A few months ago I was working in a small village in Punjab, India. One of the first things I noticed while working and traveling in this country in which hunger and poor health care (just to name a few) are still huge issues, was the fact that nearly everyone – men, women, and even children- walked around talking into their mobile phones. This shouldn´t be a surprise, seeing that there are now more mobile phones than toilets in this country. Even though I was aware of the trend of mobile phones starting to replace computers and laptops, the contrast in use of technology was fascinating to me. In this local town of some 30,000 inhabitants, exactly one internet café could be found with five computers whose speed made it hard for certain Western users to resist the urge to throw them out of the window. Unsurprisingly, then, no less than 59% of Indian internet users access the internet and the wealth of information that it provides through their mobile phones.
In a country where equal rights between men and women belongs to a distant (but starting to become foreseeable) future, one might not expect to come across so many women sporting a traditional Punjabi suit and hairstyle while talking into their Blackberry. New technologies such as mobile internet creates opportunities for women to develop themselves by having more access to information than ever before. In spite of the gender gap still existing in internet usage, spaces such as blogs and social media have created an incredibly valuable platform for women to express their opinions and let their voices be heard. In addition, in the past few years many human rights institutions have come to realize the importance of using these new information and communication technologies in enhancing women’s rights. Last week, this issue was addressed by a panel discussion that took place at the UNICEF Headquarters in New York during the 56th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women. One of the major outcomes of this discussion is that, quite obviously, today’s adolescents grow up with new technologies which makes them the ideal target group for its use in empowerment issues. However, especially when dealing with girls and young women, there are several issues that institutions using Communication for Development (C4D) tools in the process of girls/women empowerment should take into account. As the Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the New School for Public Engagement, Dr. Sawhney, puts it:
“Part of the challenge of understanding adolescents is that they are being shaped by their environment very rapidly at that age.[..] If you have a programme designed just for girls, then maybe you do want to involve their families and brothers in ways that might compliment the overall impact of the programme.”
(Source: report on UNICEF meeting)
Especially when dealing with the additionally vulnerable target group of girls and young women, cultural traditions, values, and social systems create a challenge in using C4D tools effectively. This is the case even more so for highly culturally sensitive issues such as women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. One organization that deals daily with these challenges is LoveMatters, a project run by Radio Netherlands Worldwide. As sexual education is still a taboo in India, this project hosts a website that provides information on sex, sexuality, love and relationships aimed at Indian adolescents. While working together with local researchers and health professionals, it offers not only ‘cold facts’ on sex but also tips, stories, and interviews. According to a recent (unpublished) survey conducted by LoveMatters amongst 310 young Indians aged 18-25 from Delhi and Mumbai, 3 out of 5 respondents reported not having received sexual education at school, whereas over half of the adolescents are interested in this topic. When asked what would be the best way to provide information related to sex, relationships and love, many respondents advised to use SMS text services. Unsurprisingly, since nearly all participants possess a mobile phone while texting at least once a day and 1 in 3 being subscribed to a SMS text service.
Although there are surprisingly few significantly different responses between men and women, some gender-sensitive issues still needed to be taken into account when, partly related to the outcome of this survey, LoveMatters set up a SMS text service on love and sexuality. For instance, many adolescents receive their phone from parents or have them pay for their mobile phone bill, which makes the amount of control that can be exerted over the information that comes in through text of mobile internet that much bigger. This, especially when addressing information on SRHR to women, creates a need to take into account the fact that family might be looking over girls’ shoulders. Since women’s sexuality and SRHR is still taboo in India, related content that is sent through the SMS text service should therefore be culturally sensitive, even more so than content that is directed at male Indian adolescents. Perhaps due to this adaptability, the SMS text service is becoming increasingly popular amongst girls. Receiving texts with tips and information on sexuality but also love and relationships will hopefully empower them in taking their own decisions and responsibilities in this area of their lives.
This is merely one example of how C4D tools can be used effectively while taking into account gender issues in cultural settings. Girls and women have always been a more vulnerable and disadvantaged group when compared to their male counterparts and when using C4D technologies, this is no other case. That is why, as the panel discussion hosted by UNICEF rightly points out, it is so important to pay special attention to this group to make sure they do not, again, fall off the hay wagon but invest in research in how new technologies can be used to reach the most vulnerable girls all over the world.