Four web warriors came together from across South Asia earlier this month to talk about why arming girls and young women with internet tools is the key to women’s empowerment in this century, and to share notes on success stories and challenges.

“The biggest challenge for all of us in South Asia has been the norms and stereotypes that are rooted in our patriarchal value system. Because of this, women and girls do not have equal opportunities, they do not have accurate and scientific information about their bodies to make informed decisions about themselves,” says Paba Deshapriya, founder of The Grassrooted Trust in Sri Lanka that aims to create more dignified and respectful spaces in cyberspace.

The organisation is an ally of sexually marginalised groups such as people living with HIV, sex workers, and those with diverse sexual orientations. “Everything we do is based on the five principles of respect, empathy, self-esteem, trust and consent,” says Paba, who also runs an online platform Bakamoono.lk, which disseminates information trilingually about bodies, sexuality, sexual pleasure, HIV and contraceptives.

Speaking at eShe’s South Asia Union Summit Led by Women on a panel titled ‘Web Warriors: Arming Girls with Internet Tools and Infrastructure’, she explained that she started the Grassrooted Trust because the internet was a convenient way to reach people in Sri Lanka, a country that boasts of 50 percent internet penetration.

Paba’s copanelists were Juhi Javed Husain, UK civil servant, lawyer and senior policy advisor specialising in the digital regulation space, and Pinky Pradhan, director, communications and strategic partnerships at Plan India, who is helming the international NGO’s Digital Mitra program in India to educate girls in internet tools.

(Sadaffe Abid, advocate for women’s advancement, tech and financial inclusion, and founder of CIRCLE, Pakistan, was also invited to this panel but unfortunately could not make it as she fell ill. Read about her pathbreaking work here.)

Though Plan India has been present in the country for 40 years as a child rights’ organisation, their focus has shifted in the past five years towards girls’ rights and bringing in a gender-equal world, Pinky informed at the session.

Covid in 2020 acted as a deterrent and the digital divide present in India became strikingly clear to Pinky and her team. “Mobile penetration is higher in urban areas than rural and the gap increases further when it comes to women. We struggled to keep up with what was happening in our communities and with the task of keeping our stakeholders and the government informed, since our frontline workers couldn’t handle operations due to the sudden onslaught of the second wave,” she said.

They found an innovative solution, and decided to connect over mobiles with their girl changemakers to assess the situation. “This campaign became popular and more than 80 girls sent us regular messages and selfies about how their life was during the pandemic, informing us about their communities, the reverse migration, and helped us in spreading awareness,” said Pinky.

Her team was so inspired by the success of this initiative that they decided to venture into digital storytelling, one that comes straight from the horse’s mouth.

Plan India partnered with Twitter for this content-creation project, initially with just 15 girls, across India. These girls were trained in photography, scripting, video-making, community-building, and were also taught about privacy issues, online safety, and risks on social-media platforms.

“They spoke about some really hard-hitting concepts such as lack of education for the girl child, child marriages, sports for development, menstrual hygiene, and access to sanitary pads,” shared Pinky about the three-month project.

Plan India now aims to scale this project and train 600 girls over the next three years and, through them, create 10000 ‘digital mitras’ by the end of 2025. “It would lead to unfiltered, unadulterated stories shared by rural women themselves,” said Pinky.

Priyanka Singh, India-based data analytics consultant, founding member of South Asia Peace Action Network and moderator of the panel, brought up the topic of safety for women on the internet giving the example of recent example of Muslim women being ‘auctioned’ on social-media platforms.

Juhi Javed Husain, a passionate champion for making social-media spaces safer for women, commented on the ecosystem of digital safety: “For a long time, everyone on the internet could do whatever they wanted to, there was no legal framework around them, and they were acting like the robber barons of the 19th century. This also gave entrepreneurs space to explore their creativity and develop new and exciting things,” said the Pakistani-origin policymaker.

The massive downside of this is that governments always end up playing catch-up, she said. There has, however, been a major shift in awareness with governments, civil-society organisations as well as social-media companies themselves recognising the need for more accountability.

“Apart from terrorism and child sexual exploitation, there are also issues of cyber-bullying, and sexual harassment, which make it extremely unsafe for women. While women are also harassed offline, the instances increase tenfold online!” she said.

People are now more aware of extremist organisations on the internet and the threat of terrorism, but, on the other hand, she said, “Sometimes nation-states who recognise such dangers flip to the reverse extreme.” She gave the examples of China, which has massive censorship, and India and Pakistan, where the state selectively censors what goes against their own political agenda or advantage.

She believes this problem is also reflective of South Asia’s inherent cultural issues. “There are superior internet-safety laws in Western nations because in their culture, the individual is important, whereas in South Asian culture, it is all about the greater good of the community over individual choices,” she said, adding a caveat that while keeping the individual at the centre of policymaking isn’t a panacea, it does guarantee more rights.

Paba expressed her view that online spaces are merely a reflection of offline spaces such as roads, schools, or even home, which are unsafe for women everywhere in South Asia, with family and property laws dating back to pre-colonial days. “We need to facilitate the complaint mechanism for the survivors of cyber violence,” she said about solving the issue of online safety for women.

Pinky emphasised that the only way to tackle the absence of laws or their poor execution is awareness. “Creating large-scale awareness of safety regulations at the school, college, and community level will help improve the active participation of girls online. Social-media companies must let people know about their safety features,” she stressed.

First published in eShe

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