United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women

Online discussion
"Information and communication technologies
and their impact on and use as an instrument
for the advancement and empowerment of women"

17 June to 19 July 2002

Week One Summary

"ICT as a tool for women's economic empowerment"

This week's topic, ICT as a tool for women's economic empowerment, led to a vibrant discussion. Nineteen contributions were received from around the world (Asia, Africa, South and Central America, the Caribbean and Europe) and from a range of participants including NGO workers, students, technology experts, activists and others. Despite the diversity of the discussants it is possible to draw some conclusions.

Taken as a whole, the contributions from this week's discussion provided analysis of and answers to three major questions:
1) What are the obstacles to using ICTs to economically empower women?
2) What are the ways in which ICTs have improved women's economic lives? and
3) What are some strategies that can be implemented to ensure that ICTs improve women's economic conditions.


There are multiple challenges to ICTs becoming a positive force for women's economic empowerment. Few participants directly referred to expense as a barrier. Financial resources are only one of many resources needed to make ICTs available and effective. Challenges include:

  • The large percentage of women in developing countries who work in the informal sector;
  • The lack of support for women working in the formal sector;
  • The lack of infrastructure in developing countries for conducting e-commerce.

    The obstacles addressed above comprised a substantial part of the discussion. However, there was also some reference to:

  • The lack of gendered access to ICTs and ICT training - especially for rural women;
  • A lack of awareness of women to the benefits of ICTs
  • Language barriers to the use of ICTs for non-native speakers of English.

    Although this week's discussants focused on both the formal and informal sectors of economies, throughout the week there was a keen interest in discussing the ICT needs of rural and informal sector women. The first post received in the conference effectively stated the general sentiment:

    …the area where women's economic activities are most concentrated in developing countries is in the informal economy- women working at home on handicrafts and sewing or rolling cigarettes, working in cities as street vendors, - working without any contracts or benefits. In some developing countries ninety percent of economically- active women are in the informal economy. How can ICT empower women in the informal economy? If ICT is to make a difference in alleviating poverty and improving the well-being of women and their families, it seems to me that this is the crucial area for concentration.

    Nancy Hafkin, USA

    The following discussant listed the reasons why informal sector participation makes ICT delivery challenging:

    The whole question of using ICT in the informal sector is a tough one -- there are issues of access, delivery of information, training, local language and content among others. In Pakistan, and other Islamic countries, the issues are exacerbated by the socio-cultural context. However, these are all issues that have been overcome in one way or another, and so represent challenges rather than absolute impediments.

    Linda Jones, Canada

    There exist particular difficulties in trying to use ICTs for informal sector women in developing countries. The infrastructure necessary for conducting e-commerce simply does not exist in most of the developing world.

    Currently 85% of the world's e-commerce websites are US-based with Western Europe and Asia making up the rest. This means that global e-commerce policies may not be appropriate for developing countries… Few developing countries have frameworks in ICTs. E-commerce activities may not be appropriate for local communities to promote inter regional trade within Africa. How many of our people possess Visa cards etc. to be able to buy on the internet? Most organizations that run web-e-commerce trade internationally. We need to develop ways that promote regional trade. In some developing countries it is very difficult to open Foreign Currency Accounts. There arises a need to have a clearing house/broker to facilitate the process.

    Margaret Zunguze, Zimbabwe


    Many posts observed that ICTs have improved the economic status of women in some areas. Advances observed by conference participants include:

  • An increased ability for women to work from home;
  • Improved employment opportunities for women in the ballooning IT sector;
  • Increased ability of informal sector women to shift to the formal sector;
  • Improved global market access for craftswomen through e-commerce;
  • Transformation of traditional gender roles;
  • Improved access of women, especially rural women, to distance learning and distance work programs;
  • Improved ability for the sharing of experiences among women's organisations concerned with the economic well being of women in the informal sector; and
  • Increased ability to avoid gender bias by having a gender-opaque medium.

    Once again the focus from contributors was on women in the informal sector. Both the ability of ICT to produce economic benefit for informal sector women, and to facilitate the shift of women from the informal to the formal sector, were seen as highly positive by the respondents.

