Women’s summit discusses digital divide

While the number of women going online is increasing in the Asia-Pacific region, efforts are still needed to promote greater Internet awareness, especially among housewives and the older generation, a panel of women technologists at a worldwide forum said.

The Global Summit of Women, held in Hong Kong on Friday, touched on electronic commerce and digital divide issues that included education, government intervention, and available technologies that would help more women to get online.

“The Philippine government has set up telecentres where citizens in remote areas can use the Internet,” said Cecile Reyes Philippine assistant secretary for information technology, Department of Transportation and Communications. She said that there are some areas without even telephone service, so “going online” is a foreign concept.

Telecentres, which were set up to create awareness and educate rural Filipinos on the Internet, are centers where phone, fax, and computers are available. They are also equipped with learning tools, such as CD-ROMs, which can teach about the Internet and the simple use of computers, she said.

Since most women in the Philippines stay home and tend to their families, they are inevitably left out of the technology loop for lack of exposure to it. However, with new legislation, Reyes hopes that over time, things will change.

A “10-to-1 ratio” telecommunications law in the Philippines dictates that for every 10 provinces in which telecommunications companies build infrastructure, they are required to equip one non-revenue generating area with basic telecommunications infrastructure, Reyes said.

In Hong Kong, where Internet and mobile phone penetration rates are among the highest in the world, getting people online has not posed much of a problem. However, housewives and the older generation remain a concern for the Hong Kong government, said Secretary for Hong Kong’s Information Technology and Broadcasting Bureau, Carrie Yau.

“We’ve installed Cyber Points in libraries, post offices, and other public facilities so that those without computers at home will still have an opportunity to access the Internet,” Yau said, adding that there is no room for complacency, even for a territory with high Internet penetration rates. “The fundamentals (of our IT strategy) are to start from the homes and schools.”

According to Yau, Hong Kong is ahead in its Digital 21 plan, which aims to place Hong Kong as a leader in the e-commerce world. “We are trying to get nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other communities to bring IT awareness to the grassroots level,” she said.

Similarly, Reyes said that the Philippines needs to put up strong knowledge development programs, starting with schools. “The reality is that the students are more knowledgeable than the teachers (in IT),” she said, adding that the Philippines has half a million teachers, most of whom are women and not well-versed in the Internet.

On the enterprise level, Reyes said that many women from small- and medium-size enterprises face problems such as high cost of IT infrastructure in bringing their companies online. She suggested that these companies should look to more cost-efficient methods of doing business online, such as using application service providers as a cheaper alternative.

The Internet continues to play a critical role within the Philippine government, minimizing corruption and streamlining processes, said Reyes. “E-procurement for the government is done over the Internet, and this allows bidders to participate in a very transparent bidding process,” she said.

Other issues discussed at the summit include making interfaces easier and more user-friendly, to include even the illiterate into the Internet fold. “Installing hardware is only the first step,” said Yau. “There also needs to be training, and interesting applications for first-timers as an incentive for them to go online.”