Access to government-held information has long been recognized as a fundamental right. Unfortunately, for many women today, getting the information they need to receive benefits or services, help support their families, and engage in civic life remains a struggle. Laura Neuman, a senior advisor with the Carter Center, speaks about closing the gender divide and how access to information for women has the power to transform lives.
Hello. I’m Patricia Kosseim, Ontario’s information and privacy commissioner. You’re listening to Info Matters, a podcast about people, privacy, and access to information. We dive into conversations with people from all walks of life and hear real stories about the access and privacy issues that matter most to them.
Hello, listeners. Welcome to the Info Matters podcast and thanks for tuning in. As we approach Right to Know Week, I’m reminded of a Right to Know event I attended back in 2017. The keynote speaker was Laura Neuman from the Carter Center in the US who spoke about the real challenges many women face, particularly in developing countries, when they encounter roadblocks to accessing the information they need to exercise their rights to obtain government benefits and services. While the importance of access to information held by governments has long been acknowledged as an internationally recognized human right, the realization of this right for many women remains elusive.
The value and power of information is clear for women seeking to protect their rights and advance their economic empowerment. It’s a way for women to hold governments accountable for decisions that affect them, their lives, and their families, yet obstacles persist that prevent many women from accessing the information they need to fully exercise their rights. Sometimes those obstacles are blatant. Other times they’re more subtle and insidious, but they’re there. Laura’s research at the Carter Center over the past few years has worked to uncover them and document them for the world to see and understand.
I was so marked by what she had to say and the vivid real life examples she spoke about back in 2017 that to this day I’ve kept the invitation to the event with Laura’s name and affiliation on it so that I could eventually one day get back in touch with her to follow up on her fascinating work. Well, I did manage to get back in touch with Laura and she’s my guest in today’s episode of Info Matters.
Laura Neuman is senior advisor at the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, where she advises on matters of transparency, good governance, and access to justice. Laura developed an innovative access to information legislation assessment tool, and she leads the Inform Women, Transform Lives campaign in 24 cities across the globe. She’s traveled around the world literally seeing firsthand the difficulties women face in accessing the public information they need to exercise their civil and democratic rights. Laura, welcome to the show and thank you for joining us today.
Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Laura, I thought we would start by asking you to share with us a little bit about your background and what led you to do the kind of work you do today at the Carter Center.
I’ve been at the Carter Center now for 24 years. When I first came, I thought I’d stay for two, but I’ve enjoyed it so much and it’s been such a great challenge that clearly I went to the other extreme. Before coming to the Carter Center, I practiced law for about five years representing people under the poverty line, so working for legal services in the north of the United States in Wisconsin. I took a brief interlude, lived in the Dominican Republic, learned Spanish, and then when I came back to the US, rather than go back to practicing law I through curvy roads ended up at the Carter Center.
I like to joke that when I walked in the door, there were two things I understood that the Carter Center was doing. One was the telephone lines because at the time they had the same system that we had in my law firm, and the other was this issue of the right to information. When I’d been practicing law, it was something we used a lot for our clients to understand why some people were getting benefits and not others to really improve people’s lives. When I came to the Center and they were thinking about addressing this issue of the right to information in a number of countries, I said, “Absolutely sign me on.”
Can you tell us a little bit about what the Carter Center does? What’s the mandate of the Center?
The Center has been around for a little bit over 40 years. We were founded and led by former United States president Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn, he likes to say that after he was forcibly retired because he lost reelection. They were very young when they came out of the White House, and he really wanted to continue his life’s work of human rights and conflict resolution and promoting democracy so he began the Center. It was the first actually of its kind.
In the US former presidents get libraries and museums, but for President Carter he didn’t want a think tank. He wanted an active institution that could really, again, support people around the world. The Carter Center has two different big buckets. One is around health programs and then our peace programs which work on rule of law, conflict resolution, human rights, and democracy. Up until right before COVID, President Carter was incredibly engaged. He has had a role in all of the programming we do, including the work I do, and so we’ll be forever grateful to him for his support and his commitment to gender issues and also the right to information.
