A video and summary of the third #DevtIDEAS Debate: ICTs – technologies for oppression or liberation?

UPDATED POST: April 7, 2015, Originally published March 10, 2015

Women in the developing world have used Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) to fight for a more inclusive society. Yet, their efforts have repeatedly met strong resistance grounded on old social prejudices. Often, ICTs have been used to oppress, attack and even silence women, or simply to harass them perpetuating sexist social norms and practices, online and offline. In response, and unlocking their liberating potential, many organizations have used ICTs to come together, make gender-based violence more evident and to spur empowering grassroots and political responses to counter it. Ending gender-based violence is a big step toward a more equitable society and ICTs can help, and therefore:

Be it resolved, ICTs have the potential to change social norms and behaviours.

#DevtIDEAS Debate panellists discussed ICTs as tools of oppression and liberation, their role in helping women assert their rights in the digital age, and whether they have the potential to change social norms and behaviours.



March 31, 2015 13h00 UTC (15h00 Cairo, 13h00 London, 9h00 New York). Duration: 1 hour 15 minutes. Hosted as an interactive Google+ Hangout online.

Summary of the discussion

Following Bruce Currie-Alder’s welcome remarks, the moderator, Chaitali Sinha spoke of the timeliness of this Debate citing the 2013 UN Women global review which found that 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual violence from intimate partners and/or non-partners. The increasing prevalence of violence and the quest to find ways to end it using ICTs leads to the question at hand: are ICTs technologies for oppression or liberation?

Speaking from experiences on the ground — grassroots, research and policy-making levels — the three speakers discussed the challenges and opportunities afforded by ICTs for ending gender-based violence. The highlights below underscore the complexity of the issues.

ICTs can be tools of Oppression

  • Women don’t enjoy the same access to ICTs as men. And that skews the possibilities for participation for women.
  • The kind of openness that ICTs create increases the weight of dominant discourses to the exclusion of minority groups, such as LGBT, who may not wan to be seen.
  • There is a high incidence of gender-based violence, sexual harassment, and hate speech online, which is a continuum of what occurs offline. Anonymity provides cover to perpetrators.
  • Women are disproportionately affected by online and offline harassment when compared to other groups.
  • ICTs can lead to the normalization of violence. A study on tweets showed that 40% of them included the word rape. can be attributed to anonymous engagement.
  • Technological advances have enabled increased state surveillance of online activities under the guise of protecting society and restricting cyber-crime. Less room for online anonymous engagement. Blurs the lines between rights to privacy and censorship.
  • Increased control and policing of sexual speech and expressions — backslash that reflects life offline.
  • ICTs are not gender neutral, and it is a male dominated field. Women are underrepresented in the sector and their perspectives are not well included in the design and development of tools.
  • Some women have received threats for speaking up against misogyny (field and games) – their freedom of expression curtailed. They have had to flee their homes.

While there are drawbacks and challenges, many people are Finding liberation in ICTs

  • ICTs can be a catalyzer for exercising political freedom, for seizing economic opportunity, transparency of relations that enables women to make choices without interference consistent with Amartya Sen’s thinking.
  • Women have created new spaces to express themselves through blogs, social media and in the internet in general. Turning ICTs as a tool for correcting historical social exclusions of women’s voices from social discourse.
  • Thanks to ICTs, women are able to access more information that ever before, enabling to learn about their health, rights, politics, etc. Many women have become more political active with ICTs, making them believe that change is possible.
  • Women challenge the norms and proposing change. “Take back the tech” a campaign created to address research findings from research on the high incidence of cyberstalking and other forms of online violence.
  • Harassmap crashed in the early stages due to the high volume of women who wanted to report harassment and sexual assault. Women found that the map gave them a space to tell their stories free of retaliation and stigma. Work limited as organizations cannot provide support to the women who report assault because the reports as anonymous.

    On the corner of Mohammed Mahmud, I was raped. I wanted to practice my right as a citizen and be politically active and I was raped. I was raped simply because I am a woman who dared to be in a public space exercising her political rights. HarassMap Reports

In conclusion, ICTs have the potential to catalyze change social norms and behaviours. But it is women (and men) who have to find ways to sustain it. Here are some strategies and approaches that may help:

  • Building women’s and vulnerable groups’ resilience through education, awareness, rights and digital literacy
  • Developing research and evidence-based policies and regulations to keep up with social interaction online
  • Working to changing attitudes and the online environment
  • Fighting hate speech with more speech and awareness
  • Increase women’s access to ICTs, and in the ICTs field to ensure that the female perspectives are included in the creation process
  • Create the spaces for action and dialogue with and among women
  • Recognizing women’s capacities as part of the tech sector
  • Increasing women’s presence attending conferences and raising awareness. Women need to invade the male dominated spaces
  • Imagining a feminist internet


Take Back the Tech! (www.takebackthetech.net)
The roadmaps on Take Back the Tech! campaign website unpacks issues such as blackmail, cyberstalking & hate speech, identifies related rights and provides strategies to prevent or deal with the violence.

Infographic: Mapping technology-based violence against women: Take Back the Tech! top 8 findings (APC 2015)
Infographic: 4 reasons women struggle to access justice in tech-based VAW (APC 2015)
Infographic: Sexual rights activism & the Internet (GenderIT.org 2013)
Feminist Principles of the Internet: an evolving document (APC 2014)

Presentation by Joana Varon for #DevtIDEAS Debate – ICTs: Technologies for Oppression or Liberation?

HarassMap (www.harassmap.org)

Do digital information and communications technologies increase the voice and influence of women and girls? (Clare Cummings and Tam O’Neil, Overseas Development Institute, March 2015) – a literature review on whether ICTs increase the voices of women and girls.

New Tools to Fight Gender-based Violence (Silvia Caicedo, Development Ideas, 2015) – some background leading up this #DevtIDEAS Debate.

#DevtIDEAS Debates are a series of live chats organized by Development Ideas — a space for thinkers and practitioners to learn, share and debate about international development. The site is facilitated by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), in collaboration with the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and the United Nations University (UNU).