The Internet, Sexual Expression and Online Violence in Nepal: Interview with LOOM, Nepal

19 Diciembre 2017

Photo of workshop conducted by LOOM in Nepal. Photo credit: LOOM

LOOM is a Nepal-based feminist organisation that works towards harnessing the collective power of women through multi-generational activism especially around sexual rights and sexual citizenship. It aims to enhance young women’s leadership capacities by engaging them in a collective process of producing new and diverse feminist knowledges that challenge the status quo. One of the ways it does so is by engaging with the internet as a political space which can be used to further a sexual rights agenda.

Here, Kumud Rana is in conversation with the Executive Chair of LOOM, Jyotsna Maskay, and independent researcher, producer and trainer, Indu Nepal, to talk about two studies they conducted on the internet and sexual expression and online gender based violence which were both commissioned by LOOM.

Kumud Rana: Could you tell us a bit about why you conducted the studies and what your major findings were?

Jyotsna Maskay: In July 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted Resolution 26/13 which affirms that the same rights people have offline must also be protected online - in particular, freedom of expression - and recognises access and expansion of internet services as a basic human right. It also calls upon all States to address online security concerns to ensure accountability for human rights violations.

It was only in 1995 that we first started using the internet in Nepal1 and since then we have seen a rapid increase in internet and data penetration. The internet has become a powerful tool for political and creative self-expression since the second democratic movement in 2006, after which we saw a proliferation of online campaigns like those against sexual violence or equal citizenship rights for women. The internet has facilitated sexual expression since it allows a wider reach and ensures anonymity when required. But there are hardly any studies that explicitly address how the internet might be harnessed to further a sexual rights agenda. So we wanted to understand how women’s rights activists, young feminist activists and LBT2 (lesbians, bisexual women and transgender) activists have used the internet, particularly for sexual expression or sexual rights. We wanted to understand access, usage, affordability and knowledge regarding the internet from the first study.

The internet has become a powerful tool for political and creative self-expression since the second democratic movement in 2006, after which we saw a proliferation of online campaigns like those against sexual violence or equal citizenship rights for women. The internet has facilitated sexual expression since it allows a wider reach and ensures anonymity when required.

In the second study, LOOM wanted to explore the gendered aspect of online regulation and violence. Since freedom of expression laws have not extended to include the scope of the internet, we have seen increasing control and regulation of online content as well as an increase in online violence. We wanted to gather evidence on this through the second study.

Indu Nepal: I authored the first study on the internet and sexual Expression, which was an exploratory research on the use of the internet among gender equality and sexual rights advocates in Nepal. We found that young people often use the internet to establish communities with like-minded people, explore intimacy and develop content to counter patriarchal narratives to some extent. Though established women’s rights activists and LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning and intersex)3 activists might use the internet as an integral part of their work, it is mostly a small group of urban, educated and English-speaking young activists from Brahmin-Chhetri or Newar caste groups4 who use it explicitly to organise for change. For example, the Occupy Baluwatar5 campaign initiated by a group of young feminists relied on social media to organise peaceful protests calling on the Nepali government to address gender-based violence and widespread impunity. Other examples of creative use of the internet in activism that we came across are Chaukath, Maker Keti, Boju-Bajai, and Girls in Technology and Women in Stem among others.

the Occupy Baluwatar campaign initiated by a group of young feminists relied on social media to organise peaceful protests calling on the Nepali government to address gender-based violence and widespread impunity. Other examples of creative use of the internet in activism that we came across are Chaukath , Maker Keti , Boju-Bajai , and Girls in Technology and Women in Stem among others.

The internet is also used widely by LGBTQI people for networking and providing communities of support. The LGBTQI movement in Nepal6 gained momentum at the same time the internet became more accessible to the wider population allowing individuals to explore their identities and desires. In our study, we found that men seeking sex with men – whether self-identifying as gay or not and from across class and caste groups - were found to extensively use Facebook and online dating apps like Grindr and Planet Romeo, often using fake profiles.

However, we found that online spaces often disproportionately affect already marginalised groups like transgender people and young women. This mainly manifests as online violence and self-censorship which is compounded by the lack of technical capacity and lack of awareness of threats on the internet, but also a lack of adequate legal mechanisms to address potential harms. More seasoned women’s rights activists were also often seen to regard the internet as a medium which could be misused by young women, revealing their biases regarding proper sexual conduct.

