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Transforming Traditional Gender Structures: Giving Women Access to Information Technology
by Ami Sengupta, Esther Long, Arvind Singhal and Corrine L. Shefner-Rogers

Authors Corinne Shefner-Rogers (Left) and Arvind Singhal (Centre) with an Afghan
Colleague, 50 kelometres north of Kabul

Around the world, women have significantly lesser access than men to information and communication technologies, just as they have less access to other resources. In general, technology is appropriated as a male resource, requiring skills that women often are not given a chance to develop. However, wherever women have used information and communication technologies, it has led to knowledge gain, increased self-esteem and altering gender relations. Also, when women have access to technology they tend to share it with other women.

Before the September 18, 2005 parliamentary elections, Voice for Humanity, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization, distributed 41,000 solar-powered digital audio players containing civic and voter education to Afghans.[1] These players, called Sada (Voice, in the Dari language), were distributed by VFH in 21 Afghan provinces, with 15 hours of dramas, songs and other materials on peace, national unity, democracy, civic engagement in the election, women’s rights as well as and development and health issues. Each Sada kit included a small speaker for group listening and a solar charger.

Afghan Women Listening to Sada

The “little” medium, Sada, reached out to both men and women in Afghanistan’s traditional and patriarchal context. Women in Afghanistan were excluded from public society during the Taliban regime and continue to have less access than men to employment, health care, education and information. Afghan women have restricted mobility, are often forced into early marriages and have been left out of information and awareness-raising efforts because men predominantly control access to media. Scarce electrical power supplies further limit women’s use of media.

This essay examines men’s and women’s perceptions of the Sada device and their patterns of adoption and use. We explore how women received Sada, the manner in which they shared it with their family and friends, as well as how the technology spurred dialogue and contributed to transforming and challenging gender norms in Afghan society. Our research makes a case for how women’s access to information challenges and contributes to transforming gender structures in society.

Understanding Women’s Use of Sada

We conducted this study in October 2005, three weeks after Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections. We sought to understand how listening to the Sada affected women--particularly their perceptions of, and participation in, the elections. We interviewed men and women who were Sada users, trainers and distributors in Wardak, Parwan, Kapisa, Paktya and Logar provinces. In all, we collected data from 83 women and 32 men. We focus our findings and analysis on four key aspects of Sada’s adoption by the Afghan listeners: (1) patterns of women’s access and use of Sada; (2) engaged learning about civic rights and responsibilities; (3) favourable attitudes about women’s role in Afghan society; and (4) decision making and actions as a consequence of listening to and discussing the contents of Sada.

Patterns of Women’s Access and Use of Sada

Listening to Sada brought us light and brightened our eyes. Before this we were in the dark.
--Shahjahan, Staff Member, Women’s Centre in Paktya province

Accepting Sada. Women reported that they continued to listen to the programs even after the elections. Women found the information easy to understand, the language appropriate, and they appreciated that the Sada was solar-powered: “The beauty is that we don’t have to spend money for it. Now we use God’s sunshine. We don’t have the 15 Afghanis to buy batteries.” Further, with Sada, there was no difficulty of signal reach or poor reception even in remote areas. One male listener from the mountain province of Paktya emphasized how ”the device talked to them even while sitting on top of a rock.”

Collective listening. Participants revealed how the Sada created a collective space for learning about and discussing civic and human rights. Women listened to the devices with their families and with neighbours. Male relatives often joined in, and this collective listening led to discussions about program content. The Sada was readily accepted by both women and men and shared widely with other community members. According to a survey carried out in conjunction with this qualitative assessment, each Sada was listened to by an average of 48 people. Most people listened in a private home.

Listening to Sada with neighbours

Engaged Learning

We learned that women have rights in life, that women aren’t just women, or just wives, but that they have human rights. They can participate in society, can have education, find a job, choose a partner and not go into a forced marriage.
--Faiza, a Sada listener in Kapisa

The Sada provided our respondents with information that they perceived as relevant and useful for Afghanistan, where the landscape is rugged and the illiteracy rate is high. According to one respondent, “In a rural province surrounded by mountains and where most people live in the mountains, the Sada was very useful…. They cannot read or write… .It was enlightening.”