So, clearly a center like that dedicated to promoting democracy relies on a robust system of access to information. And I understand that the Carter Center has undertaken long-term programming in this area, including by developing an access to information legislation assessment tool. Can you tell us what that is and how it works in practice?
When we first started working on this in 1999, there was really only a handful of countries around the world that even had access to information laws, Canada included. Over the course of the next two decades, we now see over a hundred countries, about 115, 120, that have a right to information, but we’ve always understood that the value of the law is really in its implementation and its use. The Carter Center, while we’ve worked in probably 40 countries supporting the passage of good legislation, that was really only the first step. We developed this implementation assessment tool as an input for those governments who have laws to say, “Is it actually being implemented to its fullest extent? What is the quality of its implementation?”
And so the tool itself has developed over the course of a number of years with a lot of piloting. It’s not as easy as it sounds. I always like to joke that I’m a lawyer and I took this on as a social scientist, so to speak, only because I had no idea what I was getting myself into and people much smarter than me never would’ve tried it. But the tool itself has 60 indicators, and it is done at an agency level because we understand that governments don’t succeed or fail in implementing a right to information law. It’s really done by agencies. We wanted to make sure that we were getting more granular and looking at how they were doing in terms of did they put the structures in place–we call it the plumbing–in order to make the law work?
We look at anything from, “Is there the political commitment from the leadership? Do they have meetings about the right information and its implementation? Do they monitor how it’s going? Is there an information officer, for example, that is dedicated to supporting people in seeking information? Are there policies and procedures around receiving and responding to requests as well as with record management?” We really look at a number of the pieces of the law and try and break it down into how would one implement it in order for it to be meaningful and effective.
I wanted to ask you now more specifically how did you come to work on issues related to gender and access to information? How did that come about?
Looking back, it seems like the most obvious thing, but at the time when we were working on the right to information and we decided to hold an international conference with President Carter leading it to look at the political economy of this issue, why were some countries passing laws? Why were others not? What was the benefit of the laws? What were the impacts? We had this big conference that culminated with a series of recommendations, but we understood that context matters so we decided to go beyond just this international conference where we had brought people from all over the world and do one in Latin America and the Americas and then another one in Africa so that we could really look more contextually at what was working and what wasn’t.
It wasn’t until the one in Africa that we had what I like to call my Oprah Winfrey aha moment where we invited about 140 people from close to 20 countries on the continent in Africa, and very few women. For every woman we invited, she substituted herself with a man. To be honest, there were very few women actually that we identified that were promoting this right to information. And don’t forget the whole time we were doing this, we kept saying, “This is a fundamental right. You need this in order to exercise all your other rights. Without information, nothing else works.” If that was the case, why weren’t more women who were clearly working on rights-based approaches on human rights, why weren’t those women, those organizations, more engaged in the right to information?
After that conference, which actually interestingly began with President Carter asking that all the women in the room stand up, and of the 140 people there really the only women were those who came with him from the United States, from Atlanta, the Carter Center, and a few amazing women from Ghana. When we came back to the states, I had a meeting with President Carter and we talked about this issue, me coming at it… Coming in hot, as the kids say. I said to President Carter, “This is clearly an issue. There must be some kind of inequity facing women. Otherwise, why are they not engaged? Why aren’t they exercising this right?”
He said that while he agreed, we really needed to prove this, we needed to demonstrate this hypothesis because otherwise governments aren’t going to act differently. He challenged me to go and do the research and, if there wasn’t anything, to develop a way to demonstrate this hypothesis that women were not able to exercise the right to information the same way men do. I began with researching this issue, and surprisingly there was almost nothing out there. There had been one study done in about 2005 by PricewaterhouseCoopers in India that looked at this issue. Of all the requesters, less than 10% were women.
With a colleague from Rutgers, we developed a study that had a number of components, but at its core we asked the question, “Are women able to exercise the right information with the same frequency, ease, and rate of success as men? If not, why? What are the main obstacles? If those obstacles could be overcome, what information is the most critical for women’s promotion and protection of rights and economic empowerment?”
