The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook available for purchase as a paperback & an ebook from Energize, Inc.  

 Updated November 16, 2016

Women's Access to Public Internet Centers
in Transitional and Developing Countries

Public access to the Internet is still necessary even in countries where home Internet access or smart phone access is the norm. Public access points can be commercial Internet cafes, wireless access at a coffee shop, a community Internet center / community technology center / community telecenter operated as or by a nonprofit organization, a community multimedia center (or centre), or a bank of computers with Internet access at a public library.

At its most basic, such a public access point offers at least a single computer with Internet access. At its most developed, it also offers a full range of multimedia facilities, which, as described by UNESCO, means the center is "functioning as a distance learning, training and informal education center, linking up to the local hospital for telemedicine applications, down-loading and printing national newspapers for local circulation and so forth."

But many women and girls cannot or may not access public Internet points. Home and family obligations, lack of transportation, low-literacy and perceived lack of value of technology keep many women and girls from accessing public Internet access points. There's also another factor that is rarely talked about that keeps women and girls away from public Internet access points: in developing countries in particular, many of these public access points can be male-dominated, with mostly male users and few -- or no -- female users, and for many women, particularly women in developing countries, this makes the public access point off-limits to them. It's off-limits because

D.Net (Development Research Network), a non-profit organization that focuses on technology for economic development in Bangladesh, found that cultural factors in Bangladesh played a bigger role in whether or not a girl attended computer literacy classes than lack of money or resources. Girls were often denied the chance to participate in computer training because it is considered socially inappropriate in Bangladesh, in part because the classes were held after school when it was dark out, but also due to entrenched community attitudes that encourage computer and internet use among boys but not girls. D.Net was able to build better opportunities for girls to access the classes through direct consultation with mothers, female teachers, and the girls themselves).

Women farmers in a rural area of Peru were reluctant to use computers and the internet from a nearby telecenter because they thought they were just for children, no one had told them how they could use them to help their farming be more successful and because there are security issues for women to use public transport to get to the centers. The Association for Progressive Communication has found that women over the age of 35 are often times considered “too old” by younger people and men to use ICTs and learn about computer technology.

In Afghanistan, women and girls are denied Internet access for a variety of cultural reasons. It means even educated women and girls from economically-stable families may be denied by access to the Internet for professional development, educational needs and health care information. Even if she has Internet access at home, she may have to wait until all of the men of the home are done with such - and is denied opportunities community Internet centers can bring (classes, mentoring and learning from peers). I mentor Afghan women in Kabul via the Internet, and I hear about these circumstances first hand, and I saw it first hand when I was in Kabul for six months in 2007).

Back in August 2003, I had the pleasure of co-hosting an online discussion at TechSoup regarding Gender and the Digital Divide with Latifat Kadir, who lives in Lagos, Nigeria - we hosted the online discussion as online volunteers (virtual volunteering!). The event included a discussion regarding the barriers that keep women and girls away from computer and Internet-related classes and community technology centers (telecenters, Internet cafes, etc.). Latifat and other women shared their stories of cultural barriers that kept them from using public Internet access points. It's interesting to note that, in the years since the original discussion a few men have posted to deny there are any barriers to women using the Internet, including in developing and transitional countries. Obviously, much more education is needed.

Developing/transitional countries need women-only public Internet access points. Or at least women-only hours at such points. Women-only centers -- or centers that have women-only hours -- would need to provide:

In many communities, it would be necessary to have local religious figures and other local male leaders to visit the center and affirm publicly that it is appropriate for women and girls to use the center unaccompanied by a male relative. Keeping these leaders informed about results the women-only programs are achieving is vital to maintain their support.

I wish I was in a position to make such a program happen myself in at least Kabul. Until then, I'll keep collecting information that might be helpful to a person or organization interested in undertaking such venture, in Afghanistan or elsewhere. Here's what information I have gathered so far:

These programs provide examples of how such women-only centers/programs operate (I do not have any further information about these centers other than what I'm linking to below):
  This is me at the UNDP Community Technology Center (CTC) in Luxor, Egypt, with the center's manager in April 2003. I was on vacation, but that never stops me from dropping in on UNDP projects I find whilst on vacation. It was great to show her my UNDP business card and to see her face light up - I was immediately welcomed like an old friend!

This is (was?) not a women-only center, and the manager was usually the only woman in the center; few women used the center. The day I visited, she was just closing for the day, and I walked around with her to shut the computers down after the patrons had left. Sad to say that the men leaving the center had left most of the computers on web pages with women in various stages of undress. It was my moment-of-realization about what women face in trying to use public Internet access points in many countries.

Thanks to the students in DTC 475 Digital Diversity, taught by Kathi Rick, at Washington State University Vancouver, for being the first to read this web page!

Read more about my own women-focused/gender-inclusive work

Empowering Women Everywhere - Essential to Development Success, a list of research and articles that confirm that empowering women is essential to development success and highlight the very particular challenges to women's access to education, health care, safety and economic prosperity.


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