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Gender, ICTs and Health at the World Summit on the Information Society 2013

Gender, ICTs and Health at the World Summit on the Information Society 2013

Nasim Farach  




Quite comprehensibly, gender and health feature prominently as protagonist elements within the development discourse, including that which espouses the potential of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to further equitable development.  To assess how these key factors are approached in an international, multi-stakeholder context, we might ask ourselves the following question: How is the intersection between gender, health and ICTs addressed in one of the major global gatherings of information society stakeholders?

To provide some insight into this question, I selected one of the largest events in the ICT and development realm- the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). Since 2003 the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the United Nations specialized agency for ICTs and the official source for global ICT statistics, has organized this annual gathering of stakeholders from the public, private and academic sectors and civil society who convene to address the evolving role of ICTs in development.  The official goal of WSIS is to “achieve a common vision, desire and commitment to build a people-centric, inclusive and development-oriented information society where everyone can create, access, utilize and share information”. Back in 2003, the WSIS was the first United Nations conference to draw attention to the opportunities and challenges of the then-emerging information society, proposing at the time a strategic framework to promote the use of ICTs to increase access, especially of vulnerable populations, to education, health care, information, finance and knowledge, protecting the environment, mitigating natural disaster risks, ensuring sustainable use of natural resources and sustainable food production.  The latest WSIS event was held in Geneva, Switzerland from May 13-17th, 2013 with the participation of 50 ministers and 1800 stakeholders from over 100 countries.   


With the objective of assessing this latest WSIS´s approach and recommendations regarding the gender, public health and ICTs intersect, the main outcome document as well as special session notes were downloaded from the official event website, reviewed and analyzed for common themes.  I also identified one keynote speaker who directly addressed gender and ICTs, whose words were also downloaded and reviewed.   


Only one breakaway session directly relating to gender, health and ICTs was identified.   This was a joint event organized by the ITU in coordination with the World Health Organization (WHO), called Thematic session on eHealth: ICT for Improving Information and Accountability for Women’s and Children’s Health.  The session focused on the work and recommendations of the Commission on Information and Accountability for Women’s and Children’s Health, a high-level entity established in January 2011 to improve global reporting, oversight and accountability for women's and children’s health.  The commission encourages the use of eHealth to achieve this goal.  The session included a presentation of the e-health implementation case of a public hospital in Entre Rios, Argentina that manages the city demographics, socioeconomics, families, patient evaluations, laboratory, stock and pharmacy, hospitalizations, financial accounting, human resources and medical imaging through non-proprietary software.  

Participants in this session identified and discussed emerging trends regarding women´s health and ICTs, mainly that:

  1. The increasing use of mobile technologies in health services/information; projects are still on a trial basis and have not so far reached large scale;
  2. There is a need for sound evidence (and sharing the evidence) as to the impact of eHealth, through credible and reproducible evaluation mechanisms;
  3. There is an on-going need for communities of expertise to support health professionals working in remote areas;
  4. The importance of a commitment to adopt national eHealth strategies and focus on integrating ICTs to support the priorities of the health sector;
  5. The on-going need to ensure affordable, reliable connectivity to health centers, institutions and remote areas.

 The following recommendations were proposed:

  1. Prioritize eHealth initiatives targeting maternal and child health;
  2. Ensure the inclusion of an mHealth component in eHealth policies and strategies;
  3. Develop, adopt and harmonize national eHealth policies and strategies;
  4. Improve measurement of the impact of eHealth applications and services, particularly at the community level;
  5. Enhance the quality of health information collected;
  6. Target financial resources specifically for eHealth services;
  7. Develop human capacity in eHealth Emerging Trends.

Another related session was identified as well.  This second meeting had the objective of exploring what current ICT statistics can tell about women in the information society and how women use, benefit from and produce ICTs. While health was not explicitly mentioned, it included discussion on issues that are relevant to health and I thus included in this analysis.  A main theme in this discussion was the need to enhance the availability of sex-disaggregated and gender-related ICT statistics to inform policies aimed at reducing the gender digital divide.  It was noted that evidence to date suggests that the gender divide varies by region, country and within countries, and may depend on education and income.   As Lakshmi Puri, former Deputy Executive Director of UN-Women highlighted during the event, “When it comes to ICTs, we know of the North-South divide, as well as the socio-economic divide within countries. There is also undeniably a gender divide.”  Another objective of the session was to identify a set of priority areas requiring more data, which included ICT skills and literacy, ICT employment and occupations, ICTs and health, e-government services, entrepreneurship, ICT policy and ICT-related gender-based violence.

An interesting component within WSIS2013 was the sub-regional sessions that were conducted to further the progress of ICT working groups in specific regions of the world.  This included a session among Latin American and Caribbean participants to follow up on the implementation of the Plan of Action on the Information and Knowledge Society for Latin America and the Caribbean (eLAC2015), a document that identifies eight key areas for the development of the information and knowledge society in the region: (i) access, (ii) eGovernment, (iii) the environment, (iv) social security, (v) productive development and innovation, (vi) enabling environment, (vii) education, and (viii) institutional structure for a policy of State.   The plan also has 14 working groups, including one on health and another in gender.  Each one of them presented progress in their activities.  

The working group on ICTs, health and social security presented advances in the development of an agenda around regional challenges relating to electronic health and addressed issues such as alternatives for training human resources in ICTs and health, competency-based curricula, electronic health records and interoperability standards.  The working group on gender provided support for the production of a document on mapping digital agendas, digital inclusion plans and gender inclusion in the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean.   They also lobbied to showcase Gender and ICTs in the next Regional Conference on Women in Latin America and the Caribbean, which will take place in the Dominican Republic in late 2013.  

The event also included an award ceremony to recognize excellence in the implementation of ICT projects in development, open to all stakeholders: governments, private sector, civil society, international organizations, academia and others.   Out of the 18 prize winners, only one was awarded to an eHealth intervention: the Ministry of Health of Oman with the project Reduce Childhood Mortality Rate: Infants and Children under 5 years of age. 


Based on the content analysis of the abovementioned session minutes as well as the WSIS 2013 main outcome document, the following conclusions can be drawn regarding the discussions around the intersection between gender, health and ICTs in this international information society event.  

a.              The ICT and gender discussion mostly focused on access to ICTs, education and employment among women- there was a limited focus regarding health and relatively no mention of men´s health.  

b.              Within ICT and gender discussions, a greater emphasis was placed on interventions focusing on maternal and child health.  No substantial discussion regarding the use of ICTs in other health areas, such as non-communicable diseases, mental health and gender-based violence, was identified in the event documents.  

c.              A common theme in the sessions was the central role governments should play in furthering the use of ICTs in health, including the adoption of national eHealth strategies, interoperability standards and electronic health records.  

d.              ICTs potential in health was frequently mentioned but mostly within a broad, generic list of potential impact areas.   Very limited discussions on practical ICT applications in health were featured in the sessions.  

e.              The lack of data to monitor and assess progress in ICT use in health was frequently noted, resulting in difficulties to establish a functional M&E framework and to garner political support for the furthering of ICTs as a tool in gender inequity reductions.  

f.               Gender is perceived as an additional stratum of division regarding access and use of ICTs, in addition to socioeconomic factors such as education and income.  


WSIS 2013 website: