Anita Gurumurthy
Amrita Vasudevan
Nandini Chami
Publication Date
September 1, 2017

From IT for Change, this paper highlights the failure by states to incorporate a gender dimension in connectivity, the entrenchment of the gender digital divide, and the pervasiveness of gender-based violence (GBV) and its negative impact on women's participation online. IT for Change was invited by the Global Alliance on Media and Gender (GAMAG) to develop this position paper for the 62nd session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW62), March 12 to 23 2018. The theme for CSW62 is 'Participation in and access of women to the media, and information and communications technologies and their impact on and use as an instrument for the advancement and empowerment of women'.

Using the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Tunis commitment towards full participation of women in the information society, IT for Change undertook an analysis of the changing landscape of the media. They observe that transnational social media and digital corporations like Facebook, Twitter, and Google enjoy a monopolistic concentration of power that is evidenced across sectors and that their adoption of algorithmic decision making has diminished media plurality. (Just as they do with targeted advertisements, digital corporations use algorithms to push hyper-personalised news results to users. News about socially underrepresented groups are unlikely to trend, and news that reflects the realities of marginalised women will hardly ever go viral and become mainstream.) Furthermore, IT for Change argues that, by monitoring user activity online and analysing their data trails, digital corporations violate people's right to personal autonomy and bodily integrity. For instance, through algorithmic analysis Facebook can ascertain to a great degree of accuracy users' gender, race, and sexuality.

The organisation contends that networks and individuals who want to highlight feminist issues through the media have to no choice but to play by the rules of these digital corporations. This, however, is no guarantee that these issues will make it to the headlines. All the while, digital corporations enjoy the freedom of not having to comply with any editorial standards. Powerful digital corporations make the argument that they are passive intermediaries, but IT for Change is concerned that decisions taken by these "platforms" can end up hurting women's online freedoms of association, expression, and access to information. Facebook, for example, pulled down the page of an organisation that provided information on how abortion pills can be accessed in countries where such access is restricted on the premise that the page promoted drug use, in spite of evidence that the information followed the protocols of the World Health Organization.

Section 2 examines GBV online, describing it as of a pervasive nature and lamenting the poor track record of digital companies in tackling online GBV, opaque policies around it, and immunity from the law.

The focus of Section 3 is on state surveillance and self-censorship. For example, there have been instances of governments tapping into electronic communication of individuals to apprehend the work of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and gender rights activists. In a surveillance regime, it is entirely plausible that fear of being "found out" might prevent women and gender and sexual minorities from seeking out crucial SRHR material.

In Section 4, on digital regimes of intellectual property and the enclosure of knowledge, the authors assert: "The way copyright law is presently formulated perpetuates the ownership of creative resources by men, sustaining unequal economic relations between men and women. For example, copyright's impact in terms of depleting resources of public libraries directly impacts women who depend on public libraries to access information."

They then describe a persistent gender gap in access to digital communication architecture, pointing to the "systemic exclusion of women from the information society." Among the barriers to women's meaningful use of technology: cyber-based gendered violence, lack of textual literacy, social monitoring of access and use of technology, wage gap, dearth of relevant content in local languages, gendered division of labour, and time burdens.

The final section presents a series of recommendations: for CSW62 follow-up action at the global level, for CSW62 follow-up action at the level of national governments, and for women's rights organisations. The latter involve urging civil society actors working in the space of women’s rights, digital rights, and media freedoms to:

  • "Combine forces to highlight and resist the unjust actions of powerful transnational corporations and state excesses in the digital media space...
  • Become news creators and build dedicated audiences. Diversity in, and the localisation of, news from a feminist perspective can be achieved only through bottom-up networking and network building...
  • Carry out research. Global to local research on the rapidly changing media landscape is vital. This must include evidence generation about women's varied use of the internet for expression, information access and networking, as well as industry structures and laws governing media.
  • Actively call for private sector accountability to human rights, including women's human rights....Women's groups must advocate for social media policies and terms of use that defer to the rule of law and to due processes of justice, demanding corporate transparency and accountability.
  • Be vigilant about enclosures of knowledge. The dominance of copyright in the information economy calls for active commitment of women's groups to open source software and informational resources. It also requires monitoring of global to local policy processes...Restrictions to the public domain in the name of safeguards against online piracy are bound to work against the interests of women..."

IT for Change's contribution will form a part of GAMAG's written statement before CSW62.


Communication for Development (C4D) Network, December 4 2017. Image credit: IT for Change via Facebook