By Mariela Jara
LIMA, Mar 7 2023 (IPS)
The digital gender gap is multifactorial in Latin America and as long as countries fail to address discrimination against women, inequality will be reflected in the digital space, excluding them from access to opportunities and enjoyment of their rights.
This is what Karla Velazco, political advocacy coordinator for the women’s rights program of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), an international network of civil society organizations that promotes the strategic use of information and communications technologies in Latin America, Asia and Africa, told IPS:
Poverty in the region affects 32 percent of the population, but with a clear gender and ethnic bias, with higher rates among women and indigenous people and blacks, according to a study by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).
This disadvantage, the study underlines, impacts them by reducing their access to, use, management and control of new technologies, to the detriment of their development.
Velazco is also part of the Inter-American Telecommunications Commission’s (CITEL) Permanent Consultative Committee, where she promotes women’s right to access the internet and new technologies in general, she explained by videoconference from her office in Mexico City.
On the occasion of the commemoration of International Women’s Day, whose theme this year is “For an inclusive digital world: Innovation and technology for gender equality”, the expert drew attention to the lack of centralized and updated data on this topic that would enable governments to move forward with well-defined policies.
The ECLAC study, entitled “Digitalization of Women in Latin America and the Caribbean: Urgent action for a transformative recovery, with equality” and published in 2022, reports that four out of 10 women in the region do not have access to the internet, based on data provided by 11 countries.
But Velazco said this figure does not provide qualitative information nor does it address the gap between urban and rural environments.
“There is no measurement of how women are using technology and how it affects their lives. For example, we see a lot of online gender-based violence (OGBV) but there are almost no reports on this,” she said.
In any case, the figure served as a reference point to assume a commitment to reduce the digital gender gap, during a regional consultation held in February to reach a position on the issue to be presented at the 67th meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) taking place Mar. 6-17 at United Nations headquarters in New York.
The 11 countries that provided data for the study were Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay.
Velazco argued that women do not completely adopt the new technologies because as long as structural gender inequalities persist in labor, educational, economic and social areas, intertwined with discrimination based on ethnicity, economic status, sexual orientation or age, these will be replicated in the digital space.
“As it is made up of different factors, the digital gender gap is very difficult to measure, but it is a responsibility that States have to assume so that women are not excluded from technological advances and innovations and, on the contrary, benefit from it for their empowerment and exercise of rights,” she said.
The difficulties of reporting online gender-based violence
Elizabeth Mendoza is a lawyer and legal coordinator of the non-governmental Hiperderecho, a Peruvian institution that has worked for 10 years on rights and freedoms in technology.
“There are disadvantages in the use and enjoyment of the internet. When browsing we come across situations or people who try to violate our rights by taking advantage of technology and this is what we know as digital gender violence,” she told IPS in an interview at the NGO’s headquarters in Lima.
In 2018 Legislative Decree 1410 was passed in Peru, which recognizes four types of criminal online gender-based violence: harassment, sexual harassment, sexual blackmail and dissemination of audiovisual content and images through technological means.
Hiperderecho analyzed the efficiency of the law and found that people do not know how to report such crimes and that the authorities have fallen far short in enforcing the legislation.
“Many people experience OGBV and don’t know it’s a reportable crime; in cases in which the complaint has been made, it is not received by the police and the prosecutor’s office does not have the authority to adequately investigate and prosecute the case,” said the lawyer.
This situation is due to lack of training for the authorities in understanding OGBV and how to handle cases from a gender perspective, and with respect to using technology to investigate and put together a case.
“What generally happens is that they tell you: if he’s bothering you, block him; if you have a problem, close your account. In this type of crime, the idea is to act diligently and quickly because the aggressors delete the content, the message, the account and we can be left without evidence,” Mendoza said.
In the cases assisted by Hiperderecho, the common denominator is the re-victimization of the complainant. “In the middle of a hearing we met a defense lawyer who said: why are you making so much trouble if my defendant has a future ahead of him, this is just a case of harassment and he is sorry. It is difficult to report online gender-based violence in Peru,” she commented.
To help protect the rights of girls and women in the use of the digital space, Hiperderecho has created the Tecnoresistencias self-care center that provides guidance and information on how to identify online gender-based violence, how to fight it and how to proceed and report it.
The center provides self-care guides, explanations of the different kinds of OGBV, and methods available for reporting it. It also answers queries.
Using mobile applications to weather the crisis
On the other side of the coin, the use of the internet and access to new technologies made it possible to weather the serious economic and social crisis that COVID-19 accentuated among a group of Mayan indigenous women in the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.
“The pandemic made it very difficult for us, we were not making progress in access to communication because there is little internet here in San Cristóbal de las Casas and we needed to learn,” said Rosy Santiz, a Mayan woman who is a trainer and promotes rights.
She is a member of the K’inal Antsetik (“land of women” in the Tzeltal indigenous language) Training and Skills Center for Women. Created in 2014, the center supports collectives and a network of cooperatives of women embroiderers and weavers.
“We knew how to use the cell phone, but to keep our jobs we had to learn other programs like Zoom. It was difficult, but it was the only way to be able to communicate and work from home. We learned how to continue holding our meetings and how to coordinate to continue disseminating information and training, because in the pandemic we also continued to share our experiences,” Santiz said.
In the communities where the women who make up the collectives and the cooperative live, there is little internet signal, so they decided to train them in the use of the WhatsApp application. The members of the board of directors who live in San Cristóbal de las Casas receive the orders from clients and channel them to the women embroiderers and weavers, sending the specifications and photographs over WhatsApp.
“At first they only used the cell phone to talk; now it’s a means to face the poverty that worsened in the pandemic, it is one of the aspects that we take advantage of with respect to technology,” she said.
This article is part of IPS’s coverage of International Women’s Day, whose theme this year is: “For an inclusive digital world: Innovation and technology for gender equality.”