PRESIDENT’S NEWSLETTER March 2020 Women’s human rights and ICT.

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We have entered into a digital age, an age where human rights are still violated and need to be reasserted. New technology helps us to implement actions to promote human rights, but at the same time it brings new challenges, raises new ethical questions and violates human rights. Not everyone has access to new technology and often new technology is male dominated. It is designed by men for men.

In this paper, I will focus on information and communication technology (ICT) which I will present as a tool to improve women’s human rights all over the world, but as well as a threat towards women. The good and wrong practices show that there is a need to make new technology inclusive and in this paper proposals will be presented in order to achieve it.

First of all, the access of ICT can be used as a tool for the empowerment of women and for protecting their human rights too.

With the use of a mobile phone and mobile internet, women can download an application in order to share their GPS location with their friends when they are going out to meet someone for the first time or when their fear to be alone. Another example of an app using blockchain technology is “Smashboard” from India. It aims to help victims of sexual violence seeking assistance to connect with lawyers, mental health experts and journalists.[1].

On the Internet, there are websites which allow women to have access to online courses, thus women can gain skills, knowledge and have easier access to the labour market. They can use general websites made for everyone such as Futurelearn or EDx or specific courses tailored for women. The factor of mobility is not a barrier anymore for acceding to basic human rights, education. Besides these courses, a number of these platforms propose as well the possibility to follow courses on women’s human rights.

In France, The French Online University proposed a massive open online course on gender-based violence at work. It had for goals to prevent and to educate people on how to react in case of an employee is a victim of GBV at work. It gives advice on how to prevent the situation and how to react if someone reports sexual or sexist violence, for what kind of help can the victim ask, from whom either internal or external actors, which legal recourse the person has access. This course is a way to make the rights of women victims of violence at work known and to bring awareness to the situation.

An app called OMOMI, created by two Nigerians, connects pregnant women and mothers with doctors globally. Online consultation with a doctor is available for a fee. They can choose for a single consultation (0,5$) or buy a monthly subscription (5,50$). It has also as purpose to create a mother’s community where future mothers can share experiences. It helps women to monitor the growth of their children up to a certain age, which is based on the WHO and UNICEF Childhood Survival Strategies [2].

Another example of an app is the online platform Buy for Women, project piloted by UN Women. It aims to enable easier access for women farmers to land, information, markets and finance. On one hand, women can access important information such as prices, inputs or finances, on the other hand, they become legitimate commercial subjects with digital records. Thanks to this, they can secure their financial future and make access to new markets easier. It allows as well women farmers to get in contact with other farmers, coops and potential buyers[3].

Moreover, technology and access to the internet can serve as a tool to bring peace and gender equality to areas where there are conflicts and wars. In Afghanistan, women use social media to make their voices heard at a national level but as well the international one. On January 2019, the US and the Taliban started to talk about peace. However due to the lack of women representation during the process, on February 2019, a group called Afghan Women for Peace gathered 3,500 women to discuss the peace process. The media coverage at the international level was very low, therefore the women used the hashtag #AfghanWomenWillNotGoBack to share photos, statement and bring the information to the public[4].

The presence of women on the web is lower than for men. Only 17% of Wikipedia biographies are on women. Groups of activists meet online or offline in order to reduce this gap. The umbrella group, WikiProject Women, wants to create more content related to women. It invites people to write or edit articles about women’s work, biographies of notable women. In the online encyclopedia, there is as well a lack of women’s perspective as the vast majority of the content creators are male[5].

One way as well to find solutions to women’s human rights’ violations would be to organize a hackathon, whose main participants would be women and women’s organizations. It will help to tackle different challenges faced by women as well as it will increase the visibility of women in STEM. In 2019, the City of Stockholm organized the biggest women’s European hackathon. Different entities proposed 10 challenges which had for goal to deal with specific issues for women or for a larger target. The challenge of Case for Her won the first prize. It consisted in breaking the global stigma of female sexual health. The winning grant was an app named LUCY and aims to spread knowledge to more women about their bodies[6].

