Committed to connecting the world


Speech by ITU Secretary-General, Dr Hamadoun I. Touré

2nd International NGO Forum for the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of Women

27 September 2010, Geneva, Switzerland


Cloud of words: Women, ICTs, broadband, gender, access, information, equality,...Distinguished colleagues,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I don’t think it would be too controversial to start by saying that empowering women and delivering equality between the sexes is essential to human progress. Indeed, it might even be stating the obvious.

I am here today representing ITU, which I am sure you know is the lead UN agency for Information and Communication Technologies – ICTs.

In the 21st century, ICTs are at the centre of everything we do, and over the past decade or so they have become globally pervasive.

So that today there are over five billion mobile cellular subscriptions worldwide. Over two billion people have access to a computer at home. And almost two billion people have access to the internet.

This is astonishing progress.

But we must extend simple, equitable and affordable access to all the world’s people – and especially women. So that they can create information, use information, and share information – wherever they live and however modest their means.

This is crucial, because today – let’s face it – in so many of the areas which really count, from education and health to political or economic power, women are still stuck in a kind of global underclass.

ICTs can do everything to change this.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We all know that information is power. And in the hands of women, ICTs are an especially fast route to achieving social and economic prosperity – not just for women, but for the whole community.

Take agriculture, for example, which is the main source of income for around 70% of people in the developing world – and where women do most of the work.

Improving yields – through better information about what to plant, and where and when, and knowing the optimal moment to harvest – is a win-win strategy for everyone in the community.

To take another example, look at the huge success of Grameenphone in Bangladesh – where women have been at the forefront of the village phone movement. Grameenphone now has over 20 million subscribers, and the majority are women.

Why is this?

Because of women’s pivotal role in local communities, and because they can be relied on to act responsibly, pay back the loans, and reinvest in their businesses. That’s why micro-credit pioneer Grameen Bank wanted women to manage the village phone service in the first place.

So now we find that perhaps 100 million Bangladeshis, often too poor to own their own phones, can buy airtime and have access to at least a small part of the wealth of the information society.

ICTs also play an essential role in improving global education and global health – especially in the developing world, where resources are thinly spread. They make distance learning more effective; and they make telemedicine possible.

Distinguished colleagues,

Last week I was in New York, participating in a number of important events related to the 2010 MDG Summit, and where there was a positive focus on gender empowerment and the role of women, both in accelerating progress towards the MDGs in general, and in how we can achieve MDG 3: Promoting gender equality and empowering women.

From ITU’s perspective, it is absolutely clear that ICTs – and particularly broadband – will make all the difference.

Indeed, they are key to achieving empowerment and gender equality.

ICTs and broadband provide an excellent means of opening up opportunities in education and employment, as well as access to information, and have the potential to neutralize much of the discrimination traditionally faced by women.

The flexibility provided by the use of ICTs and broadband in education and work can enable women to better fulfil their work commitments, and can help overcome issues of mobility.

ICTs and broadband can also be used to influence public attitudes to gender equality, create opportunities for women as educators and activists, and enhance opportunities for networking and organizing for gender equality, as well as female participation in political processes.

Perhaps most importantly, ICTs and broadband are directly relevant to empowerment and gender equality in both cause and effect: increasing women’s access to ICTs and broadband will help achieve these goals, and achieving gender equality will help increase women’s access to ICTs and broadband.

Key stakeholders must therefore develop gender-focused or gender-neutral technology and application programmes to ensure that broadband mitigates, and does not widen, gender gaps.

As many of you may know, ITU was instrumental in setting up the Broadband Commission for Digital Development, in conjunction with UNESCO. And at our meeting in New York on 19 September we presented our main report to the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon.

The report closes with a series of recommendations and action points, and I would like to highlight Action Point 6, which is dedicated to ‘Accelerating Broadband Access for Women and Girls’.

Specific actions recommended include:

  • taking active steps to accelerate access to broadband infrastructure and the use of broadband-enabled services by women and girls and to set targets for the provision of broadband access and services to women and girls;
  • encouraging governments to invest in broadband infrastructure; and
  • helping policy-makers recognize the importance of broadband for women in the unpaid economy, as well as a tool to help eradicate functional illiteracy and promote career training;

I was also privileged in New York last Tuesday to be able to take part in a high-level event entitled ‘Women Connect for Health’. This event looked at how women’s lives and work can be strengthened by all the benefits that ICTs can bring – and in particular how the spread of broadband is leading to the expansion of e-health, even into the most remote places which might never before have had access to modern medical services.

The combination of women’s empowerment and greater use of ICTs for health is unique. It is a powerful driver for harnessing our full potential to advance attainment of MDGs 4, 5 and 6, which address child and maternal health and fighting disease.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In closing I would just like to say a few words about how ITU as an organization is working to promote gender equality.

We now have a unit which deals with gender issues, and which helps ensure that a gender perspective is incorporated within all of our work programmes – and especially within the development sector, of course.

We also work to promote gender equality within the ITU itself, and ITU actively seeks to hire and promote women within the organization.

So let me encourage smart, well-qualified women to come forward and bring fresh blood to ITU as vacancies become available.

And let me salute the work of this forum in particular, in promoting the economic, social and cultural rights of women.

Thank you.