Unfortunately, women don't automatically benefit from the communications revolution. New communications technologies are not as neutral as they first appear to be, says a new book on the subject from the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre (AMIC) of Singapore.

By C Martin

November 1999

Can the new communications revolution opening up before our eyes act as a magic-wand for women in Asia to get a better deal?

Telecommunications equipment, the Internet, mass media transmitted via satellite, cable and fibre optics, videotext and fax machines, and databases are opening up new options across the globe.

These new technologies have entered the home. They have influenced not only the individual and family life, but also age-old institutions and values.

Unfortunately, everything is not positive and smooth-sailing. New communications technologies are not as neutral as they first appear to be, says a new book on the subject from the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre (AMIC) of Singapore.

Edited by Ila Joshi, the new book is called Asian Women in the Information Age.

It says: 'Men are considered the first beneficiaries of innovations, while women follow and take over the positions vacated by them. The progress of women is hampered by widespread prejudices regarding their ability to learn and to apply new technology.' In addition, it points out, knowledge and power are concentrated in the hands of the privileged few that own and control the communications system.

This study was done in various Asian countries. It found that India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and China provided their people with greater access to media like television. In Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, computer networks are more common. Bangladesh lacks most of these facilities, while Japan has them all.

Yet, in Bangladesh, the new communications technologies are already seen to be making an impact on the lives of some women. A 'Grameen Phone' programme allows rural borrowers, all of whom are women, to buy cellular phones.

Cellular phones, pagers and computers are being used by city-based Sri Lankans every day, whether they are men or women. But this has not solved the special problems being faced by women, and created by war in that island nation. Women have been forced into the role of breadwinners, as men are killed or disabled.

The latest communications technologies have brought the world to Pakistan's doorstep. But the country is still plagued by a low literacy rate and high poverty levels, and its feudal and tribal structure puts women at a distinct disadvantage, and they are not fully able to reap all the benefits of new technologies.

In China - the world's most populous nation - fax machines and the Internet are yet to have widespread penetration. Despite this, new communications technologies are opening up new fields of employment, widening women's perspectives and providing them with a 'frame of reference' to estimate their status in China and around the globe.

In India, the status of women is improving only among the middle-class in urban society. Progress for the lower classes is 'very slow'. New technologies like computers, the Internet and cellphones are available largely in cities, says the AMIC book.

Women's groups in Singapore have tended to use the Internet for publicity and business networking. Women use the communications technology - in particular e-mail and the phone - in an attempt to balance work and home life, too.

'But the social dynamics of teleworking are actually built around, and reinforce, the existing cultural biases that confine women's place to the home,' says the study.

In Malaysia, where the use of computers is widespread, women have been found to have benefited from the modern technologies. They have greater access to information and knowledge.

Thai women say they can get greater power to 'exchange their concerns, opinions, and perceptions' using new technologies. They can also correct, to some extent, the perception of a male-dominated society by participating in government, politics, the business sector and the media industry.

In Indonesia, women feel the new technologies give them a 'better chance to develop'. But the older generation and housewives are not enthusiastic, as they do not have a direct utility for the same.

Only a limited segment of female professionals have been empowered by the new communications technologies, say reports from the Philippines. Most of the rest - like teachers and government servants - lag behind. They are at best marginal users, encoders, telecom operators or administrative assistants.

For the new communciations technologies to be of use to wider segments of the population, and not just a narrow base of society, a lot more needs to be done.

This study suggests the need for policies that work towards equitable access, microcredit or rental programmes, financial cooperation among women, relevant training at the school level, promotion of use in the local language, relevant content, and awareness campaigns among women. - Third World Network Features


About the writer: C Martin is a freelance journalist based in India.