We went out and we applied this and we did the study in three different regions, three different continents with three very different cultures because what we wanted to show was this isn’t an issue of being in one place or with one culture with one set of norms. It’s really about being a woman and that’s what was creating these obstacles. In the end, we did about 1700 interviews across the three countries, which were Liberia in West Africa, Guatemala in Latin America, and then Bangladesh in Asia. Across the countries, we were able to demonstrate the hypothesis that in fact women are not exercising the right to information as men do.
That’s amazing. Can you tell us some examples of the kinds of obstacles women face, real concrete examples that you found in your study?
I think it’s notable that while there may have been different extremes, it was pretty much the same obstacles across these three incredibly different countries and locations. The main obstacles facing women are issues of illiteracy. Two thirds of the world’s illiterate are still women. There’s issues of time and mobility. We talk about the double burden all the time facing women, that they have to not only take care of their family and their household but also often have to be a bread earner, so doing some kind of farming or some crafts or in some way earning money, so there’s not a lot of time.
I will say we asked the question to both experts and community organizers, community leaders, and to women themselves, “Are women interested in information?” Almost 100% said yes, so it’s not a question of interest. In many cases, it was an issue of time. While women understood the value of information, she didn’t have time to get to public agencies, she didn’t have mobility. Mobility is a massive issue. Women are incredibly insecure around the world in public transportation and in trying to get from her home to the public agency to seek information. There was also issues of a lack of awareness. Women didn’t know about this, they didn’t know how to ask for information, and then just a host of normative and cultural issues, so it wasn’t appropriate for women to be asking questions of men, it wasn’t appropriate for women to be going and seeking information.
There was also issues of fear where women were just afraid. They were afraid to go to the public agencies, they weren’t welcomed. We saw our researchers who we put in public agencies, over 130 agencies, and they visited each one three times on three different days, three different weeks. They saw women trying to come in and get information to get services and they were often ignored. They were derided, “Why would you want this? Why do you need information? Who are you to be asking me for information?” Once that happens, the opportunity for women to go back is going to be pretty limited.
In Guatemala, for example, they have multiple languages and so there is in the law that the public agencies have to speak both the local language as well as Spanish. What our researchers saw is when a man came in, an Indigenous man, the public agent would speak to that man in his language, but when a woman came in, an Indigenous woman, and in Guatemala it’s very easy to tell because she wears very specific clothing so they knew it was an Indigenous woman, they only spoke to her in Spanish. Here is just such an obvious way that women were being excluded. They weren’t even being treated with the same language that the man, her husband was being treated with.
Those are some incredible examples in Bangladesh, Liberia, Guatemala, but what about closer to home? Have you found similar examples in developed countries and even closer to home here in North America? How do you compare experiences across countries?
Following this study, we did long-term programming in those three countries where we worked both with governments to say, “Clearly women aren’t coming to you. How do you reach women in a much more intentional way? How do you take information to where women gather, for example, where it’s safe for women, in marketplaces, at schools where women are able to actually receive that information and do something with it?” Then we worked with women’s organizations and women and civil society groups to try to marry that with the efforts with government.
We’d been doing that for a number of years. I think it was 2018 we held another international conference once again led by former president Jimmy Carter, and it looked at women and the right to information. Coming out of that was a couple recommendations. One, that we needed to break down the silos. There’s those working on gender issues and development issues and transparency and accountability, but nobody was actually talking to each other. Then the second big thing coming out of that conference was we needed to do more to raise awareness about this issue, both the value of information for women but also the fact that there are these obstacles that she faces, there is this inequity.
The Carter Center, I was challenged to come up with what they were calling a global campaign. I had no idea what that meant, took me over a year to figure out what to do. Two things happened at the same time. The first thing was I was talking to a very dear friend of mine who works at a city government in a country in Latin America and he said, “I don’t understand why you keep working at the national level. They really don’t care. Come work at a city level, come work at a provincial level. We’re the ones that really understand the needs of our citizens and we really want to do something for them.”