    I work in the Niger Delta region in Nigeria. Women's economic power has been greatly enhanced by the acquisition of ICT skills. This has enabled many women to gain employment into establishments such as the banks, corporate organizations, computer services, data entry and statistics, internet services providers and many others. Womenlight organization, an NGO that works with female sex workers has turned out about 30 young women between January and now on computer skills and they are all gainfully and self employed.

    Emem Okon, Nigeria

    I have seen a lot of women advance from being just simple typist to consultants and IT skills trainers through the power of the modern PC. Many employers are realizing the potential of their employees ( especially women whose education was affected from lack of funds or early pregnancies that forced them to settle for less) through the use of computers.

    Elgiva Nyahoza-Sibisi, Swaziland

    One of the correspondents described a gender-related benefit of ICTs in the following post:

    ICT (can) provide (a woman with) the possibility to present herself as a company, rather than an individual person, to have the chance to offer quality services without having to go through the filters of personal appraisals.

    Margarita Salas, Costa Rica


    The recommendations generated during this week's discussion fall into three major categories. Based on the views of the conference participants, in order for ICTs to contribute to women's economic empowerment, strategic actions must address:

  • The needs of informal sector women
  • The needs of rural women and
  • The need for relevant policy.

    The recommendations that focus on the informal sector include:

  • The provision of improved ICT access for women in the informal sector;
  • The training of women in the use of ICTs for record keeping;
  • The linking of ICT organisations with Women's Rights organisations
  • The development of channels to allow foreign exchange trade for informal sector women
  • The use of ICTs to provide product, pricing and market information (Linda Jones, Canada.) for informal sector women.

    Strategic actions suggested to address the needs of rural women include:

  • The establishment of rural ICT centers;
  • The improvement of ICT access to support business linkages
  • The provision of improved e-mail access for rural women;
  • The use of ICTs to create markets for the products and services of rural women;
  • The initiation of well-supported rural ICT projects geared to women.

    The belief of several correspondents is that for a rural project to stand a good chance of success, the comprehensive needs of the targeted women should be met. The following post describes such a gender-sensitive, holistic project:

    (My organisation is) currently working in war affected, rural areas of the country. We started with purchase of the equipment, basic computing training that is added to the on site education for women (potential) entrepreneurs (provided by one women's organisation). Idea is to provide support in terms of advertising and reaching even remote markets and teach about e-commerce. We engage international consultants and appreciate share of experiences and case presentations. Legal advice related to the small business can be also provided online.

    Danijela Babic, Croatia

    And finally, several posts urged the development of engendered ICT policy to address the economic empowerment of women. Correspondents suggest:

  • That national ICT policies are developed;
  • That these ICT policies be engendered;
  • That policy is developed to encourage regional ICT trade
  • That policy is developed to familiarize girls with ICTs
  • That policy makers in the ICT arena work closely with policy makers in women's affairs

    One contributor expressed her policy recommendations in the following post:

    I hope these discussions will facilitate policy framework development in the participating countries. Zimbabwe is developing its policies through the Ministry of Industry and Commerce. (A)s a result of discussions of this gender-caucus, we will ensure that gender concerns are incorporated at the local level.

    Margaret Zunguze, Zimbabwe

    Thanks go out to all who participated in the first week of the DAW online conference, those who read and those who posted. It is clear from your thoughtful posts that you are deeply committed to your work. A special thanks is due to non-native speakers of English for their participation.

    The effectiveness of this summary would have been diminished by excessive length. Many posts that I wanted to include had to be excluded. However, these contributions will be included in the final report. Thanks to those whose posts I have edited and used here. Please contact me if you have any concerns. Remember that you can continue to post on last week's topic at any time. Many questions that were raised have not been answered. The substance of later posts will be included in the recommendations for the Expert Group Meeting.

    Gillian Marcelle

    Go to summaries for week: One , Two , Three , Four
    Back to online discussion main page

  • Division for the Advancement of Women -- DAW

    Website: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/
    Department of Economic and Social Affairs
    United Nations