The New Security Net
By Jensine Larsen
Women are using technology to forge global support networks and build a new development paradigm
Several years ago I was reporting at the G-8 in Scotland and I stopped to interview a trio of tall, laughing African women leaders who were attending the conference to pressure world leaders to commit to ending poverty.
“Oh you are from the US?” they said, looking at me with furrowed brows. “We are so sorry, we know how difficult it is for women in your country. The child obesity, the suicide rate, the depression, and the prisons—and only 16% women in government!” (South Africa has 33% women parliamentarians, Rwanda 56%). The women leaned closer, and one put her arm around my shoulder. “But don’t worry,” she squeezed. “We are here for you. Call on us. We are all here for you, yes?”
As the women nodded confidently I felt the genuine warmth of their support spread across my shoulder. At that moment, my concept of security turned upside down. I realized that if economic and political conditions worsened in my own country the bonds of friendship that we forged with women in other nations could become a vital web of support.
Today, thanks to the communications revolution, that initial vision of a collaborative network of women leaders acting as an international “security net,” is more possible than ever before in history.
Over the past few years, as the founder of an international media organization, I have increasingly witnessed a new generation of grassroots women leaders, even those from remote villages, begin to harness growing internet and mobile phone access to report sexual violence, receive market and health care information, organize, and reach the world with their stories. Surprisingly, in developing countries in particular, access to the web is galloping. Across the 50 most impoverished nations mobile phone access has grown by 70% every year since the turn of the century. By 2011, it is estimated that the next billion mobile phone users will be 90% in the Global South.
Women’s increasing participation in a wired world of information, resources, and social networking has the potential to turn traditional top-down development and philanthropy on its head. This phenomenon enables women who were previously “off the map” to speak for themselves and drive the development destiny of their own communities and nations.
The potential is revolutionary considering that there is now near universal consensus among development organizations and world leaders that women are the most effective engines of sustainable economic development.
Even in the United States the new administration has acknowledged the importance of women’s role in economic development by creating the position of ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues and establishing the White House Council on Women and Girls.
Yet women still remain some of the most unheard, isolated, and under-resourced on earth. There is no country in the world where women have equal voice, and women and girls represent 70% of the earth’s poor. Governments, businesses, large NGOs, tribal chiefs, and husbands still overwhelmingly speak for, and set policy for, women.
As women’s voices increasingly rise from the ground up, we are seeing a parallel rise of citizen philanthropy on the web, such as the online microcredit and charitable websites—the Kivas and the Global Givings—that aggregate and channel small amounts of money to grassroots projects and entrepreneurs. Add to the mix the fact that women now comprise the bulk of internet users (52%) and philanthropic givers (56%) in the United States. Suddenly we have a recipe for an unprecedented two-way web of empowerment and support across borders by using the web to directly link women with skills, financial resources, and desire to make a difference to their counterparts in emerging nations.
I have seen the exciting life-changing power of these linkages firsthand. After working as an international journalist at age 19 with women in the Ecuadorian Amazon and on the Burma-Thai border I founded World Pulse, a nonprofit global media company that covers global issues through the eyes of women. We started with a print magazine, but after being deluged with emails from women writing from the forests of Colombia to villages in Iran who wanted coverage and support for their small initiatives, we realized we couldn’t cover and connect them all.
So, in 2007 we branched out and built a social networking website, called PulseWire, designed to serve as both a newswire and a community for women globally. We theorized the potential, but didn’t fully know what to expect. So few people were pioneering web 2.0 with women’s empowerment, and most people thought we were crazy.
Today women from over 130 countries are using PulseWire to share their underreported stories from the field and collaborate across borders to solve global challenges.
Every morning, before I pour myself a cup of coffee, I am can’t resist peeking on the site to witness the connections that have happened overnight. I find my jaw continually dropping as I witness the eruption of an eco-system of empowerment that women are creating.
For example, microfinance leader Chingwell Mbutu from the Democratic Republic of Congo met a funder through PulseWire and is today expanding her programs to thousands of women. Educators in Kenya are matching illiterate women with virtual pen pals across the globe to teach them writing skills, and US and Canadian women are finding meaningful international volunteer opportunities.
Our editors are receiving breaking stories from mobile phones of arrests in Bolivia, violence in Sudan, and protests in Moldova. Unprecedented dialogues are taking place surrounding the conflict zone of Kashmir, across a “virtual barbed wire fence” between Kashmiri, Pakistani, and Indian women.
One HIV+ leader and mother of 5, Leah Auma Okeyo, heard of our site via word of mouth in her impoverished Kenyan town in 2007. Today Okeyo is a true citizen journalist for her community with a robust network of contacts, business mentors, a donated laptop, proficiency in the use of Skype, and international speaking engagements and scholarships lined up—all a result of her determined networking on PulseWire. “I have so many dreams, and now I am going to do them all,” she said.
Whether from Topeka, Kansas or Lima, Peru, women are daily reporting changed lives, reduced depression, increased self-confidence, and reverence for our combined collective power. They no longer feel alone.
For women especially, the web can be profoundly liberating as they overcome societal constraints to share their ideas freely and meet others who share their dreams. The benefits are also exponential. We are seeing that once a woman breaks free of caste or religious and political limitations and has been connected to resources and a support network, she often shares her knowledge and increased confidence with her community.
“Yesterday my neighbors didn't want to hear anything from me but today the world is waiting for my voice,” says Sunita Metha, a young leader from Nepal who has received morale-boosting feedback and is now networking online to organize women in her own country.
Although these linkages are still nascent, if nurtured and unleashed through the application of new advances in communications technology, in the coming years the collective power of women will dramatically accelerate a shift in political and economic agendas for a sustainable global future.
I could never have known what would be possible so long ago in Scotland with those kind African women. However, I know now that when I log on to talk with women from Bangledesh to Cairo in the span of 10 minutes, I feel what could be compared to the warm sensation of an arm wrapped around my shoulder. I feel valued, supported, safe, and capable of changing the world.
For more information, visit World Pulse at www.worldpulse.com.
Jensine Larsen was one of the featured speakers at the Women and Power: Connecting Across the Generations Conference held at Omega Institute, September 11-13, 2009.
To order audio CDs from this event or to purchase recordings from past Women & Power conferences, please order online at www.eomega.org/omega/mediaworks, call 845.266.4444, ext. 317 or email email@example.com.
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Women & Power: Connecting Across the Generations Conference
As a young freelance journalist covering indigenous movements and ethnic cleansing in South America and Southeast Asia, Jensine (Yen-See Nah) Larsen had a vision: to use the power of media to unleash the creative human potential of women across the globe.
“Through new media we have the power to connect and build a bold global community, to support each other’s dreams, restore our earth, heal society, and care for our children,” Larsen explains. A few years later, at age 28, Larsen began publishing her flagship project — World Pulse Magazine. Today, with her eye on the future of communications technology in the developing world, Larsen is now building an interactive global media company designed to connect women worldwide.
As a passionate social entrepreneur and leader, Larsen has organized a dedicated staff and team of professional advisors and volunteers, networks of international women’s organizations, and leading journalists from around the world, as well as endorsements from international luminaries and visionaries.
She is increasingly sought after for inspirational keynotes, current affairs lectures, and radio programs. She is featured on GreatWomenSpeakers.com and has appeared on NPR and Air America and presented keynotes at Hewlett Packard, Bioneers, Bennett College, and the Boulder Conference on World Affairs. She is considered one of Portland, Oregon’s up and coming “Young Creatives,” according to The Oregonian.