Even if these good practices are theoretically addressed to all women, not all of them, have access to them. In its 2018 Mobile Gender Gap Report, GSMA indicates that 10% of women living in low or middle-income countries are less than likely to own a mobile phone than men and 26% of women in these countries are less likely to use mobile internet. The main barriers of the ownership of a mobile is the cost of it for men and women. For women, it is emphasized that there is a low rate of literacy and in particular, in digital literacy, there is as well a lack of awareness among women in these countries when it comes to mobile internet. It is felt that the mobile internet is not relevant to their life. There is also a concern of safety, i.e. 40% of women who do not have a mobile in Mexico is afraid that a stranger may contact them when to the contrary only 26% of men have these feelings.[7]

There are as well a lot of examples where new technology is misused and thus becomes harmful to women.

For instance, women are victims of violence based on their gender. Before the Internet, this violence was offline, but nowadays it is as well online. The Internet makes hate speech easier toward women [8] According to an FRA Survey on Violence Against Women in 2014, 11% of women in the European Union have experienced cyber-harassment since the age of 15[9]. One form of cyber violence is the publication of non-consensual pornographic video or image. In 90% of the cases the victims are women. This is often the result of the behaviour of a former partner. Cyberstalking is another threat, which is “stalking by means of email, text (or online) messages or the internet”. Among other forms of online violence, there are sextortion, electronically enabled trafficking and rape and death threats [10].

Another example of the misuse of technology has been illustrated by research published by UNESCO. It shows that digital assistants from products such as Apple or Microsoft enhance gender biases because the voice used is often by default female and is submissive. A user can insult the digital assistant freely. The title of the UNESCO publication begins with “I’d blush if I could”. It comes from an answer given by Siri when a human user would say, “Hey Siri, you’re a bi***” In April 2019 this answer has been changed to “ I don’t know how to respond to that” [11]. This answer is again very outrageous. Siri for Apple cannot be as well characterized as feminist. When a user asks Siri questions related to feminism, it answers with “I believe that all voices are created equal and worth equal respect”. Siri doesn’t have opinions and has a neutral position when it comes to feminism[12].

Furthermore, a report of Privacy International demonstrates that 61% of the apps tested, which are helping women to track their periods, have been sharing these data with Facebook while users of these apps are not aware that such data are shared with such enterprise. Even if a user doesn’t have an account on Facebook their data are still received by Facebook. By sharing such data, Facebook is not only able to see when someone is the most fertile and will have her next period, but as well get information about the health, sexual life or the mood of a person for example[13]. This situation happens because the users do not read the terms of use, which are dense and very often not user-friendly. Therefore, the user agrees to share sensitive data without real knowledge of it.

Technology can be used to reinforce the violations of women’s human rights. The app Absher of the Saudi governments raised a lot of questions. The purpose of this app is to facilitate the administrative process. Yet in Saudi Arabia women are under the guardianship of men, husbands and fathers and therefore need the authorization of one of their guardians for getting a passport and for having the authorization to leave the country for a period of time. Through this app, male guardians are able to do it by distance. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International called on Google and Apple to assess the app’s use to determine whether it discriminates or facilitates abuse[14]. Both app’s store led investigations and then refused to delete the app from their platforms. Google claimed that it did not violate its terms of use.

These few examples of wrong practices show that there is a need to protect women towards the abuse of new technology.

During the conception or improvement of new technology, companies need to include human rights as a key aspect of the design and take into consideration how the technology can be used and impact each human being, including women. One of the barriers to it is the fact that this is an industry largely dominated by men. Promoting STEM fields among girls and women could reduce this gap. According to a UNESCO report, 35% of STEM students in higher education globally are women and only 3% of female students in higher education choose ICT studies[15]. Having more women involved in tech would facilitate an inclusive approach during the conception of new tech products.

Furthermore, designers and suppliers should be held responsible for the use of their technology. There is a need to make the terms of use more comprehensible and to protect sensitive data like the ones on health from firms. They don’t need to know the mood of a person or when was the last time someone has her periods. It should be data that are forbidden to share. Social media firms should as well be held accountable for online violence

Gender digital divide is “the inequalities between men and women in terms of access to information and communications technologies”[16]. This gap has been translated as the 5B target of the SDGs, which is called “Enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of women” and its indicator is the “Proportion of individuals who own a mobile telephone, by sex”. Yet, when it comes to access to the internet worldwide, there is no indicator based on sex. Such statistic should be created within the context of the SDGs due to the fact that the non-access to internet deepens inequalities. Affordable internet and phones should be accessible to everyone no matter the gender, the country or the income of a person.

