What a Tangled Web We Weave:

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The Internet is a powerful medium for communication, finding information and creating new resources. It offers a range of possibilities for maintaining old connections and making new ones.

For women the Internet is double edged. It takes precious time and costs money.

For some the technology gets in the way, becoming a major hurdle when trying to communicate. And however enthusiastic we are, it still doesn't do the washing or cook a meal.

Yet many women are discovering how to use this technology for their own reasons, joining mailing lists, e-mailing to stay connected with family and friends, visiting web sites for information, and creating our own on-line presence.

The Upside of Women Using the Net

Mailing lists have flourished where women want and need to talk with each other. The breast cancer support mailing list was an early example of peer-support lists that counter isolation and offer opportunities to network, share experiences, problem solve, and widen perspectives for those who share health problems.

Now there are lists on most health issues, lists for those with a health concern, and for supporting families and professional and lay caregivers. The majority are initiated by those who want to connect with others over a mutual health problem or healthcare issue.

For example, the Click4HP health promotion list (www.opc.on.ca/click4hp/c4hpflyr.htm) has been a valuable source of shared ideas and strategies on health promotion since 1996. Respect for everyone's experience and conflicting views is encouraged through netiquette (Internet rules of etiquette), and individual or group discussion facilitation on mailing lists.

Women have generously found and shared resources through web sites which address a particular health problem, or which confront a healthcare concern as caregivers and health professionals. The aim is most often to make it easier for others to access documents, studies, health bulletins and patient-driven advocacy or healthcare information.

Some provide bulletin boards, or chat room discussions where visitors can get together with hosts to talk about issues in real-time.

Directories of women's health web sites, such as the Canadian Women's Health Network (www.cwhn.ca) provides a critical role as a guide to on-line resources on women's health topics, and in networking through the development of research, resource and organization databases on-line. The Ontario Women's Health Network (www.opc.on.ca/owhn) supports local and regional health networking to voice women's health concerns, linking women to Internet tools and resources.

Women's health issue web sites offer a range of approaches - including directories, discussion lists, stories, activism, research, education, newsletters. See for example, Nurse Advocate: nurses and workplace violence - breaking the silence with stories and resources from nurses around the world (www.nurseadvocate.org); On-line Birth Centre - resources on midwifery, pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding for midwives, nurses, doulas, childbirth educators, doctors, and parents (www.moonlily.com/obc); and Breast Cancer Action Nova Scotia - survivor-driven set of resources and discussions, giving voice to the concerns and needs of people living with breast cancer (www.bca.ns.ca).

These are the resources one would hope to find in a very well-financed women's health resource centre. Most of us do not have such centres in our neighbourhoods. It is a gift to treasure when we find such resources at our fingertips.

Women are using the Internet. We are taking control of it - as a tool, as a meeting room, and as media - and designing it for our own purposes.

For the health activist, the Internet is a gift. We can reach further, raise awareness on issues, offer peer support, strategize on healthcare issues, monitor health policies and their impact, and address health and environmental hazards. It is very effectively used in combination with local and regional off-line health activism.

The Downside of Using the Internet

In contrast to early hopes for the Internet, it does not reduce our workloads although it does make us more effective in our outreach work.

Time continues to be a major issue: women have less time than men to use the Internet. Women's work lives are stressed trying to be effective in the face of funding cuts and there is little time to review, adapt and respond to Internet opportunities and demands.

Women need to find what they are looking for quickly but the Internet is growing and information needs organizing. Good issue-specific search facilities would be helpful here.

The growth of pornography on the Internet is one reason that women are uncomfortable exploring this arena. We have learned how to avoid much of the disturbing video and magazine pornography off-line.

On-line we are on new ground and have to learn the street smarts. This also applies to harassment in on-line meeting places and mailing lists, which is often the stimulus for women-only discussion areas.

The sale and exploitation of women is the fastest growing part of the Internet. This is of serious concern, and an issue we need to be strategizing about, whether we use the Internet or not.

Inequality of access to the Internet results in further gender, race and class inequalities. The current dominance of English on the Net results in barriers to resource development and use by Francophones and other cultures.

Lack of financial support for women-centred access, Internet facilities and resources is a major setback to women's participation on-line.

The Women's Internet Campaign has emphasized the millions of dollars being spent on the federal government A Connecting Canadians @ initiatives, while women-centred work is consistently being refused funding unless it services men too.

Women as active, creative participants are being left far behind, with present and future consequences of limited access to health information, education, civic participation and employment opportunities.

Also, computer-related injuries, such as repetitive strain injury (RSI), are caused by a variety of factors including repetition, force, and awkward or static postures. These are often computer or work-related injuries which can be prevented. When they do occur, early appropriate intervention will help to prevent permanent disability.

The Internet - Limitations and Possibilities

The Internet is not useful for personal health diagnoses, treatment, or personal physical care. These continue to require a face-to-face relationship between individuals, healthcare professionals and lay caregivers, and their health care system.

The Internet as a system of information exchange may develop because of changes in health care, or because of organizations lobbying for changes, but it is not a replacement for other forms of health care.

The Internet is developing daily. Will women find information that is appropriate to our situations, and will women's voices and women's health concerns be present?

If we do not create it, who will? The vision of the Internet as a more participatory, democratic society is one shared by many activists. We continue to imagine the future as a forum where discoveries and ideas are still welcome.

Scarlet Pollock and Jo Sutton are the editors of Women'space magazine.

Resources

Women'space - Ways of using the net for women'sactivism
www.womenspace.ca/Campaign/Activism/activistways.html

Le militantisme féministe
http://womenspace.ca/Campaign/Fr/intro.html

Par-l - feminist research network on women-centred policy issues in Canada
www.unb.ca/PAR-L

Joan Korenman's Gender-Related Electronic Forums - The list of publicly-accessible e-mail discussion groups related to women or to women-focused gender issues.
http://research.umbc.edu/~korenman/wmst/forums.html

Women'space
Tel: (902) 351-2283
Web site: http://www.womenspace.ca
E-mail: diamond@womenspace.ca