Information and communication technologies such as the internet and cell phones have proved to be strategic tools to assist women's human rights defenders (WHRD) on their advocacy by allowing them to meet, protest and interact freely, without the interference of the state or others. But at the same time ICT can represent an open door for many kinds of violations to the integrity of women’s human rights advocates if security measures are not adopted. Awareness is a key first step in preventing attacks and ensuring safety.

ICT to mobilize, to protest, to meet

“Internet and also mobile phone have affected my activism. It makes the communications easier, more effective and efficient. We can communicate with our partners quickly by email, SMS, messenger, etc. It also easier to get more information by internet that we need for our work. We can use Google or another search engine to search for journals, government policies, and other information. Besides, it is easier to distribute information to many people. It really helps my job as a campaigner, because I need to distribute information to increase awareness for people and collect the support. My netbook and blackberry helps me to get email and to stay connected all the time, so I can interact quickly for my job and my private life”, states R. M. (1), an engaged Indonesian women’s human rights defender.

T. S., a women’s rights advocate from Fiji tells that her organization has really taken advantage of information and communication technologies, using intensively their own website, Twitter and Facebook.

However, this situation is not always so straightforward or respectful of women’s human rights. In several countries women’s rights defenders are prevented from exercising their right to peaceful assembly and association and suffer different kind of violations to their rights mediated through technology.

Rights violations faced at the frontline…

The 2010 report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, focuses on the situation of women human rights defenders and those working on women’s rights or gender issues, and draws attention to the risks and violations that they face in their everyday life, as well as the perpetrators involved.

This is the first time that this report focuses exclusively on the situation of women’s human rights defenders and those working on gender issues. The key message of the report is that “women defenders are more at risk of suffering certain forms of violence and other violations, prejudice, exclusion, and repudiation than their male counterparts.” The main reasons are gender norms and inequality “This is often due to the fact that women defenders are perceived as challenging accepted socio-cultural norms, traditions, perceptions and stereotypes about femininity, sexual orientation, and the role and status of women in society," states the report.

This target group of human rights defenders is far from being homogeneous. It includes both women and men, developing “a vast range of activities related to women’s rights, including those working on issues related to sexual and reproductive rights; organizations dealing with violence against women, rehabilitation and impunity related to violence, rape and sexual violence, women’s shelters caring for victims of the above; and journalists and bloggers writing on women’s rights issues”.

The Americas were highlighted as the most threatening continent for WHRD. Of the 292 communications received by the Special Rapporteur regarding threats and death threats between 2004-2009, more than half concerned defenders working in the Americas, mostly from Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil, Honduras and Peru, in decreasing order. Among the groups which appeared to be most at risk were women defenders working to fight impunity for alleged human rights violations, those working on indigenous rights, trade unionists, and women’s rights and/or LGBT defenders in the region.

Fundamentalist societies represent outstandingly high risk environments for WHRD: “I work on sexuality issues and sexual rights in my country, and when I can, women's political participation, including encouraging the political participation of transgenders. My country is growing increasingly fundamentalist, although we are for all intents and purposes under our Constitution, a secular country. There's a huge Islamic conservative effort to turn us into an Islamic country with Shariah law governing all. For me, there's no such thing as being able to be visible as staff of a human rights organization without being vulnerable... The difference in vulnerability will depend on how close to the frontline you are as a women or human rights defender", says a women’s rights advocate who prefers not be identified by given name or the country.

All regions confirmed the existence of violations against women defenders and those working on women’s rights and gender issues. Violations denounced were very diverse, from those of a judicial nature, including arrests, travel bans, judicial harassment, administrative detentions, sentences to prison, to violations perpetrated by non-State actors (also paramilitaries) including intimidation, attacks, raids, death threats, physical attacks, attempted rape and other forms of sexual violence, as well as killings by armed individuals, family and community members, and unidentified individuals.

One of the reported violations of judicial nature suffered by women’s rights and LGBTI activists was the violation of the freedom of assembly and association.

The most common restrictions on and violations to the right to peacefully assembly against women human rights defenders are the use of excessive force against defenders during assemblies; arrests and detentions while exercising freedom of assembly; judicial harassment; travel restrictions for defenders wishing to participate in assemblies to promote and protect human rights; and restrictions imposed through legislative and administrative measures (2).

