1.4 A note on women’s empowerment

Women’s empowerment is focused on increasing their ability to take control over the decisions that affect their lives. This includes access to, and control over, information, resources, decision-making and the distribution of benefits. For women who can access and use ICTs, this can mean access to information on education, health, public and private rights, as well as income-generation and market information. The United Nations Department for the Advancement of Women (UNDAW), meeting in November 2002,4 expressed this as, “…when there is an enabling environment, ICT[s] can provide diverse avenues for women’s social, political and economic empowerment.”

Despite some greater appreciation of the multi-causal nature of social change, an assumption that underlies much policy thinking is that economic growth is the principal motor of change in gender relations. This is only partly true. While the social transformations that have affected women’s lives can be associated with economic development, they are not simply a by-product of economic growth. Some countries with similar per-capita incomes—such as Sweden and the Gulf States of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait—show marked disparities in women’s rights and status. Female employment rates are also subject to considerable variations that do not always correlate with gross domestic product, with the lowest rates being recorded in the Middle East and North Africa.

Among the many factors that initiate or accelerate change in women’s social and economic status is purposive action -- working through state reforms and social movements. This is evident if we consider the last decades of the twentieth century, which were particularly significant for the gains that were made in international policy relating to women. The momentum of second-wave feminism, and the efforts of international humanitarian and development institutions, combined to bring about significant changes in women’s rights. By the early 1990s, most states had signed up to the Platform for Action and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and their commitments made to support women’s equality.5

4Information and communication technologies and their impact on and use as an instrument for the advancement and empowerment of women. Expert Group Meeting Republic of Korea, 11 - 14 November 2002

5Beijing Plus 10: An ambivalent record on gender justice by Maxine Molyneux and Shahra Razavi