Rewiring the World

Technology Sparks Debate at Beijing+5

A west African woman in traditional headdress embraces a businessman from an American technology company backing female entrepreneurs in Cameroon. An Arab activist wonders aloud how women in Iran can get access to the internet under a fundamentalist regime that considers women's use of bicycles suspect.

These scenes from the United Nations' Beijing+5 conference on women last week signal feminists' growing, if reluctant, attention to the technological revolution. Five years ago, at the women's conference in Beijing, technology didn't make the agenda. This time around, informal panel discussions, organized by groups like the Association for Women in Science, drew modest crowds.

"I am hoping we've raised these issues to a level so that in 2005 there will be a separate area of concern for science and technology," says Catherine Didion, director of AWIS. "But we are not waiting five years. Women have a window of maybe two or three years to secure a place in this revolution. The challenge is that there are some women who aren't that comfortable with technology, and now they have to put out a cry. That's a hard sell."

This conference began the job of convincing them, offering discussions that ranged from women's role in the new economy to ways technology can help the world's poorest women get small bank loans. The common question: How can women take advantage of technology?

The answers were as diverse as the countries. Farmers in East Africa use village computer centers to check the price of tomatoes in the city, avoiding unfair markups from the middlemen who drive the produce into town. Rural basket weavers in India are using the Web to develop a North American market.

Private-sector investment will be key in getting women hooked into the new economy. Cameron Chell, CEO of chell.com, announced Wednesday that he's donated $40,000 to an association for the support of female entrepreneurs in West Africa. Chell says he is using this relationship as a case study, hoping to prove that investing in Internet access for the millions of potential users in Africa is profitable.

Marilyn Carr, of the UN Development Fund for Women, says these private-public collaborations must be part of the solution, especially in poor countries. Carr says the best way to make new technology affordable in the third world is to make it popular in rich places like North America. As solar panels come into vogue on the West Coast, prices drop, and villages in the third world benefit. Next, she says, handheld water filters should be marketed to wealthy sailboat racers so islanders in Fiji can get healthy drinking water.

Carr says women need to play a part in shaping the gadgets and software of the future. These discussions were a start, she says, since it's essential that women strategize and gain access to technology, though this game of catch-up isn't enough.

Shirley Malcolm, director of the education and human resources programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, agrees. "What's inside these panels? Are they talking about the use of tools or the design of tools? . . . We torque our own needs to whatever construct is available, as opposed to demanding it be different or, as female engineers, making it different."

The U.S. ambassador to the UN, Richard Holbrooke, reminded a half-filled auditorium that when new agricultural technologies were introduced in the third world, 95 percent of the benefits were reaped by men. "Don't kid yourselves," he said. "The new technologies are an opportunity, but they are also a threat. What happened to rural women may happen again."

Gracia Hillman, president and CEO of Worldspace Foundation, a nonprofit bringing technology to developing nations, says women are more savvy about technology than they were five years ago, at the first conference. Still, she argues, the women's movement must balance this emphasis on access to technology with a strategy to get women in positions of power as innovators.

"I think the biggest digital divide is, Who are the people doing the creating and the programming?" she says. "That's huge and must be addressed."


ADDITIONAL VOICE COVERAGE OF THE BEIJING+5 CONFERENCE:

Beating the Backlash by Jennifer Gonnerman
A U.S. Negotiator Details the Fight to Expand Feminist Gains at the UN's Special Session on Women

Going After Globalization by Lenora Todaro
Feminists Trade Strategies for a Woman-Friendly World Economy

A Girl's World by Sharon Lerner
Young Tackle Issues From Playing Fields To Sexual Atrocities

Worldwide Women by Jennifer Gonnerman
Beijing+5 Looks at the Global State of Women’s Rights

 
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