Then the second thing we did is we looked at a thousand requests for information that we had supported women to make in those three countries. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority were to local governments. It was for information around public services, “How do I get my child into school? Are there training opportunities? I want to do agriculture. How can I get seeds or soil? I’ve got garbage that’s not being picked up. How do I get sanitation services? I’m a survivor of domestic violence. Where do I go?” So really localized requests. At that point, we changed the entire trajectory of this campaign and instead of working globally at the national level, we said, “Let’s work at the city level.”
We also recognize that by 2050, 70% of the world is going to be living in cities so we really wanted to see what was happening at the cities and how we could support that. We wanted to make it concrete, but we didn’t want to focus just on the developing world because we believed it was an issue across the world so we sent out a series of invitations to global cities to be a part of this campaign. This was a few years ago, our first group, and we thought–it was in the middle of COVID–maybe we’d get a few cities wanting to be part of it. More than half applied.
This included cities in the United States, Chicago, Atlanta, it included Dublin. We had a number of cities that are from developed countries because they also recognized that their services, their information wasn’t reaching a lot of the women, and because of it women weren’t able to take advantage of those municipal services. We’ve since expanded. We now actually have 36, but in addition we have Washington DC, we’re about to add another city from the US, Paris, Birmingham in the UK, two more cities from Europe are joining. So it really is an issue not just at the developing world, but very much the developed world as well because we’re still at a place where inequities facing women exist regardless of where she lives.
What do these participating cities do on the ground to help shine a spotlight on access to information for women as part of the campaign?
The campaign is based, again, on this idea that women aren’t getting information and because of it they’re not getting their rights, they’re not being able to benefit from the services that, in this case, municipal governments provide. Each city identifies a service that they have that they believe would be transformative. It’s a service that if women had access to would be life-changing for her, for her family, for her community. They identify that service, they identify the target population of women. In some places it’s just whoever lives in their jurisdiction and other places they focus on younger women, some have focused on older women, some have looked at socioeconomic disparities, but they identify their target population of women and then they use information as a bridge.
So, “We have this awesome service, we have these women who need it, how can we get that to them using information, raising awareness of the type of services that are being provided, where to go to get it, what are the requirements for application, how long does a service last, what happens if you don’t receive it?” All those pieces of information are exactly what the right to information is about. It’s just really getting that meaningful information into the hands of women and then seeing what happens. It’s been unbelievable. We’ve had incredible success stories coming out of these cities, and it’s just being intentional, it’s being innovative, and it’s being intentional, and it’s being committed.
Obviously you’ve been having positive impact. Do you have any statistics that measures the impact you’ve been having?
Absolutely. In Guatemala City, they focused on women’s centers that provide free healthcare, they gave more information about it, and within a short period of time, the six months after, they saw an over 200% increase in the number of women coming to get free health services. Similarly, in Sao Paulo in Brazil they worked on gender-based violence. They raised awareness about where women could go in the communities to get information about those services and to access them. They saw an 86% increase in the number of women getting that information and services.
Here, closer to home in Chicago, they have a municipal identification card, which opens the door to all kinds of other services, public transportation, public libraries, free medications or reduced cost medications. They were having difficulties getting people to apply for it, so they used the Inform Women, Transform Lives campaign to highlight the benefits of the card, how it was distributed, what the requirements were, how to get one, all the information people needed. What they saw was over the course of the campaign, they had a 225% increase in the number of municipal identification cards that they distributed. It really is so easy. It’s just about getting information to the people who need it most and then watching how they take advantage of those great services.
Those are very, very powerful examples and very impressive statistics. I can’t help but notice that there are currently no cities from Canada or even my province of Ontario participating in the campaign. What do you take from that and are there any plans to expand into Canada?
We do send out invitations. We send out 30 invitations for each cohort, we’re now in our third cohort, and we take up to 12 cities, which is why we have 36 cities. In terms of how we select the cities, it starts with, “Is there a statutory right to information? Is there a law either national or at the provincial or city level?” Then we look at the kind of work they’re doing, their commitment to gender equity, their commitment to transparency and accountability, have they been engaged in this issue. We make sure that the mayors have great integrity, they’re incredibly upstanding, and then we select a group to send an invitation to.
