Small tech grants, big differences for rural women

Rural Ethiopian woman has opportunities through technologyRural Ethiopian woman has opportunities through technology Women in rural areas play a central role in the agricultural economy of their region, which means that they often work long hours, leaving little time for learning how to use new technologies. Yet, access to new technologies affect both men and women in remote areas. In a new publication, GenARDIS 2002 – 2010: Small grants that made big changes for women in agriculture Jenny Radloff explores how seed grants that were disbursed to innovative initiative
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Access to new information and communications technologies (ICTs) affects both men and women living in remote areas. Governments and the telecommunications sector do not prioritise infrastructure in rural areas because the population is generally poor and dispersed. Efforts to roll out infrastructure and training are focused in urban areas where the population is more concentrated and the profits more immediate and reliable. However, for women living in rural areas, access to ICTs means first overcoming multiple barriers relating not only to their location, but also their gender.

Women play a central role in the agricultural economy, which means that their hours of work are long, leaving little time for learning how to use new technologies. Women cannot migrate as easily as men to towns and cities where training in new technologies is more available. Apart from agricultural production, women rather than men have the added responsibilities of caring for children and the elderly. In many communities cultural attitudes disallow women from visiting public access points, often because they are frequented by men or because women are not allowed out of their homes without being accompanied by men.

Girls and women generally have lower levels of education and literacy and are not encouraged to pursue schooling, particularly not in the technology fields. In most rural communities, women have far less political and economic power than their male counterparts. The various components of ICTs – the software, the keyboards, the information online and the training materials – are not available in local languages. And most aspects of new technologies are not culturally intuitive. Even radio (and increasingly the mobile phone), perhaps the most ubiquitous communications devices in many rural areas, are often not accessible to women. Men control the radio dial and usually own the radio and the mobile phone.

These all add up to multiple and formidable barriers which constrain and limit rural women’s ability to harness new technologies in their lives, and to access vital information shared via ICTs: information that could impact on improving agricultural production, fluctuations in market prices, pensions and child care grants, news on political changes that could affect their lives, as well as health and support services. The urban and gender bias in connectivity deprives many rural women, more so than men, of the universal and fundamental right to communicate.

Development programmes aimed at agriculture and food security realised long ago that to centralise ICTs adds tremendous potential for improving rural livelihoods. They further recognised that a gender-sensitive approach to the design and implementation of initiatives is fundamental to their success. The lives of rural women and men can improve through access to technologies. By demonstrating in tangible ways women’s huge contribution to agriculture and household income and the positive increase in livelihoods, gender relations are improved and women’s role in communities more valued.

Jennifer Radloff is a communications and women’s rights activist based in Cape Town, South Africa. She has worked for APC for ten years coordinating the APC-Africa-Women network. She manages the GenARDIS project for APC.

This article was extracted from GenARDIS 2002-2010: Small grants that made big changes for women in agriculture, which collects the work of GenARDIS grantees through the various rounds of small grant winners, and evaluates the impact the funds have had on the lives of rural men and women.