Connectedness or alienation?
I started my first real paid job at the age of 21 at a feminist organisation in New Delhi. It was a year later, in 1997 that I first experienced email, via a shared office account. We only got that account because a guy called Leo (sitting somewhere else in the city – I don't quite know where) had a shell account that he shared with a few other NGOs. The next year I got my very first Yahoo email account. And then everything suddenly became incredibly different.
I sometimes stop to consider how unbelievable my current work and life would have sounded to the 1996 me. So I was curiously charmed by and could in some ways relate to how different things feel to Edna Aquino. There are ways of organising, mobilising and communicating now that ICTs make possible that could not have existed before, but the old ways of relating still prevail.
Edna tells me about the role of ICTs in her work as a feminist and Marxist activist and campaigner and the potentials and pitfalls for the women human rights defenders she works with. Edna says she 'came of age' politically as a women's rights activist after the 1985 Nairobi Women's Conference, having been deeply embedded in Marxist activist movements before that. Edna has worked at Amnesty International for 15 years and is now the campaign manager for WLUML (Women Living Under Muslim Laws) and the Violence is Not Our Culture Campaign. Edna has also collaborated with APC Women's Program on the creation of an Online Activism Toolkit for Women's Human Rights Activists.
Edna recalls ICTs being brought to the discussion table, in the context of women's rights, at the 1995 Beijing Women's Conference. “This was one of the first times the 'women and ICTs question' was addressed and I feel privileged to have witnessed the evolution of women's use of ICTs over the past decade.” Edna's experience shows that ICTs have been crucial for women organising around the world; during her time at Amnesty International, Edna found that ICTs were a critical tool to organize, connect and communicate with women activists: “in fact, it actually allowed me to challenge the Amnesty approach that there needed to be an on-the-ground presence to organising activists. I found that these virtual spaces were so important in being able to share information quickly and mobilise people.”
Starting with email, and now mobile phones and the internet more widely, especially social media, Edna finds that these tools and platforms are now central to practically every campaign she works on. The WLUML campaign is seen as a key database for hundreds of subscribers and the site itself has received over a million unique visitors in two years.
The particularities of women as activists and their realities mean that there are specific concerns and issues to consider when using ICTs for campaigns. While women may have access to the technical devices (mobile phones being the most ubiquitous of these) their access to knowledge and skills-sharing is limited. Given the assumed user-friendliness of devices, a woman who feels daunted by technology devices feels less encouraged to use them without instruction and guidance.
Additionally, 'access' is further complicated by the fact that technology objects are rendered obsolete quickly and there is a push to upgrade devices and software regularly. Edna recalls that when laptops became more commonplace, many women continued to use (often shared) desktops and felt the pressure to be mobile and online, or struggled with the expectation that they be able to access their data and information any time. As 3G services are promised in many parts of the Global South, Edna expects another gap as internet fees rise and women are expected to be constantly connected through their smartphones.
Elaborating more on the issue of access, Edna recalls a concern of women's rights activists from the early days of feminist engagement with technology. “There is a tendency of feminists in the ICT space to sometimes take on the same culture of men-activists looking at technology as the end rather than as a means. I see feminist ICT experts speaking a language that is not accessible, is alienating and very masculinised.” Edna believes that this sometimes puts pressure on ICT novices to catch up, and therefore feels that experts need to be able to break things down and simplify them, rather than assume that everyone is at a similar level of confidence and understanding.
In working on the APC Online Activism Toolkit Edna says made it a priority to constantly assert a simple and accessible language: “for example, you cannot assume that everyone understands what an OS (operating system) is and what it means. You have to constantly explain things with examples and ground those examples in realities that women's rights activists can understand. It is like when I started working on human rights issues internationally, I found I was acquiring a language that was very distancing from my colleagues back home in the Philippines; they could not always understand my approaches and concerns. So I had to be mindful and make the effort to strip my language of the jargon.”
But even after becoming more comfortable and adept with the use of ICTs, activists face a host of security risks. “There is a tendency to become too comfortable and to assume that because you know how to use and operate technology objects and devices, you are in control of them. This couldn't be further from the reality” Edna says. Noting that she was unconcerned with digital security herself until her email account got hacked, Edna stresses the importance for activists to be aware of how they could be at risk, either because of the nature of digital technologies themselves, and particularly because of the work activists do.
For example, the WLUML site has been attacked (in writing) by people who oppose the ideas there. As a result, she is ambivalent about the role of laws and policies governing freedom of expression, considering there are extremist groups that are protected on the basis of 'free speech'. In essence, Edna believes that more needs to be done to nuance this idea, rather than call for greater regulation by the State.
In terms of personal security Edna says that “women tend to put themselves last, especially in times of crisis, and by that logic it is not surprising that there are cases where women are not careful about their own security.” Talking of women human rights defenders in places as diverse as Latin America and Iran, Edna stresses the need for them to not be complacent about security. “Unfortunately security is about hindsight. We rarely take preventive measures and therefore there is a need for constant education and updates on this issue” she says.
Looking ahead, Edna's concerns are more around enabling women's human rights defenders to have better access – in real terms – to ICTs. While activists may have access to the technical devices, there is a greater need for training and education, such as universal online support for NGOs and movements who cannot afford in-house or online tech support; a resource base of experts offering services for free or at minimum cost; and a systematic way of pooling resources like hardware that can be re-used and shared.
Photo by APC
This article was written as a part of APC's “Connect your rights: Internet rights are human rights” campaign financed by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida)