BALI, Indonesia – In an unidentified country, poor women do have computers. Yet it only has one use: a prop for photo opportunities for donors.

Nnenna Nwakanma, African regional coordinator of the World Wide Web Foundation, shared this story as she and other civil society, government and business leaders discussed the issues surrounding gender and the Internet at the 8th Internet Governance Forum (IGF) here.

The UN-organized IGF is the leading forum for the discussion of public policy issues related to the Internet.

In a roundtable discussion on Wednesday, October 25, Nwakanma and women’s rights advocates stressed that empowering women through the Internet goes beyond access and use of cyberspace.

It’s one thing to be able to use the web, it’s another thing to train girls to use the web. What motivation do countries and experts give for women to learn the web, for female government employees?”

To what extent is Internet used for health rights and services in the main local languages, for example. How is the Internet used to give messages to people who need information on reproductive health on local languages? When we talk about women, gender, it’s not just the women here but also down to ground zero,” she said.

Cheryl Miller of Verizon Communications said the company has programs to help girls learn about technology, and help poor children.

We have a program called Children’s Health Fund. It’s about leveraging cloud technologies aimed at assisting children who are impoverished or don’t have medical insurance,” she said.

Harassment online like on streets’ 

Yet while the Internet can be used to educate and empower women, in many places in the world, it has become a space that mirrored harassment done offline.

Activist Shehla Rashid Shora cited a study in India whose findings illustrate this. India has been making headlines in past months over cases of women who were raped, gang-raped and beaten to death.

Like on the street, you don’t have to do anything online to be harassed online, you just have to be a woman,” she said. In some cases women get attacked because they expressed a political opinion or come from the so-called lower caste but we also found that some were harassed simply because they were women.”

Nighat Dad of the Digital Rights Foundation said that in Pakistan, it’s not just inadequate access to technology and its high cost that bar women from going online. Another factor is the restrictive cultural stereotypes discouraging women from participating.

Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old girl, who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban for promoting education of girls is from Pakistan.

One recent unfortunate incident is where two teenage girls were shot dead in north Pakistan after a video circulated showing them dancing. You can see how technology or access to the ICT is so complex for women in Pakistan. The video was circulated in the neighborhood and then in the village, the women were killed because of honor,’” said Dad.

Siti Noor Laila of Indonesia’s National Human Rights Commission also cited a case in her country.

In some places in Indonesia, people use the image of women for conflict. The picture of a dead body was spread in the other village to provoke conflict and there was a comment how the guy from the other village raped this woman and did violence til she died. This photo is used to politicize ethnic issues among the Balinese people. Hundreds of houses were destroyed,” she said through an interpreter.

Gayathry Venkiteswaran, executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, raised questions about whether or not the Internet has reduced risks for women journalists and bloggers.

Offline, sometimes when women want to interview male sources, they can be harassed. Does the Internet remove elements of harassment and intimidation in the physical space?”

Has the Internet made it safer for vulnerable communities to work,” she asked.

Reclaiming the Internet as a space for women

The speakers and participants agreed that discussions on Internet governance have yet to fully incorporate the gender perspective.

Siti Noor Laila of Indonesia said the debate made her realize the need to include Internet policies in her work of promoting the rights of women.

Anja Kovacs of the Internet Democracy Project said beyond the multi-stakeholder process that the IGF is pushing for, what is needed is a decentralized model.

We have to be more careful not to simply push for more diversity. Governments will push for diversity at the expense of strengthening participation. More diversity does not mean more impact. How can we strengthen participation for these processes to work?”

Valentina Pellizzer of OneworldSEE and the Association for Progressive Communications said women must claim and reclaim the online space.

We need to populate the space with different representation but it’s a space we have to continually fight for. It’s a space that reproduces the same kind of attack, the policy of laughing we find in the public space,” she said.

We need to fight in this place and to make an understanding that gender is a women issue but women issue but it’s an issue of everybody because women are the only minority that’s the majority of the world.”

Originally published in Rappler.