Sada exposed women to information about women’s and human rights, representing an important step towards their empowerment. As one respondent explained: “Before, we would accept everything that men told us to do. But now we understand our rights. We know whom we should vote for and how important education is. We learned a lot and now can discuss these things with our brothers, husbands, and fathers.”

When asked why messages about women’s rights were important to them, a woman replied that it was important for the women “to know about their rights, to know that they have equal rights as men, and that they have the freedom to participate in creating their own future.” This rights-centred information was especially important given the patriarchal context.

Women who learned about their rights were more confident about discussing these rights with other women. One woman from Wardak noted: “Now we understand our rights through Sada. So when we see any women in trouble we can go and discuss things and tell them that this is the right way. And these are our rights.” For several women, knowledge of their rights enabled them to demand their rights. Shayla, a woman respondent from Logar, explained: “We heard about women’s rights from Sada. In the program they talked about how we have freedom. We want our freedom and we want to work outside the home.” The very act of expressing one’s demands indicates empowerment.

Most of our respondents had heard about the parliamentary elections but were unclear about how to enact their civic roles responsibly. The Sada explained and clarified the electoral process to them. Niloufar, a young woman from Parwan who resumed her studies after the Taliban regime fell, emphasized the important role of Sada: “When I heard the Sada I realized we all have a right to vote. And that we can vote for men or women. We learned that we should vote for whoever we feel can do the most to improve our lives.”

Within a few weeks the Sada facilitated people’s learning about civic and human rights. Increased knowledge and comprehension of their rights and responsibilities spurred various women to question traditional gender norms.

Favourable Attitudes about Women’s Role in Afghan Society

We found perceptual changes in the general attitudes of Afghan men toward women and a somewhat increased consideration for women’s welfare. Several women spoke about how their husbands and fathers, after listening to Sada, became more open minded about what women could or could not do in Afghan society. For example, Nigor, a woman in her late-30s from Logar province stated: “After listening to the [Sada’s] program, the men gave us permission to go outside our homes and to do things that we wanted to do. Right now I came here [the Women’s Centre] alone, I couldn’t have done this before.”

Our respondents noted a change in attitude among Afghan men and women with respect to early and forced marriages of young girls. As one mother from Logar stated: “We have learned how and when we should get our daughters married. She should be the proper age—18 years. After learning all this we decided that we should get them married only after they finish their education.” This sentiment was echoed vociferously in all five of the study provinces, even among the older generations of men and women.

After listening to Sada, some parents became more favourably disposed to sending their daughters to school. A female respondent in Logar province noted that her family listened to Sada together, and her husband changed many of his views: ”Before hearing the program he would not have given me permission to go out alone, but now he lets me. This is a big change for us.“ She added, ”He allowed our daughter to go to school.”

Our data suggest that Sada programs played a catalytic role in shifting prevailing perceptions and attitudes about women, particularly with regard to early and forced marriages of young women and to their right to employment and education. The powerful testimonies of respondents signify changes in women’s and men’s intentions to change their behaviour regarding women’s’ role in Afghan society. Listening to the Sada programs may have paved the way for meaningful behavioural and social change within and among the sexes.

Enhanced Participation, Dialogue, and Action

The September 2005 parliamentary election in Afghanistan was historic for both candidates and voters, and Sada was instrumental in motivating women to vote. Shahjahan, who works in the Women’s Centre in Paktya and helped distribute Sadas, reported that their team reached out to women living in remote districts and villages, conveying to them the important election messages contained in Sada, including how these women’s participation was essential to gain azaadi (freedom) for women. Choked with emotion, Shajahan recalled the high women voter turnout in her province: “All the women were so happy on election day. When we saw women going out to vote it looked as if they were going somewhere for an important occasion. The entire area was blue because of all the women wearing blue chadoris (veils). It was like a women’s army.”

Almost all of our respondents gave credit to the Sada programs for encouraging them to vote: ”We went to the voting centre and voted. Sada helped us decide to vote…. We didn’t know we could vote earlier.” A male respondent in Parwan emphasized that Sada helped convince several men to allow their wives to vote. With a proud and beaming smile, he announced: “Not just my wife, but all the women in my village voted.”