Online spaces often disproportionately affect already marginalised groups like transgender people and young women. This mainly manifests as online violence and self-censorship which is compounded by the lack of technical capacity and lack of awareness of threats on the internet, but also a lack of adequate legal mechanisms to address potential harms.


Photo of workshop conducted by LOOM in Nepal. Photo credit: LOOM

KR: You say already marginalised groups are further disadvantaged in online space. Could you elaborate on this especially in terms of gender, sexuality, ethnicity/caste or class?

JM: When we conducted the studies, we were more focused on gaining information from sexual rights activists and LGBT activists and did not adequately delve into class and ethnic/caste components. What we found was that online violence is often a continuum of offline violence. Women’s rights activists who are vocal online have been subject to stalking and slander. Transgender women who are open about their gender identity on Facebook or Grindr have been subject to harassment. Young women’s activities on social media are regulated by family members and the wider society which inhibits their freedom of expression and limits self-exploration.

Women’s rights activists who are vocal online have been subject to stalking and slander. Transgender women who are open about their gender identity on Facebook or Grindr have been subject to harassment. Young women’s activities on social media are regulated by family members and the wider society which inhibits their freedom of expression and limits self-exploration.

IN: Additionally, inequalities in access to education, resources and support systems often determine how the internet might be more effectively used by different people. For example - Who can afford their own phone? Who shares it with other family members? Who can read and change the privacy settings on Facebook so others can’t harass them? Who are you able to call upon for support if someone blackmails you with a doctored photo?

One thing that stood out was that the digital footprint of lesbian and bisexual women is very low in comparison to men seeking sex with men, which is reflective of the low level of acceptability of female sexuality and its expression in general7.

The digital footprint of lesbian and bisexual women is very low in comparison to men seeking sex with men, which is reflective of the low level of acceptability of female sexuality and its expression in general .

KR: Since 2007, Madhesis8 have been one of the most vocal minority groups protesting against state discrimination. We do not see Madhesi women’s rights activists in your studies. Is it because they are not a part of the sexual rights movement in Nepal?

JM: This is not true. Madhesi women’s rights activists have spoken openly against the ghumto pratha9 (veiling) which is closely linked to the policing of women’s bodies. They have advocated against the dowry system10 which is related to the way women’s bodies are treated as properties to be bartered. They have been supportive of equal citizenship rights for women who under the present law cannot pass on Nepali citizenship to their children independent of the nationality of the father11. This is very much about the control of women’s sexuality even though women’s rights activists might not explicitly say so because of the stigma around anything to do with sexuality. So sexuality is not just about sex per se but is related to a lot of other issues of control and discrimination. We invited Madhesi women’s rights activists to take part in the study and in our programmes but they chose to remain anonymous in the study.

IN: Madhesi respondents were some of our key informants though the report has not been able to make their voices more prominent. This is partly because our study sample was mostly limited to participants from Kathmandu. However, the report touches upon high vulnerability of women who engage in identity-based activism or who oppose it, including women from ethnic minority groups. They might face backlash from people within their community about their loyalty. We do not have information on male activists but criticism against female activists very quickly becomes crude with remarks about their sexual lives with the intention to delegitimise them. It is about control over women’s bodies and their agency.

The report touches upon high vulnerability of women who engage in identity-based activism or who oppose it, including women from ethnic minority groups.


Photo of workshop conducted by LOOM in Nepal. Photo credit: LOOM

KR: Such sexualised harassment of women on online platforms also reflect limited acceptance of open discussions around sexuality. You report that the sexual rights agenda in Nepal has been framed in a way that shows a limited understanding of sexual rights issues. Could you elaborate on this and explain how it is reflected in the use of the internet to promote or hinder the sexual rights agenda?

JM: We have a narrow understanding of what sexual rights mean and have limited it to sexual health. The new constitution of Nepal limits this definition to reproductive health and rights of mainly married, heteronormative women. Transmen, for example, are excluded from any discussions around sexual health. WOREC Nepal started talking about women’s sexuality as a distinct human rights issue since 1995 but it was never institutionalised because people are uncomfortable talking about it. It was only when Blue Diamond Society was established in 2001 that we started talking about sexuality more widely. However, what this has led to is that sexuality has come to be mostly associated with LGBTQI rights. We have seen seasoned women’s rights advocates shying away from explicitly talking about sexuality, or supporting those who talk about it openly.