To conclude, ICT has to be taken into consideration in the fight against the violation of women’s human rights and in the achievement of gender equality. It has the potential to be leverage but as well a threat. Technology in the broadest sense of the word covers all the aspects of women’s human rights but it has also opened new challenges that need to be tackled. One of the six Action Coalition themes announced for the Generation Equality Forum, which will be held in May 2020 in Mexico and in July 2020 in Paris, refers to the Technology and innovation for Gender Equality. The coalition aims to launch a targeted set of concrete, ambitious and immediate actions within the period of 2020-2025[17].

This paper has been researched and drafted by Mallaury Cervellera, intern at the President’s Secretariat of IAW in Athens, Greece under the supervision of Joanna Manganara, President IAW.

[1] Website of the application “Smashboard”, available here: https://smashboard.org/index.php#features

[2] Neil Lewis, Drones, apps and smart lockers: The technology transforming healthcare in Africa, CNN.com, 15.09.2019. https://edition.cnn.com/2019/10/15/tech/tech-africa-healthcare/index.html

[3] UN-WOMEN, Innovation For Gender Equality, 2019. https://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2019/innovation-for-gender-equality-en.pdf?la=en&vs=733

[4] Gemma Stewart, Afghan Women Will Not Go Back to Taliban Rule, Pacific Council on International Policiy, 8.03.2019. https://www.pacificcouncil.org/newsroom/afghan-women-will-not-go-back-taliban-rule

[5] Wikipedia Page on the project WikiprojectWomen. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:WikiProject_Women

[6] STHLM TECH FEST, Taboo Breaking App Wins Europe’s Biggest Hackathon for Women. https://sthlm-tech-fest-hackathon.confetti.events/winners

[7] GSMA CONNECTED WOMEN, The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2018, February 2018.  https://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/GSMA_The_Mobile_Gender_Gap_Report_2018_32pp_WEBv7.pdf?fbclid=IwAR3jHeDNxWB23tRuatpJk3k0OuQioRRKvxMmF7FwLyxJ69ZpmWm54Iissnk

[8] Becky Faith, Tackling online gender-based violence, Institute of Development Studies, 03.12.2018.  https://www.ids.ac.uk/opinions/tackling-online-gender-based-violence/

[9] Study for the FEMM Committee, Cyber violence and hate speech online against women, Policy Department for Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs Directorate General for Internal Policies of the Union , September 2018. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2018/604979/IPOL_STU(2018)604979_EN.pdf

[10] European Institute on gender Equality, Report on Cyber violence against women and girls, 23.06.2017. https://eige.europa.eu/publications/cyber-violence-against-women-and-girls

[11] Kevin Rawlinson, Digital assistants like Siri and Alexa entrench gender biases, says UN, “Theguardian.com”, 22.05.2019. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/may/22/digital-voice-assistants-siri-alexa-gender-biases-unesco-says

[12] Alex Hern, Apple made Siri deflect questions on feminism, leaked papers reveal, “Theguardian.com”, 06.09.2019. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/sep/06/apple-rewrote-siri-to-deflect-questions-about-feminism

[13] Privacy International, Report: No Body’s Business But Mine: How Menstruation Apps Are Sharing Your Data, 09.09.2019. https://privacyinternational.org/long-read/3196/no-bodys-business-mine-how-menstruation-apps-are-sharing-your-data

[14] Hillary Leung, What to Know About Absher, Saudi Arabia’s Controversial ‘Woman-Tracking’ App, “Time.com”, 19.02.2019. https://time.com/5532221/absher-saudi-arabia-what-to-know/

[15] UNESCO, Girls’ and women’s education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). https://en.unesco.org/themes/education-and-gender-equality/stem

[16] Definition of Gender Digital Divide by IGI Global, https://www.igi-global.com/dictionary/a-human-rights-based-approach-to-bridge-gender-digital-divide/11919

[17] UN Women, Action Coalitions. https://www.unwomen.org/en/get-involved/beijing-plus-25/generation-equality-forum/action-coalitions

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