Similarly, the most common restrictions on and violations of the right to freedom of association for WHRD involves restriction on activities (government supervision and monitoring; administrative and judicial harassment (grounds and procedures for dissolution; difficulties in the formation and registration of human rights associations, and criminal sanctions for unregistered activities (3).

Fiji for instance is a country with a hostile environment for the advancement of women rights. It has an estimated population of 849,000 people and ever since there was a coup in 2006 the country has been governed under Public Emergency Regulations (PER). The PER provides that if more than three people are having a meeting they must have a permit from the police. If any organization wants to bring together their members and organize a meeting (for example a workshop; or an organisational strategic planning meeting) in Fiji, they must have a police permit, which requires a list of all the participants attending to the workshop, a list of facilitators, their curriculum vitae and the meeting program. And by virtue of Police giving you the permit to move on with the meeting, the organization must allow some police representative to attend the event. “If there is anything related to human rights, elections, or the constitution in the program, it gets rejected, you can not have the permit”, says the Fiji advocate.

Threats and intimidations, prohibitions, arrests, abuse, meetings being closed down, interrogatories, are some of the experiences that many women have been suffering in Fiji just for standing up for women’s rights. “It’s pretty sad”, regrets T. S., “they (the government authorities) are making everyday life so hard for people”.

… and security risks faced online

The Special Rapporteur's report explicitly mentions ICT as a means used to threaten violence, but it also considers ICT-mediated violence as violations in themselves: “Threats and death threats – which may be delivered in person, by telephone, in printed pamphlets or mock obituaries and electronically via text message or e-mail - can be seen as representative of risks, but also as violations in themselves which may significantly harm the psychological integrity of the defender, as well as possibly predating an attack. These threats are directed not only at the defenders themselves but also their family members, as well as female family members of male human rights defenders.”

Risks are in fact extended to third parties who could be in an even more vulnerable position than the women’s human rights defender since they are out there, named and recognizable. “You're safer, but that may be true only for you as an individual. It doesn't necessarily mean family and friends and allies are as safe. It doesn't mean that other members of the same community are safe, those you're linked with”, explains one women’s rights defender.

As said before, the internet and mobile phones are strategic tools to assist women's human rights defenders to exercise their right to associate, among other rights. But at the same time there are several issues that affect the ability of women’s human rights defenders to use those technologies to effectively mobilize around women's rights: access issues (especially blocking and filtering content), online and offline trust, reaching offline constituencies, skills, privacy and censorship threats, and posing and infiltrating issues.

Media is strongly regulated in the country so “if you just mention human rights, you actually get taken to a military camp and you get interrogated”, tells the Fiji advocate. “They scare you into submission”, she adds. “Even though we’ve had internet for a while, ICT is a really new field for advocacy for us and now our main concern is safety and how to keep our documentation safe”, tells T. S. Emails and IP addresses are being tracked and anti-regime propaganda is being blocked, especially coming from bloggers. “Blogging is synonymous with illegal activity in my country”, states T. S.

Indonesia on the other hand is the world's fourth most populous country with over 238 million people but it shares with Fiji the fact that much needs to be done when it comes to women's human rights defense. The Law No. 11 Concerning Electronic Information and Transactions (4) enacted in 2008 addresses cybercrime and data security, as well as privacy rights protection issues. According to an informant, this law potentially criminalizes citizens that use the internet to express arguments and advocate for their rights. “There was a woman that complained about a hospital service. The hospital sued her for defamation”, states R. M. from Indonesia.

The lack of awareness regarding the risks existing for women when using the internet to advocate for women’s human rights is a huge obstacle when it comes to identifying online security breaches and harassment in order to back up their advocacy around secure online communications. Unfortunately this situation ends up leaving women’s human rights defenders even more vulnerable.

On this subject, a women’s rights defender recognized that “lessons probably way too late for me to do anything about information that authorities may already have on me but at least I'm more aware of how naked I am when communicating, what risks I take for myself and what that might mean for my family and loved ones and friends and allies. Similar to risks that I take by being part of physical spaces of organising and advocacy”.

“Fortunately, I haven’t been violated using the internet but I believe that I am at risk in using it. I was not even aware that I was vulnerable; I just thought ‘who’s gonna track me?’”, commented R. M.

