Beyond a phone in your pocket: feminist analysis of the digital age

Amy O'Donnell Gender, Gender & Development Journal, ICT4D

Amy O’Donnella specialist on digital technologies at Oxfam and Board member of anti-harassment charity Hollaback!, outlines the Gender & Development Journal’s new ICTs issue and two launch events. 

Having a phone in your pocket isn’t necessarily as empowering and life-changing as it’s cracked up to be. Development actors are having a passionate moment with ICTs right now, and certainly digital offers extraordinary potential.  But tech mirrors the societies that create it. Access to mobile phones and digital spaces is affected by our gender, ethnicity, age, social class, and disability, among other factors.  And context is as important as personal characteristics in analyzing who is offline and out of contact. Infrastructural issues, affordability, issues of freedom of information, agency, ability and others, are all critical in understanding the challenges different people face when attempting to communicate, to inform, and gain information, online.

When we launched the latest edition of the Gender and Development journal last month, it was incredibly timely to adopt a feminist social justice analysis of the opportunities and risks in the digital era. The issue explores the current impact of ICTs on gender relations and women’s rights, and ICTs’ potential to advance – or hinder – gender equality.  Articles focus on experiences from India, Afghanistan, the Philippines, South Africa, Kenya, Jamaica, and Bolivia.

A key concern of the issue is gender-based violence (GBV) and the links to digital. On one hand, online spaces offer the potential to fight such violence. A theme of the articles is progressive movements reclaiming spaces enabled by technology that were not necessarily designed for social activism. We are living through what is known as the #MeToo moment, where a viral conversation almost one year on has shone the spotlight on gender based violence. What’s inspiring is beyond this Hollywood-driven agenda, more local movements are emerging.  These campaigns use both online and offline, and show the power of digital to help like-minded individuals to find each other and take action.

But the downside is these methods are open to people who want to control others and reduce their freedoms, too. Online is enabling them to develop new forms of violence: trolling and online harassment are curbing freedom of expression in a very gendered way. Dhanaraj Thakur’s article on gender based violence in Jamaica finds ‘ICTs tended to exacerbate the risks associated with VAW, and young women in particular more likely to be the target of online sexual harassment’, and ‘the odds that a man will report being physically threatened online are 3 times as high as the odds of a woman doing the same’.

At the moment ICTs are being vaunted as key to the empowerment of women in particular. But a focus that goes beyond issues of access to ICTs, and a recognition of their potential for harm as well as good, is needed for ICTs to realise their full potential for social justice, including gender equality. Faheed Hussain and Sara N. Amin’s article in the journal shows ICTs’ role in supporting urban Afghan women to cope in daily life, fulfilling their roles in family and society. Yet – while appreciating the importance of recognizing these as worthwhile goals in their own right – their study shows how essential it is for gender equality goals to aim beyond supporting women’s ‘effective agency’ to challenge patriarchal power relations.  Feminist critiques of the current ICT4D approach emphasise the need to move beyond the notion of the 4As – access, affordability, availability and awareness – to address questions of power and inequality. 

At the moment ICTs are being vaunted as key to the empowerment of women in particular.

Digital alone doesn’t [dis]empower – it’s the structures, systems and policy implications in the real world that matter. And the divides between online and offline are increasingly blurred as what used to be called ‘virtual’ becomes part of everyday reality for all of us who own a phone! For ICTs to reach their full potential as a force for change, a feminist and social justice approach is needed and feminist activism needs support as we combat the threats we encounter on- and off-line.

We’re running two launch events for this ICTs issue: one in London and one entirely online. In both you can hear perspectives from key thinkers and activists on gender equality and ICTs.

The online launch event for this issue is at 13.00 UK time (GMT +1), Thursday 27th September 2018. Visit Gender & Development for details on how to attend. The online event will also be available to watch via the journal’s Facebook page.

The London event, hosted by Gender & Development journal and Oxfam with London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, is on 15 November 2018. Registration details will be released soon on the journal’s Facebook page.


Razan Wazwaz