Sexuality has come to be mostly associated with LGBTQI rights. We have seen seasoned women’s rights advocates shying away from explicitly talking about sexuality, or supporting those who talk about it openly.

Although young women and LGBTQI activists have started using the internet to express dissent to some extent, a lot of established women’s rights activists have not yet been able to understand the full potential of internet as a political space that can be used for transformation. They might use it for sharing information, showcasing their work or in communication but they have not gone beyond this.

IN: Sexual expression is not really seen as part of the sexual rights agenda, neither is sex education that is focused on body positivity. This is partly a reflection of the heteronormative leadership of the women’s rights movement in Nepal. This value system is also reflected in laws and policies that regulate freedom of expression and bodily autonomy. Examples include the online regulation of content on sexuality or anything related to it. Most legal instruments pertaining to freedom of expression restrict civil liberties through a ‘public decency and morality’ clause including the Constitution of Nepal 2015, the Electronic Transactions Act (ETA)12, the National Broadcasting Regulation and the Online Media Directive.

Most legal instruments pertaining to freedom of expression restrict civil liberties through a ‘public decency and morality’ clause including the Constitution of Nepal 2015, the Electronic Transactions Act (ETA) , the National Broadcasting Regulation and the Online Media Directive.

KR: How might such regulations affect freedom of expression and human rights in general?

IN: The biggest issue with the ETA is that it criminalises certain forms of expression that “offend public morality and cause jealousy”, which can be interpreted in many ways. This is also incompatible with other laws because any violations to the restrictions prescribed are viewed as civil cases. In 2014, the ETA was used to arrest a man from Saptari for sharing a news story about police corruption on Facebook. He was acquitted after 20 days in detention. In 2016, journalists and freedom of expression advocates led an opposition to a clause within the Online Media Directive banning publication and broadcast of materials “against public protocol or morality”. I believe this Directive was suspended but another version was passed which requires online media outlets to be registered in order to be protected under press freedom rules. This would restrict free publication of information and online expression for those not registered.

When it comes to technology, the conversation around how it impacts human rights is only just beginning in Nepal. These issues have not been politicised to the extent that we can have a meaningful conversation around prevention of regulations that trample civil rights. There are no laws detailing the necessary preconditions for collection and sharing of personal information. For example, the government has a range of identity-based database projects. The national identity card is currently in pilot phase and this is one of the most invasive collection of personal information in the world. The electronic voter registration was another bio-metric project that collected information on 12 million voters. The smart license also does the same for those applying for driver’s license. From anecdotal evidences, we know that people who are supposed to guard this information such as staff working in the institutions regularly give out personal information to unauthorised parties. From an information management viewpoint, the digitisation and centralisation of such data makes it vulnerable to theft especially in Nepali government context where hacks have occurred and relevant parties were unaware of it until it was published in media. From a civil rights perspective, these projects are being imposed on a population that is only beginning to acquire literacy in technology. The foundation for a massive level of surveillance is being put in place, and with it a potential for misuse.

From a civil rights perspective, these projects are being imposed on a population that is only beginning to acquire literacy in technology. The foundation for a massive level of surveillance is being put in place, and with it a potential for misuse.

KR: In such a context, what did you find were the main limits of the use of technology for social justice initiatives in Nepal?

IN: The research found that the creation of content to challenge dominant patriarchal voices was limited. Mystification of technology and online platforms as special spaces needing special technological language is another. The instant feedback system on the internet, which can also be vicious, is another factor that prevents some from being too vocal about social justice initiatives especially as it relates to sexual rights and expression.

The instant feedback system on the internet, which can also be vicious, is another factor that prevents some from being too vocal about social justice initiatives especially as it relates to sexual rights and expression.

JM: There are two things here – access to technology and the internet, and internet governance. In Nepal, when we talk about the number of mobile users, we are talking about access to technology but when we talk of people’s ability to generate internet content freely then we are talking about internet governance. So even though access to technology is comparatively high, very little has been done in terms of internet governance or in terms of using the internet for social justice.

Even though access to technology is comparatively high, very little has been done in terms of internet governance or in terms of using the internet for social justice.

KR: How does LOOM address this issue of high access to technology but also high regulation of internet content in the context of a lack of discussion around internet governance?