Collective listening to Sada spurred dialogue in families and communities on social issues ranging from forced marriage to the right of women to work outside the home. After learning about their rights, several respondents talked to male family members about exercising these rights. Collective listening led to dialogue and consciousness-raising about women’s civic rights and responsibilities.

Our analysis suggests that Sada facilitated dialogue, participation and action. Empowered by information, women participated in the elections in large numbers, becoming active agents of change. At the household level, women increasingly found the courage to speak up and, where possible, negotiate their rights. By receiving relevant and timely information, women were motivated to participate as equals with men in both public and private realms. Clearly, women’s use of Sada led to widespread dissemination of knowledge of women’s rights and civic responsibilities, raising possibilities for gender transformations in other aspects of social and community life.

Technology, Gender Equality and Empowerment

Gender was a key concern during all stages of the Sada project. Concerted efforts were made to ensure that women would personally receive the Sada device, and that the content would be useful to Afghan women. Focusing the Sada project solely on women might very well have caused male alienation and resistance to the messages. Instead, VFH neutralized potential male resistance by providing the same audio content to both men and women. Women respondents acknowledged that they were happy that their husbands and male relatives listened to the messages about women’s empowerment and were sensitised to the issue of women’s empowerment.

The VFH project planners were sensitive to the nature of gender relationships in Afghanistan and took into account possible repercussions of distributing Sadas only to women. Different coloured Sadas were distributed to men and women (silver vs. pink) as a means of preventing men from taking women’s Sadas. The women’s players were distributed through women’s networks, i.e., women’s shuras that were formed by the MOWA and housed at the provincial women’s centres. If devices had only been distributed through men’s networks, it would have been much more difficult to reach a large number of women. Finally, training sessions were held to ensure that women were able to operate the technology.

Empowerment has been interpreted in multiple ways, ranging from oppressed groups gaining power over their oppressors to oppressed people organising and taking collective action. We conceptualise empowerment as the process through which people are able to participate more fully in decisions that affect their lives. Empowerment is both the end result and the process through which people gain more control over their lives and have information, awareness and confidence to make decisions for themselves. The narratives of our men and women respondents suggest that the Sada played a facilitative role in empowering Afghan women.

In sum, relevance and effectiveness are two indicators to gauge any project’s overall strength. The Sada was developed and positioned expressly to reach the needs of Afghan women who are poor, mostly illiterate, have heavy household burdens and restricted mobility. Our qualitative and gendered analysis of VFH’s Sada project in Afghanistan suggests that Sada was highly relevant to women’s needs because it involved no associated costs, did not require literacy skills, could be listened to while engaging in household chores and did not require women to leave their homes to access the Sada information.

Scholars have criticized information dissemination because it views women as passive beneficiaries. VFH’s Sada project reaffirmed the role of information dissemination as a proactive and participatory process for development. The respondents’ voices strongly suggested that receiving information about, for example, women’s rights, could be a catalyst for knowledge, attitude and behaviour change.

Several field-based realities limited our research. Our inability to speak to women in their homes meant that our sample was biased toward ”progressive” women who frequented the women’s centres where we conducted our focus group discussions. These women were likely to be more motivated, independent and aware of their rights than women who did not leave their family compound. Several of these women were also beneficiaries of various women’s development programs implemented through these centres, e.g., adult literacy classes and sewing classes, so they may have been influenced by programs other than the Sada project. The Sada device was new to the listeners, and their positive comments may have been related to the novelty of the device. The respondents may have also been more positive in their feedback about the Sada because the female authors, outsiders and guests, were present during the focus groups.

Overall, VFH’s Sada initiative in Afghanistan exemplifies how information dissemination using a suitable technology can lead to family and community dialogue, which in an enabling environment, can lead to gender-sensitive decisions, actions and transformation.

[1] VFH’s Sada Project was funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). We wish to thank the Voice for Humanity team, especially Pete McLain and Wakil Abdul--for inviting us to review the Sada project and facilitating our data collection in Afghanistan. The project analyzed here would not have been successful without their enthusiasm, dedication and hard work.

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