can increase their financial capability and independence. Mobile technologies have provided women and girls with access to healthcare information and expanded training for rural healthcare professionals. Crucially, a range of initiatives have worked to address low levels of literacy amongst women.

Yet, as I saw in my own fieldwork in a disadvantaged area of Mumbai, women are less likely to own a mobile phone and are less likely to know how to (or be free to) use it effectively to their own advantage. Indeed, ITU estimates that there are 200 million fewer women than men with access to the Internet worldwide (ITU 2013).

And it is more than an issue of equality of access to appropriate digital resources. With access there must be training for girls and women to help them understand and effectively use technology to their advantage, combined with efforts to challenge discriminatory attitudes towards women’s use of technology.

The University of Oxford is well-placed to bring together relevant expertise from a range of disciplines: in developing appropriate technological solutions to well-understood problems; and in working to sensitively trial and rigorously evaluate initiatives. I know many of us are working on research that employs technology to pursue international development goals. Dr Mlambo-Ngcuka reminds us that it will only be in collaboration that we can achieve accessible sustainable innovations to support women’s empowerment through technology. We see Dr Mlambo-Ngcuka’s visit as just the beginning of such a dialogue, and we intend to develop further connections with those working in related fields across the University in the coming months.

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