By Louise Morris
This series of articles aims to highlight how alternative media can be used to provide a space for women’s voices, rights and empowerment in Central America while recognising the limits to accessing media and participating in producing media content that many women still face.
The rapid increase and spread of Information Communication Technologies and Internet access globally has made it easy to slip into digital determinism – the optimistic attitude that every problem finds its solution through technology. Advances in technology have revolutionised journalism, leading to 24 hour reporting and a plethora of alternative news sources – world events now reach Twitter faster than the mainstream press.
Social Media has also been influential for grassroots reporting in countries where the press is censored or controlled, and has opened up new channels for political critique, as it removes the traditional hierarchy between citizens and politicians as they can connect directly to leaders online. NGOs and charities have placed increasing emphasis on Social Media campaigns, and signing online petitions has become so commonplace it has borne the term “clicktivism”. While it is certainly true that there are many benefits for activists using ICTs, such as the easy ability to reach an international and potentially sympathetic audience, as well as facilitating alternative media production, there are also severe limitations which are not always acknowledged in campaign strategies. Internet access is growing in Central America and a number of interesting projects have made full use of technological developments to aide their purposes.
Several also focus on making technology available to a wider range of people – not just the educated, upper-middle classes. Beyond Access is a global organisation who promotes the value of libraries to development, primarily for their role in allowing “access to information and technology, support to use it, and physical spaces to connect with others”. The benefit of their work can be demonstrated through Rija’tzuul Na’ooj, a member library in Guatemala which founded a business centre for local female artisans, providing training and computer access.
The courses, which teach indigenous women how to use the Internet to track market trends, seek customers and sell their work online, have been extremely popular. Participants have managed to successfully expand their businesses, helping those whom tourism often exploits to carve a niche in the tourist industry for themselves through expanding their reach online. Chicas Poderosas has attempted to train women in a different sphere of production – the media. The project aims to increase the number of women in news rooms in Latin America, traditionally areas dominated by men, by giving women skills in data journalism and multi-media production.
Last year the shocking state of reproductive rights in El Salvador became known internationally through the tragic case of a woman referred to as Beatriz. Despite Beatriz’s life being endangered by her pregnancy, which was also non-viable, Salvadoran authorities refused to allow Beatriz a life-saving abortion. The news trickled from local human rights organisations to international ones, who with their tireless online work, popularised the #SaveBeatriz hashtag, putting pressure on Salvadoran authorities to uphold their international human rights obligations. Due to the story’s ubiquity on Social Media, it was even picked up by mainstream news outlets globally. Ultimately Beatriz had an obstetric intervention after almost 7 months of angst and deteriorating health – different parts disagree on whether it was a last minute emergency abortion (hysterotomy) or a birth through a c-section. In Mexico, computer software has been utilised in a different manner for a campaign purpose; mapping technology has proved vital for an initiative to track the devastating numbers of Mexico’s disappeared. Primarily blamed on the violence of drug cartels, 27,000 people are missing according to the country’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), although the map’s co-administrator Manuel Robles believes the actual figure to be closer to 30,000. A significant proportion of the disappeared are women – the frequent conflict in the areas of Mexico dominated by cartels has fostered a climate of impunity and machismo which has led to a horrific increase in the murder and rape of women. Endemic corruption in the police force and government structures means that these cases are rarely reported, those who have pushed for prosecutions have been themselves attacked.
#PorTodxsLxsDesaparecidxs aims to circumvent this by mapping civilians’ reports alongside official statistics, although they are careful to cross-check all information to maintain credibility. Technology has also been adopted as a subversive protest tool in the Central American region. Several “hacktivist” groups have sprung up, most notably in Honduras and Guatemala. Modelling themselves as a regional group inspired by international hackers Anonymous, these activists hack government websites, posting messages exposing corruption and calling for an uncensored press. Despite these successful examples incorporating technology into development initiatives, there remain problems to their efficacy. There is a growing awareness of the Digital Divide – both between countries of the Global North and South and even between citizens of First World nations. In Central America, although Internet access has increased, it is still only available to 32.6% of the population overall, and falls as low as 11.7% in Nicaragua. This is largely due to the prohibitive cost of either owning a device with Internet access or visiting an Internet café which have become relatively widespread in the region. However, Internet cafés can be intimidating places – they are often run and populated by men, possibly putting some women off from using them.
The primary language of the Internet is English, another factor which segregates the connected (usually middle-upper class, educated, English speaking) and the unconnected. Although Spanish language content is increasing, this does not aide the high numbers of Central America’s indigenous population, many of whom only speak their indigenous language. Digital literacy is another barrier – one often taken for granted – and demonstrates why initiatives like the Beyond Access library schemes are so valuable as they teach people how this technology may be of actual use to them and show them how it operates, in terms relevant to their daily lives. Online safety is also worrying, particularly in authoritarian countries – a new law in Honduras even legalises government interception of personal messages sent online, while harsh laws against cyber crime in Costa Rica and Guatemala can also be applied to restrict online activism and whistle-blowing initiatives.
The option of anonymity online has led to an increase in Internet abuse, especially targeted towards women (for more information see: Take Back the Tech and Gender IT) and fraudulent Social Media accounts have been set up to discredit organisations. Of course, aside from all of these barriers, a central question remains: What is the point of campaigning for Internet access when half the world’s population live on less than $2.50 a day? In Central America high poverty rates mean that most people’s concerns focus more on the means for their family’s survival, rather than getting connected. ICTs are certainly valuable tools and have led to successful developments both in the methods of campaigning and for the campaigns’ recipients.
I would argue they are most useful for facilitating global networks which can raise awareness of injustices that may be otherwise overlooked, using online campaigns to put pressure on governments to improve their human rights records. However, organisations and activists must not be lured into digital determinism. It must be emphasised that online activism needs to function symbiotically with a continued focus on street protests and community work to achieve better chance of success, and to avoid excluding the less connected percentage of the population they purport to help.