Secure online advocacy: existing and possible strategies

According to the Special Rapporteur’s report, State protection mechanisms and security strategies implemented to protect all WHRD from State and non-State actors’ violations are still inadequate because of lack of implementation, political will or gender-sensitivity. In the Americas for instance, the lack of recognition of non-State actors as active perpetrators is one important cause of the ineffectiveness of current protection measures.

Computer confiscation, virus and spyware attacks, document corruption, slow computer operation and intermittent internet connection, email and internet monitoring and filtering, receiving unwanted emails: these are all deliberate and commonplace attacks to WHRD’s online privacy and security, affecting their right to freedom of association, among others.

As stated by the Special Rapporteur, women human rights defenders developed strategies to keep themselves safe, especially taking into account the notorious absence of State-based resources for protection: “Some of these strategies include increasing visibility through public denunciation and public campaigns, strategic alliances with other national and international organizations, accompaniment to defenders at risk, and lowering the profile of activities to avoid drawing attention”.

How do you handle online and offline trust in terms of security?

For instance, in some countries no one trusts the information distributed if the author does not show publicly his/her face or name. The question here is: how to build a personal identity without compromising that person’s safety? “I remember not wanting to use my name in my e-mail account but this may be considered not professional by some organizations or people. I remember the request for photographs and my refusal to do so for bios on the website. It's so easy to look for me over the internet and to find out about my e-mail account. At one point, even my home address and telephone contacts numbers were somewhere around and I'm sure these are still on the internet somewhere, despite me asking them to remove them immediately, because of some silly idea that putting up the full details and list of participants is a good accountability measure to donors”, says one of our interviwees.

How can WHRD protect themselves and their data when using social networking sites?

It is said that security is only as strong as its weakest point. There are many tools that WHRD can use to keep themselves safe when using the internet, starting with a number of freeware or open source software tools like anti-virus, anti-spyware, firewalls, secure password storage, file storage, file recovery, file removal, secure email service, secure instant messaging, and secure web browser. “We have levels of security checks that we do so we knew that could happen and has happened to us before”, emphasizes T. S. For instance, she and her organization partners use web-based emails to increase their security.

According to her, documenting and sending out to certain specific and strategic contacts the detailed reports of these violations is the most important and tactical measure they have developed “because we want people to know what is happening in Fiji and have a historical record saying that these things happened”.

Accordingly, the Special Rapporteur’s report emphasizes the importance of “improving documentation of violations in order to increase their visibility, as well as to better understand the trends and risks”. That is as a matter of fact a vital area of work for women’s rights organizations in their accompaniment of women human rights defenders and in which information and communications technologies have much potential.

Which are the recommended steps to increase security and support freedom of association and expression of WHRD?

For national and international non-governmental organizations, the Special Rapporteur recommends:

  • “to strengthen informal and formal networks to support women defenders and those working on women’s rights or gender issues in case of attacks since they can be instrumental in ensuring their immediate safety when needed”;

  • “to promote campaigns to address the prejudices against the work and activities of women defenders and those working on women’s rights or gender issues”;

  • “to continue the development and dissemination of tools and materials for the protection of women defenders and those working on women’s rights or gender issues”;

  • “and engage, where appropriate, with governmental and intergovernmental bodies concerning the design and implementation of programmes for the protection of human rights defenders, ensuring that the situation of women defenders and those working on women’s rights or gender issues is taken into account”.

In this sense, would an online community platform for networking of women human rights defenders using ICTs in their activism be useful?

According to R. M. it would be really helpful: “every country has their specific context surrounding online security but the fact is that all of us are at risk of being identified, and our information is vulnerable to being cracked. Online community will help us to share our situation and try to make it better with secure habits in using the internet. We can also use it to help spread awareness of secure online activism”.

- end-

"Hand mapping" photo by APC WNSP. The hand mapping exercise was used during a series of digital storytelling workshops organized by the APC WNSP for women's rights activists across the world. The exercise allows them to explore hands as representations of safety or fear and helps them map the links between security and technology.

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)

(1) Both R.N. and T.S. are pseudonyms to preserve the real identity of the respondents.

(2) Commentary on the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms

(3) Commentary on the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms


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