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TUNIS, Nov 18, 2005, 2005 (IPS/GIN via COMTEX) -- Men and women use communications technology differently, experts here say, and it will take more than installing more Internet lines or boosting the number of mobile phones to change that.

"Digital divide" has become ubiquitous in describing gaps between how the world's people own and use the Internet and other information and communications technologies (ICTs). Usually the term refers to the gap between rich and poor countries, but it can also mean fissures within countries, or between the sexes.

"People say, 'What are you talking about: it's just a computer, it's just a telephone -- how can there be gender issues over technology?' There's still no understanding of how things like computers get into institutions and are incorporated into existing male-dominated power structures," says an Indian woman delegate here for a global meeting on making the so-called information age benefit all people.

According to a set of principles issued after the first part of this global conference -- the World Summit on the Information Society -- in 2003, governments are working to make men and women equal players in the information age. "We are committed to ensuring that the information society enables women's empowerment and their full participation on the basis of equality in all spheres of society and in all decision-making processes. To this end, we should mainstream a gender equality perspective and use ICTs as a tool to that end," they declared.

The issues are complex, emphasizes a report released here Thursday.

"Even in countries where access is no longer much of an issue and (the use of ICTs) is high, inequalities in actual use can hamper women's development opportunities," says a chapter on women in a report called "From the Digital Divide to Digital Opportunities."

"We can say little about women's equal and active participation in the information society just based on access. Access is a necessary but not sufficient condition to closing the gender digital divide," adds the report, published by United Nations agencies and various partners, including Canada's International Development Research Center (IDRC).

No doubt ICTs are important, "enabling women to overcome isolation and move towards increased opportunities," but there is little statistical data to back that up, according to the report.

Women are also slower to start using new technologies, it says. "This gender divide persists as we move to countries with more developed 'info states.'" For example, in Taiwan in 2004, 93 women used the Internet for every 100 men, but only 70 women accessed the Internet via mobile phones for every 100 men.

"While the gender gap has recently vanished in a few countries with high Internet penetration, such as Canada and the United States, this is not the case among other countries well known for their info states, such as Norway, Luxembourg and the UK," says the document.

"At the same time we also see a number of countries with very low overall penetration that do not seem to experience a gender divide," including Mongolia, the Philippines and Thailand, where more women than men use the Internet, it adds.

"Much remains to be done in order to understand better why gender gaps exist and why they matter," the report says.

But the message to make women full partners in the information age was lost from the moment that only one woman appeared among a roster of men for the opening ceremony of the second part of WSIS, taking place here in the Tunisian capital, says activist Magaly Pazello.

"The gender dimension has kind of been put on the backburner in the negotiations and documents of the summit. There is no explicit commitment that guarantees the rights of women," Pazello, from the Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN), told the main session of this gigantic gathering Thursday.

Women, she added on behalf of non-governmental organizations' gender caucus, "would like to participate at all levels of decision-making, including in the development of infrastructure, financing and the choice of technologies. We'd also like to participate in a debate on the ethics of technology itself and its application."

And in a stuffy meeting room here so small that participants, including the translator, were forced to sit on the floor, a group of women concluded this week that ICTs have far to travel to live up to their potential.

For instance, the Internet has led to more sexual harassment and exploitation and "enables men to buy sex and exchange millions of images of women and children," said Mavic Cabrera-Balleza from ISIS International Manila, a women's communication group for the Asia-Pacific region.

Four years ago, 10 percent of sales made on the Internet were sex-related, she added.

Janice Brodman, director of the Center for Innovative Technologies in the U.S.-based Education Development Center, says "ICTs have in fact continually eroded human rights for women and will continue to do so in the future if we don't take steps now."

Copyright (c) 2005 IPS-Inter Press Service. All Rights Reserved.

(C) 2005 Inter Press Service. All Rights Reserved

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