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Empowering Afghan women: does technology help or hinder?

The male members of the family still control who gets to have access to what and to what extent.

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Producer and presenter at Kunduz radio centre, Afghanistan. Producer and presenter at Kunduz radio centre, Afghanistan. Flickr/ ADB. Some rights reserved.Afghan women, alongside their peers in the rest of South Asia are fast emerging out of confinements externally imposed on them by religious extremism and other negative socio-economic elements. Information and Communication Technology or ICT, primarily mobile telephony and Internet, are playing a critical role in this gradual process of empowerment.

Ignoring the centuries-old taboos, the women are gaining fast access to mobile technologies. They are getting used to different information services and creating their own social as well as professional spaces online. Certainly there are still many battles left to fight to ensure equitable access to information and communication for the majority of women in this land. However, the trends we have observed are indicating the increasing and positive presence of Afghan women in the world of social media, smart technologies, and digital economy.

With support from the Ford Foundation, the Asian University for Women, a regional liberal arts university for women is conducting a multi-year piece of research to better understand the impact of changes in employment and educational opportunities for women on gender relations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. A part of the research has been designed to analyse the usage pattern, ownership, and impact of ICT tools and services on women’s empowerment.

This write-up highlights some of the key findings regarding ICT usage by Afghan women of multiple ethnicities in the greater Kabul region. While we understand the need for reaching out to other geographical locations within Afghanistan in order to have a proper overview, the present political situation and security concerns led us to focus our work among women from diverse social and ethnic background in and around Kabul.

Our research found the mobile phone to be the most popular ICT tool among Afghan women, across different age and socio-economic backgrounds. The majority of research respondents identified themselves as mobile phone owners, indicating a trend towards greater flexibility on usage. TV turns out to be the most popular source of family entertainment and news. Religious, health, and cooking- related programmes are also popular. Interestingly, some respondents highlighted Facebook as their favorite ICT tool or service, but at the same time mentioned that they do not use the Internet! This only proved the huge popularity of this social network service among Afghan netizens.

We sensed existing tensions in terms of useage decisions with respect to TV or mobile phones. The male members of the family (e.g., the father or grandfather) usually controls who gets to have access to what and to what extent. One respondent said:

Men mostly have full control to use whatever (ICT tools) they want. In family girls are allowed to use them (ICT) but ... they (women) are afraid to become part of the communication network.

Even though such practices remained somewhat the norm for TV access, women are fighting hard to change it for the mobile phone and net-based applications. At times, they are facing stiff resistance from the traditional social power bases. Women at times access Facebook with fake personal information in order to avoid strife within and outside the family.

In some places, women are also still prohibited from watching TV and owning mobile phones. But women are now trying to make a stand, citing the need to use ICT, social media, and Internet to ensure their own security. One participant mentioned:

My father in law always scolds me about why I let my daughters have personal cell phones and Facebook accounts... My response always to them is that my daughters use cell phone because we need to know where they are and if sometimes they need to inform us about anything happening to them.

Some also highlighted the ever-growing popularity of ICT (mobile phone, Internet, etc.) even among the majority of the conservatives and anti-establishment elements in Afghanistan. One respondent added:

Swear to God, those things, those people who are part of the Taliban themselves now have dish antennas!

More importantly, ICT helped the common people in Afghanistan to better comprehend their suffering and the opportunities they had been missing out on. In one woman's account:

Now people understand that the way of life those people spread among people were dark and bitter.

Understandably, women in Afghanistan, collectively, have high hopes for ICT as an enabler to empower them and improve their lives.

ICT can help women to better interact with the outside world... these facilities are so beneficial for women in our society because they do not have so much interaction with outside... using computer by women can help them to get better job... (using ICT) Women get new ideas. Sometimes they get to know of their rights...

Besides rights and work-related issues, we encountered wonderful anecdotes described by our respondents, elaborating how significantly ICT has impacted on their lives:

ICT has lots of effects... the wolf cub that I mentioned was sick once. My eldest son immediately opened his Skype and contacted a doctor in the USA. Thanks to his advice, the cub got better. See, we were upset how to cure it and from where the information came!

Moreover, many women talked about the importance of accessing cooking lessons and healthcare information using the Internet. Most importantly, the majority of them recognized ICT as a means to change their lives and to showcase to others the positive aspects of life for Afghan women. It can be summarized by one respondent's perception about ICT:

ICT helps others to see the new images of Afghan women in the society

These findings indeed make us hopeful about the positive and developmental applications of ICT in an ordinary Afghan woman's life.

Our second phase of work aims to cover more areas so that we can construct an in-depth overview of the challenges and opportunities women ICT users face in this country. We surely hope for the day when all the trendy and major ICT options can be made economically and socially available, accessible, and affordable for all the women in Afghanistan.

 

There is an acute and growing tension between the concern for safety and the protection of our freedoms. How do we handle this? Read more from the World Forum for Democracy partnership.
About the author

Faheem Hussain is an assistant professor in the Department of Technology and Society, the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences at State University of New York, Korea. He has been involved as a Technology Policy and Social Media Specialist in various projects with UNDP, UNAPCICT, ITU, IDRC, DFID and elsewhere in the fields of technology, public policy and development.

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