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Digital democracy: Women’s Learning Partnership helps women make IT their own

New paradigms of democratic solidarity are emerging as a result of the advent of the Internet and new information technologies.. These new technologies,encompassing everything from e-mail to Facebook to YouTube, are changing the face of democracy activism, allowing more participatory, dialogue-based approaches to cross-border work. Technology has now become a major resource as women in closed societies strive for equal rights and more open political space. Information and communication technology (ICT) has created more opportunities for women to express their opinions, connect and share experiences with activists in different countries, and advocate for the protection of human rights. In this new environment, Women’s Learning Partnership (WLP), a NED grantee, has made the Internet and ICTs a crucial component of its work in Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia.

WLP is dedicated to advancing communication and cooperation between women of the world in order to strengthen civil society, specifically in countries where women’s access to the political process has been limited. WLP trains women in these traditionally closed societies to be leaders in their communities and works to advance women’s involvement in critical decisions-making processes. The organization also builds the capacity of their many partner organizations that promote peace building, women’s rights, and good governance.

WLP creates culture-specific educational training materials and provides computers and other tools to their partner organizations. For example, WLP’s new path-breaking publication, Making IT Our Own, enables women to use ICTs in their advocacy work and will soon be translated into an Arabic language edition. ICTs have become important tools of women working for equal rights in societies in which women have long been relegated to bystander status. Now, ICTs have enabled women to reach across borders and cooperate with their counterparts in different countries as they work to enact change at home.

Traditional solidarity campaigns have been largely based on the international community responding to locally-determined needs and demands, as in the case of the anti-apartheid movement, noted Mahnaz Afkhami, President of WLP, at a panel discussion held at NED on September 5. But recent work with Iranian women’s groups suggested that local activists’ perspectives transcend national borders and they do not necessarily consider themselves more politically insightful or salient than external or foreign groups. For example, the Iranian women’s 1 Million Signatures campaign quite deliberately draws on the success of Moroccan women in reforming family law.

At the NED discussion, titled “Technology for Women’s Rights Advocacy and Democracy Building,” women’s activists from WLP partners in Lebanon, India, Jordan, and Afghanistan spoke on the ways in which ICT has transformed the nature of democracy and human rights activism.

Activists are now using blogs, YouTube, Google Maps, and other ICT tools to track human rights violations, raise political awareness, promote civic education, and gain access to previously closed or “digitally-deprived” communities. Innovative and creative uses of IT can have “life-changing” effects, said Sakena Yacoobi of theAfghan Institute of Learning (AIL) . Illiterate, isolated Afghan women are initially drawn to AIL’s Women Connect ICT Centers for literacy classes, but then get drawn into workshops on democracy, training and leadership, opening up new horizons as well as acquiring new skills.

Drawing on Making IT Our Own, Jordan’s Asma Khader outlined how Arab women’s rights campaigners use on-line surveys to solicit information on the impact of discriminatory laws. An on-line Arabic-language counseling center gives women advice on legal and social issues that has literally saved lives in some cases, said Khader, General Coordinator of Sisterhood is Global Institute/Jordan and a former Cabinet Minister.

New technologies do not facilitate access to the “most disenfranchised or the poorest of the poor”, said Beirut-based Lina Abou Habib, but they have been especially effective in attracting women in rural areas and youth. New e-courses on citizenship and civic activism, available in Arabic, English, and Persian, have engaged thousands of women activists from Morocco to Afghanistan, said Habib, Director of the Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action .

“Information is a prelude to agency,” said Rakhee Goyal, executive director of Women’s Learning Partnership and co-author of Making IT Our Own. IT is allowing women to take ownership of issues, often on a cross-border basis.

In most Arab states, women are denied the legal right to confer nationality on their spouses and children. WLP has worked to support the Claiming Equal Citizenship campaign , organized by a coalition of Arab women’s groups, which has successfully used IT to develop a regional dimension and employ a range of strategies to secure women’s right to nationality, including in-depth comparative research, communications to raise public awareness of the issues, and building cross-border alliances between NGOs. In Algeria, the law was changed to allow women to confer nationality on their spouses and children, and in Egypt, women may now confer their nationality on their children.

In the past year, WLP partners conducted leadership, ICT, and training-of-trainer workshops and institutes for over 1,300 grassroots women activists in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain, Lebanon, Mauritania, Palestine, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, and Malaysia. The workshops provided communication, advocacy, and networking skills to its participants. In 2009 WLP will continue to hold training workshops, upgrade its IT training centers in the Middle East, and translate several publications and training manuals into Urdu, Arabic, and Persian. WLP will also support its partners’ regional campaign on women’s citizenship rights in Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Morocco.


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