Lest I create all kinds of trouble for myself, I will say that in each of the three cohorts we sent a number of invitations to Canadian cities and none of them have chosen to apply. I only take that to mean that either the cities of Canada are unique in the fact that they believe that they’re already so gender transformative that every woman in their community receives their services or perhaps it just wasn’t good timing. In some cases it’s because there’s elections coming up or there were just elections, but if anybody is listening who works with a city, we would welcome a Canadian city because we think that this would be something that would be remarkable for your constituents and for the women in your communities to be able to see your commitment to women’s rights and women’s access to information.
I certainly hope so. You may or may not know this, but the city of Toronto recently elected a woman mayor and so who knows, maybe this will help spark interest and participation in your campaign. I want to switch a little bit to a related topic, and that’s the rise of misinformation. We’re seeing it rampant around the world accelerated by generative AI and other forms of technology that are able to cast misinformation, sometimes disinformation, in very deceiving ways that people can’t often discern what’s true or what’s not true, what’s fact, what’s not fact. Let me ask you how do you see access to information or proactive transparency of the kind of government information of services and benefits you’re speaking about helping to counter the rise of misinformation in the world today?
I mean, it’s a huge issue and there’s no easy answer to it. We could spend all day talking not just about that, but about the digital divide, about how AI is going to so negatively affect women, already is, but in terms of misinformation and when it becomes intentional disinformation, it’s about an information ecosystem. I think there’s a phrase that we all know where nature abhors a vacuum. When there’s a lack of something, something comes in to fill it. In terms of the information ecosystem, when there’s not a flow of information, when information is not being shared consistently, when it’s not information that is trusted, for example, from government, then that absence of good information leaves open the possibility for misinformation and disinformation. We see that over and over again.
What’s so ironic, actually, is that governments often fear giving out information if it’s not happy information, if it’s not going to reflect well, if they’re afraid that it may impact national security or impact international relations, but what we’ve seen over the course of the years that I’ve been working on this is where there’s really the risk is when they withhold information because that’s when you provide not only the opening for mis and disinformation, but also where your own citizens start to distrust you and start to question. One of the examples that I love to use is around this issue of security and how often when there’s a threat to security, government’s first response is to shut everything down. Yet it’s when you open up that you are not just addressing the security threat, you now have all of your citizens addressing the security threat and understanding that threat so much better.
In the United States, we have something called the Amber Alert. The Amber Alert, and you may have something like this in Canada, is when a child has been abducted. Previously before this law, named after a little girl named Amber, what would happen is the police, the security forces would look for the child, but it would just be them 5, 10, 15 maybe, police officers looking for this child. With the Amber Alert, the law enforces, or forces, I should say, full disclosure, information everywhere. It’s on our phones. We get Amber Alerts with all the information that they have, the name of the person, the name of the child, the name… They try to give a description of the car, if they’ve got a license plate. They put it on all of the highways. So on all of our signs, our electronic signs, they say, “Amber Alert.”
Now they don’t have 10 or 15 people looking for this child, they have tens and fifteens and hundreds and thousands of people looking. The number of children that have been saved because of this from their abductors is incredible, and it’s just an example that while our initial response might be, “Oh no, we’ve got to keep a lockdown on this. We need to deal with this ourselves.” The reality is the more information you give, the more support you have in addressing that. When you talk about misinformation, what allows it to thrive is a lack of other information. Does that make sense?
It absolutely does. We do have the Amber Alert in Canada, so it’s a very vivid example of the power that information can have in amplifying good outcomes when people are empowered to participate actively. That’s a great example. As you know, my office adopted Privacy and Transparency in Modern Government as one of our strategic priority areas in which we focus our work. I’d like to ask you before we close off today what’s your advice on what an office like ours can do to create more meaningful opportunities to engage with women on access to information issues?
