Faster than a game of Chinese whispers

Information from the UN women's conferences is rapidly winging its way around the world, writes Teresa Poole
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Indy Lifestyle Online
In normal times you would be lucky to find an international telephone line in the town of Huairou, outside Peking, site for this month's international women's forum. But during the UN World Conference on Women, this normally sleepy county town has been wired for action, allowing thousands of female delegates to send information back to women's groups around the world, and keeping them informed on the controversies and negotiations under way in Peking.

Millions of women who were not able to come to the meetings are also able to access information coming directly from the conferences via e- mail and World Wide Web pages. Most of the key documents and speeches are rapidly made available, enabling lobbying groups who are not in Peking to react quickly to developments in the negotiations, creating another "virtual" women's conference in cyberspace.

The computer networking services at the Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) Forum and the official conference in Peking are set up and maintained by the non-profit Association for Progressive Communications (APC), using a 40-member all-female staff from 24 countries. APC has provided network services during all the UN world conferences and parallel NGO forums since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, but this is its largest UN operation.

Free e-mail accounts and access to the Internet are being offered to NGO delegates and journalists in Huairou and Peking; they also have free access to hundreds of Apple and Hewlett-Packard computers. In the first three days 1,200 new e-mail accounts were opened, said APC's Edie Farwell, "which is phenomenal, far more than any previous UN conference". Free support and training is provided for NGO delegates, many of whom are using the technology for the first time.

APC is disseminating information through a team in London that packages the information flooding in from China and then posts it out on the Internet. Sally Burch, the APC Women's Program Co-ordinator, says: "What we are focusing on mainly is getting information out to people who aren't here. Anyone on the Internet anywhere in the world can just log in and see what's happening."

APC aims to provides cheap communications services to NGOs and individuals working on development, environment and women's issues, particularly in "far away, dusty and godforsaken" places, says Ms Farwell. "There is an information gap between those who have access to the Internet and those who do not," she adds. Through a dial-up service, it serves many countries that do not yet have direct Internet access.

APC's British member is GreenNet, tel 0171-713 1941, or support@gn.apc.org. WomensNet at IGC is posting information on the Women's Gopher at gopher. igc.apc.org and on the World Wide Web (WWW) at URL http://www.womensnet. apc.org/beijing. E-mail during the conference is through apcwomen"a"wcw.apc.org.

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