At the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women (FWCW), held at Beijing, China, in September 1996, one of the most striking features was the use of the information superhighway to speed the word about the Conference and the NGO Forum well beyond the boundaries of previous global conferences.  In addition to the close to 40,000 participants, most of whom were women who had travelled to Beijing from all the corners of the globe, thousands of women and men joined the superhighway daily to follow the Conference and Forum using computers and telephone lines. 

In the two years preceding the events, women and men from all regions, cultures and walks of life had reflected together on line, seeking consensus on fundamental issues related to gender and women's human rights.  New computer networking technologies (CNTs) made this possible by broadening participation for diverse groups and enabling women in particular to participate and build new partnerships. 

The experience gained by the United Nations around the FWCW helped to reveal the power of the Internet as a tool for use by women for information dissemination and communication.  The UN's Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW), in its role as Secretariat for the Beijing Conference, worked to stimulate the use of computer technology for the Conference continues to see a role in facilitating its use in the follow-up to Beijing.  In order to disseminate information on the Conference, DAW established a word Wide Web (WWW) site and, in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), a local Internet server was set up at the official Conference venue. 

User statistics collected during the FWCW demonstrated the potential demand for such a tool: A total of 158,722 requests for files under the FWCW Internet space were received from 68 different countries.  Equally impressive was the success of Internet activities at the NGO Forum Beijing' 95.  As a result, DAW, with partners UNIFEM and INSTRAW, developed a joint initiative called Women Watch.   

The experience with electronic communicate networking at Beijing reflects the explosion in the field of communication technologies which have expanded global access to information at a remarkable rate.  This revolution in information technology has created new opportunities as well as challenges.  Just as advances in radio and television have seemed to transform our world into a "global village", CNTs have introduced a concept that changes the nature of space.  They have created a sphere, or cyberspace, where multiple and diverse opportunities for social interaction can evolve from the local to the planetary level.  They have introduced an electronic "virtual community" where millions can come to share information and ideas as well as organize and mobilize for action on an unprecedented scale.  This interaction can occur at a speed previously unheard of. 

"The logic of networks is essentially a logic of spaces.  Cyberspace itself is comprised of a vast conglomeration of data and information flow within which it is possible to define specific spaces where common interest groups gather to exchange information or co-ordinate activities"  

Sally Burch, President, Agencia Latinoamericana de Informacion, ALAI. 

During the preparations for Beijing exchanges took place among women's organizations using several on-line instruments established by groups such as the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) and UNDP - electronic conferences or bulletin boards on specific topics, mailing lists, WWW pages, etc.  Organizations and individuals who used these spaces, including many who had indirect access through other organisations or by redisseminating information using traditional media, were better informed and able to prepare joint actions.  This was an important factor in NGOs having a better-informed and -co-ordinated input at Beijing than at previous UN women's conferences. 

It has also been argued that by participating in these spaces, "many women and organizations are developing their experience and confidence to participate in other on-line circles and to publicly express their viewpoints.  Having access to an interactive space of communication provides women with opportunities to develop discourse with a prepositional focus, going beyond the rhetoric of denunciation and complaint.  Moreover, the new opportunities offered by electronic networks can be a training ground for women to develop the means of expression in the new media practices that will develop through this technology and in other media". 

Electronic networking is fast becoming a fact of life, in both industrialized and developing countries.  The electronic "superhighway" has made the communication of information more rapid and far-reaching than ever before in history. 
UNICEF exhibition, "Summitry Works : Words into Actions", UNICEF headquarters, June 1996 

As the electronic highway evolves into a new mass medium, it is essential that women be fully involved in its development.  Experience in the past with other mass media has not always been positive for women.  There is no guarantee that experience with the new CNTs will be any different.  Negative stereotyping and discrimination against women as well as forms of sexual harassment on line are already evident.   

The Platform for Action (PfA) adopted at the FWCW called for women to take an active role in shaping the use of cyberspace to prevent similar patterns of abuse as seen in other mass media.  The Platform will be implemented at a time of rapid growth in the new information technologies.  Since communications are at the heart of empowerment of people, women must ensure that the new technologies serve to empower them.  Computer literacy is becoming an indispensable tool for organizing and mobilizing communities throughout the world, and women need to be directly involved in this new medium. 





copyright WAI 2000