I think the first thing is understanding the problem. We did a study a few years ago with partners from the United Nations to talk to information commissioners to say, “Tell us what’s happening. How many women requesters do you have? How are you reaching women with information? How many are appealing decisions when they are dissatisfied?” Not a single jurisdiction of the I think it was 36 responded. None of them had their data disaggregated by gender, so we don’t actually know what the enormity of this problem is. I think from your office at least, one of the first things I would encourage is to really try to understand who is seeking information and what are agencies doing to try to be more intentional about reaching women with information about their services, for example.
Then looking at appeals, who’s appealing? If you’re not getting information, who’s coming to you to seek support? From your perch as an information commissioner, I would really encourage you, one, to look at your own statistics. Who is appealing the negative decisions? Is it women or is it largely men? If you find, which I hasten to guess that you will, that it’s often not women who are coming, what can you do to make it more accessible for women to make those appeals? How can you support women to make those appeals? How can you change your processes or encourage women? Do you need to have somebody on staff who is dedicated to this issue of assuring that women are not only in this case able to appeal decisions, but also working with the various agencies to say, “What are you doing to reach women?”
It is about being affirmative. It’s about doing something extra and different because we know if you don’t, then this inequity will continue. I think there’s a lot as an information commission that is within your power to do, training, just building up awareness, building capacity within your own agencies but also in the community. There’s loads of community organizations. In the campaign, we work with the cities but we also provide small grants for complementary programming. There’s loads of organizations that are working on these incredibly essential issues like domestic violence, like issues around economic empowerment, healthcare, for example, who are there and willing to support you and work with you to make sure that women receive the information so that they ultimately can get those services.
Another thing I think we need to consider is the digital divide. The more that we put government online, the more we digitize, the more we modernize, the more we’re keeping some people behind. There really is this existence of a digital divide. It’s a gender divide. It’s also often marginalized persons who may not have access to internet, may not be internet savvy, so, again, the more we’re doing to modernize, which is great, the more we’re exacerbating an existing problem and the more we’re leaving a whole swath of people behind. I really encourage as an information commission that that’s something that we need to explore. How can we continue to move forward and make sure we’re bringing everyone along with us?
You’ve packed in a lot of advice there that we’re going to think about very diligently and deliberately because I think you’ve raised quite a bit that we can do as information commissioners. It’s quite interesting because very recently we’ve changed our intake forms for access to information appeals to allow appellants the choice to remain gender-neutral, so it’ll be interesting as we look at the statistics to see what that growing number is. But in any event, I take your point that we don’t know the extent of the problem if we don’t at least have some insights into the proportions. There’s a lot we can do to start that conversation. Laura, after, what, six years, I’m so happy that I finally reconnected with you. I continue to be inspired by your work at the Carter Center, and I was when I first heard you in 2017 and your work continues to inspire and blow us away today.
Thank you so much, and congratulations to you for taking on this issue and amplifying the need to focus on it. Congratulations to you and to all of your staff.
For listeners who want to learn more about the work of the Carter Center, there’s a link to their website in the show notes to this episode. If you’re looking for some guidance on how to go about filing a freedom of information request here in Ontario, our episode on “Demystifying the FOI Process” is a great place to start. We’ve listed a link to that episode in the show notes as well. You can also visit my office’s website at ipc.on.ca to learn more about the work we do to uphold Ontario’s freedom of information laws and support privacy and transparency in a modern government. You can always call or email our office for assistance or general information about Ontario’s access and privacy laws. Well, that’s it for today, folks. Thank you for listening, and until next time.
I’m Patricia Kosseim, Ontario’s information and privacy commissioner, and this has been Info Matters. If you enjoyed the podcast, leave us a rating or review. If there’s an access or privacy topic you’d like us to explore on a future episode, we’d love to hear from you. Send us a tweet at IPCinfoprivacy or email us at [email protected]. Thanks for listening, and please join us again for more conversations about people, privacy, and access to information. If it matters to you, it matters to me.
Prior to joining the Carter Center in 1999, she was staff attorney at Legal Action of Wisconsin and is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin Law School.
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