By Beth Parker
On Tuesday, October 24, 2017, Laura Neuman, the Director of the Global Access to Information Program at the Carter Center presented IALL 2017’s sixth session, entitled Community Engagement Through the Right of Access to Information: Assuring Inclusion of Marginalized Populations.
Access to information laws have grown tremendously over the last twenty years. Approximately 110 countries have laws regarding the public’s right to have access to information. In 2011, President Barack Obama and leaders from six other countries launched the Open Government Partnership. Participants are committed to making their governments more open and transparent and providing rights to information.
Ms. Neuman noted that having a definition of what right to access to information actually means is very important in understanding the Access to Information Program. According to Ms. Neuman, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights defined access to information as the “right to information and the right of a person to seek and receive public information.” Public information can be from a government or entity within the government, or information that a private company holds if they receive public funding or provide a public service. Ms. Neuman stated that this definition of access to information is not only a fundamental right but is also a “linking right.” A linking right allows citizens to more fully exercise other rights, such as the right to education, healthcare, and public safety, and to be free from violence. When information flows, the more efficient and effective governments can be for the citizens. This increase in the flow of information allows increased accountability, transparency, and rule of law, and it allows citizens to participate more fully in public life and have a voice. However, there are further challenges that must be overcome to expand the right of access to information.
The easiest part of creating the right to access of information is passing the law. Ms. Neuman argued that it is much more difficult to implement and enforce the law and that this type of law is difficult to make operational. A new right to information law places new requirements and responsibilities on every part of the government and on every public official. Many times there is not sufficient political commitment to move forward with the law. Why, you may ask? Some reasons include: the lack of institutional capacity, resources, and poor records management. The anticipated demand for information by the citizens may never materialize and can contribute to a lack political commitment to push forward with the operationalization of the law. But, what if the challenges to operationalization were overcome ? How would this access to information affect marginalized populations–especially women?
Across the world women are denied or struggle to get access to information that is necessary for them to support their families, to become economically empowered, and to be free from violence. Ms. Neuman highlighted that 70% of the world’s poor are women with limited economic opportunities. Women represent two thirds of the world’s illiterate; they are affected by corruption and lack the influence and money to obtain rights. Women are also often victims of violence. An estimated 35% of all women have experienced some form of gender-based violence in their lifetime. Ms. Neuman noted that when women have access to information and receive that information their lives can be transformed. She also believes that this transformation melds over into the woman’s family and greater community.
Ms. Neuman spent some time talking about the Access to Information Program that she works on at the Carter Center. She discussed the studies conducted in Liberia, Guatemala, and Bangladesh. Some of the barriers that they discovered for women trying to gain access to information were illiteracy; lack of awareness about the right of information and where to seek information; fear of asking for information; no time; and a lack of mobility. Additionally, the issues of cultures, paternalism, and appropriateness act as barriers for women accessing information. They also asked women in these studies what types of information is most critical for them to obtain economic empowerment, promotion, and protection of rights. The women said that information about education, employment, business (i.e. starting a business), property, women’s rights and justice issues were all very important. The Access to Information Program works with the governments of these countries, as well as the civil society. Their goals are to raise awareness of the problem within the government and to develop innovative tools for getting information to the women. They developed informational facilitators to help increase awareness about the right to access information, to provide training, and to create programs to more easily get information to the women. Ms. Neuman finished off the session with a short video that summed up the entire session nicely: Inform Women. Transform Lives.