JM: One of the four strategic objectives of LOOM is to engage with the internet as a political space. LOOM does it through the EROTICS project aimed at developing the capacities of sexual rights activists, LBT activists and women’s rights activists around the use of technology and the internet. We conduct Digital Storytelling workshops where participants are trained on feminist storytelling. We also work on raising awareness on freedom of expression, digital security, and internet rights. In the first phase of this project, we followed the APC format of digital storytelling and focused on urban activists. In the second phase, we included more materials on the history of media and activism in Nepal. We invited 11 community radio producers since this is the most widely available technology for information dissemination in Nepal. We make sure that our workshops and discussions are inclusive of historically marginalised groups.

One of the four strategic objectives of LOOM is to engage with the internet as a political space. LOOM does it through the EROTICS project aimed at developing the capacities of sexual rights activists, LBT activists and women’s rights activists around the use of technology and the internet.

To address the paucity of content on sexuality and sexual rights, we have started working with young bloggers who will develop online content on these issues. From this year on, we have included data on online violence in a yearbook published by WOREC Nepal on violence against women. We still need to work on a better format for the recording of such violence.

Photo of workshop conducted by LOOM in Nepal. Photo credit: LOOM

LOOM believes advocacy on online freedom of expression and digital security is an extension of advocacy against gender based violence and an essential part of feminist movement building.

LOOM believes advocacy on online freedom of expression and digital security is an extension of advocacy against gender based violence and an essential part of feminist movement building.

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Footnotes

1. Kathmandu Today. (2015, 20 February). Internet access reaches to one-third population in Nepal. Kathmandu Today. www.ktm2day.com/2015/02/20/internet-access-reaches-to-one-third-populati... Go back

2. LBT activists in Nepal usually take the acronym to stand for lesbians, bisexual women and transmen. LOOM includes transwomen in this category in recognition of all those who might identify as women or the feminine gender. Go back

3. The term ‘queer’ is not widely used in Nepal and is often limited to privileged circles of people with some exposure to queer theory and activism outside Nepal. The term most widely – and incorrectly - used to signify LGBTQI people in Nepal is the ‘third gender’, which is used as a term of self-identification by some transgender people, including metis who could be defined as those assigned the male gender at birth but who wish to present as the feminine gender. Metis do not include transmen and not all transwomen would identify as meti. Metis and transwomen have historically been at the forefront of the LGBTQI movement in Nepal. Go back

4. Brahmins and Chhetris are the dominant ‘high caste’ groups in Nepal while Newars are traditionally of the business class. Go back

5. Koyu, P., & Pokharel, A. (2014, December). Occupy Baluwatar: A reflection. Studies in Nepali History and Society 19(2) 347–372. Go back

6. The LGBTQI movement in Nepal was crystallised through the establishment of the Blue Diamond Society in 2001 with Sunil Babu Pant as its founder, along with a group of volunteers largely comprising of transwomen. Go back

7. LBT organising in Nepal (usually defined by LBT activists as comprising of those who identify as lesbians, bisexual women and transmen) is limited to three small, under-staffed and under-funded organisations – Mitini Nepal (http://www.mitininepal.org.np/), Inclusive Forum Nepal (http://www.ifn.org.np/) and CORE-Nepal (https://www.facebook.com/core.nepal). Go back

8. The Madhesis comprise of ethnic groups mainly living along the southern plains or the Tarai of Nepal who have historical kinship and socio-economic ties across the border in India. Madhesis have faced state discrimination and social marginalisation as a result of this. Go back

9. A system of veiling mostly practised by married Hindu women living in the Tarai of Nepal and in parts of India. Go back

10. Dowry is traditionally a form of economic security offered to the bride by her parents and relatives, either in cash or kind. However, the bride’s family also might offer gifts or money to the groom’s family, either voluntarily or by coercion. Failure to do so might result in violence against the wife by the husband or his family, sometimes resulting in death of the woman. Go back

11. This restrictive clause on citizenship disproportionately affects single women with children, women married to non-Nepali nationals and those in same-sex partnerships. See https://iapsdialogue.org/2017/03/09/bodies-that-matter-contestations-aro... and https://discoversociety.org/2017/09/05/citizenship-gender-and-statelessn... Go back

12. Article 47 (1), The Electronic Transactions Act 2063. (2008) Go back

 

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