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Women Human Rights Defenders at RightsCon 2018

Last week, WRN attended its first digital human rights conference - RightsCon. Over 2000 techies, coders, hackers-for-good, human rights defenders, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders from 115 countries gathered in Toronto to answer the question, “how can we harness tech to shape a better future for human rights?”

As you know, Women’s Regional Network (WRN) is not a tech organization. We don’t train girls to code or focus on securing people’s rights and freedom online. So, why were we at RightsCon?

WRN is a network of women human rights defenders committed to securing the rights of women and women’s leadership to take action for gender justice, the rights of forcibly displaced people, and conduct grassroots research in South Asia’s most marginalized communities. Our members live across South Asia and rarely have the opportunity to meet in person. Likewise, we are reaching a massive audience spanning the region across linguistic, ethnic and cultural divides. This Network is made possible by technological advancements, including instant messaging apps, email, and social media that enable us to stay connected.

We also know that the digital world presents dangers. Trolls, hackers, and even governments may try to undermine or attack women human rights defenders online. We went to RightsCon to learn more about tools we can use to advance our work and what we can do to protect ourselves.

South Asia accounts for 64% of all internet blackouts from 2016 to today.

Access Now reports that India accounts for 104 of 194 internet shutdowns from January 2016 to April 2018. That is more than half (53%) of all internet shutdowns recorded. Adding blackouts in Pakistan (19) and Sri Lanka (1), 64% of all internet shutdowns in the past 2 years have happened in South Asia.

Nearly half of the internet shutdowns in India occurred in Kashmir Valley, according to the UNESCO-International Federation of Journalists. The clamp down on communications was usually followed by military operations resulting in fatalities of combatants and non-combatants alike. Government justification for the internet blackouts is usually “law and order”.

Why do internet blackouts matter?

In the age of the internet, freedom of expression and freedom of press are heavily exercised online. Journalists report current events using the internet and rely on it for instant communications. Documenting, posting, and sharing current events has become a powerful tool for civil society to keep governments accountable. Citizens also use it as a venue to express opinions on social issues, government affairs, and politics. Groundwork organizing for mass demonstrations often starts with the use of a hashtag. In short, access to digital communications has become a primary tool for human rights defenders and allies.

Internet blackouts are typically defined as an “intentional disruption of Internet or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable, for a specific population or within a location often to exert control over the flow of information.” Government directed internet shutdowns have typically correlated with mass political uprisings, government abuses of power and violence, and crisis moments. Evidence suggests that shutdowns are used for political purposes - to keep citizens in the dark and disconnected during protests and demonstrations.

Women have less access to digital communication than men. When they do have access, they are heavily surveillanced.

Men are twice as likely as women to own a mobile phone in Pakistan. In India, only 28% of women have cell phones compared with 43% of men. While sex-disaggregated data on access to information and communication technology (ICT) in Afghanistan is sparse, it is likely that the same gender disparity in access to ICT in Afghanistan found in India and Pakistan. Women who do have access report having their use of cell phones and other devices strictly controlled and monitored by male family members.

Having internet access opens women up to the global movements for women’s rights and can help connect them with local organizations directly. It is a powerful tool for education, exposure to new ideas, personal development, keeping informed on current events, and connecting to broader networks of people. Women can find new ways to speak up and speak out online that might not be possible otherwise.

Networks like WRN are using digital tools to connect women and men from India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan to engage in a fresh dialogues about Women, Peace and Security. We seek to connect with allies working for gender justice, justice for and recognition of forcibly displaced people, and promoting women’s leadership in governance and peace building. To continue this work, we need to keep digital spaces free and employ methods to keep women human rights defenders safe on and off line.


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