Access to information is fundamental for women’s empowerment. Access to information enables women to exercise their human rights and to overcome gender inequality. Under international human rights law, states are responsible and have an obligation to promote and protect both gender equality and access to information, and to ensure that barriers blocking these rights are eliminated. These obligations are part of states’ commitments under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Goals 16 and 5, respectively. The goals are closely interlinked and are instrumental for the full enjoyment and exercise of a range of human rights – such as freedom of expression – and for the achievement of the SDGs as a whole.
An access to information approach to gender equality and women’s empowerment means ensuring women are able to access information to make informed choices on elements of their lives, push their governments and other power- holders to guarantee their rights, have greater agency and control over their lives, and more meaningfully engage in public life.
Over the past decades, governments have increasingly sought to implement the right to information into their laws. As ARTICLE 19 Global Right to Information Maps reveal, 133 countries currently have access to information laws. This means 91% of the world’s population live in a country where they can formally request information from a state or a local authority.
Prior to this, in 2020, ARTICLE 19 published a briefing setting out the role access to information plays in achieving women’s empowerment and tackling gender inequality, providing recommendations for governments and civil society.
Access to information, empowerment and sustainable development
Target 16.10 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) calls on all states to adopt legislation or policies guaranteeing the right to information, which is essential not only for the achievement of Goal 16, but is an enabler to achieving other SDGs. ARTICLE 19 has been monitoring progress on this target since the adoption of the goals in 2015.
An important part of ARTICLE 19’s work is supporting civil society, journalists and communities in their efforts to use the access to information law to fight for protection of human rights and to improve public participation in decisions that are affecting their lives.
ARTICLE 19 has recently contributed to the upcoming report by the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression and opinion Irene Khan. The report will be presented at the next session of the Human Rights Council and will examine the critical role of freedom of expression and information for sustainable development.
Among the critical aspects examined, ARTICLE 19 has documented numerous instances that highlight how fundamental access to information is for women’s empowerment. In our experience, access to information is a key tool for overcoming gender inequality and traditional constraints that have historically kept women disempowered and disenfranchised. In particular, we have documented that women’s lack of access to accurate information about reproductive health makes it difficult for them to enjoy full protection of their sexual and reproductive well-being because they are unable to make informed decisions.
At the same time, access to information empowers women to more effectively push for educational opportunities for themselves and their children. And access to information is crucial when it comes to the exercising one’s right to land: this right means women can also invoke their rights to inheritance and property and how this relates to land use, and can acquire more power and autonomy in their communities.
And yet, ARTICLE 19 has seen that women still face enormous structural obstacles and barriers that undermine their ability to fully exercise their right to freedom of expression and information. Systemic barriers preventing them to exercise this right include, in particular:
- Educational and language barriers:
Educational opportunities afforded primarily to men and boys result in women and girls having reduced awareness of their right to access information and about where to seek information, as well as leading to greater prevalence of illiteracy among women. Additionally, too often, a huge range of information is written only in a country’s official language, or uses complex jargon – placing a gendered educational bias on the accessibility of understandable and usable information.For example, ARTICLE 19 found that in Chiapas, Mexico, women in indigenous communities suffer a high level of poverty and cannot access information in their native language about social programmes, health, education, and information about land and territory relating to large development projects and public services. The barriers to accessing information for women in Chiapas were exacerbated during the Covid-19 pandemic:they remained totally uninformed about the outbreak of the virus as authorities released information only in the official language, Spanish, including recommended guidelines for containment, which facilities could aid people in case of serious symptoms and cases, and access to vaccinations. In Tunisia, too, rural women in the southwest region of Gafsa and Kebilli are mostly illiterate and were unable to access information about health services during the Covid-19 outbreak, as health service providers published information on a digital platform that rural women could not access.
- Discriminatory laws and practices:
In some countries, social and legal norms deem it inappropriate for women to approach authorities or access public systems on their own; traditional and conservative norms keep women confined to the home and the private sphere, and excluded from public life. Additionally, in some countries, access to reproductive health is severely restricted by bans on abortion, which also leads to lack of information about sexual and reproductive rights and legal pregnancy terminations.For instance, in Brazil, ARTICLE 19 found that women had to face numerous obstacles and barriers to access basic information, in particular about in what circumstances a woman is allowed to access abortion and regarding how and where these procedures are performed. ARTICLE 19 research conducted directly with healthcare professionals reveals that only 50% of 34 healthcare facilities disseminate official information on abortion services for victims of sexual violence (one of the circumstances under which abortion is legal in Brazil).
- Technological barriers:
Power and economic disparities create a gender digital divide, impeding women’s ability to access technology and the internet. Indigenous and minority communities also face obstacles when trying to access information that is not widely available in their communities or in cases where the public authorities only provide information online. In Mexico, the introduction of information and communication technologies and network connectivity in Chiapas and Oaxaca has delivered numerous opportunities and benefited some groups, including young people, but exacerbated and introduced new barriers for other groups, including women. Older women, many of whom suffer from severe poverty, could not afford to buy cellphones, the main means of connecting to the internet for their communities. Indigenous women –, older women in particular –, have limited or no sources of income, as they are often in unpaid work in the fields or stay at home to look after their households. Some of them can count on a small income from minimal trade of their products (fruit, vegetables, clothing) but the little money earned is used for family needs, such as food, health, housing, transport and, in some exceptional cases, to support their children’s education. Women do not tend to invest money in electronic devices that could facilitate access to the internet.
There has been good progress in terms of providing guidance to governments – regarding access to information and women’s empowerment and tackling gender inequality, but also regarding how it helps people advocating for the protection of the environment and the protection of other rights.But it is vital we continue to work for stronger protection in law and in practice, and ARTICLE 19 will continue to do so.