Disrupting the Binary Code: Experiences of LGBT Sri Lankan’s Online, a research study looking at sexuality and ICT’s was launched recently. As part of the EROTICS South Asia Network, (short for exploratory research on ICT’s and sexuality), the study was conducted in partner with the Association for Progressive Communications. The EROTICS research, unpacks the ways in which sexual minorities in Sri Lanka harness their rights on the internet.
The first Chapter of the research, Virtually Queer: Human Rights of LGBTQ Sri Lankans in the online space, by Paba Deshapriya and Michael Mendis, examines the landscape of ICT policy and sexual rights in the country. It provides a broad overview of the socio-political environment in which LGBTQ Sri Lankans live. The second Chapter of the study, Not Traditionally Technical : Lesbian Women in Sri Lanka and their use of the online space, by Dr. Shermal Wijewardena and Subha Wijesiriwardena is an analysis of how Lesbian women engage with the online space. This section brings to light the gendered and sexualised experiences of Lesbian women’s online engagements.
Against the backdrop of the criminalisation of homosexuality in Sri Lanka, which subjects the LGBTQ community to various forms of discrimination by the state and society, this pioneering study looks at how freedom of expression online can contribute to breaking taboos and amplifying the voices of sexual minorities in Sri Lanka.
At the launch a panel discussion was held with the researchers together with the research reviewers. Following the presentations on the findings of the research, there was an open discussion with audience members comprising of women’s rights and human rights activists along with members from the LGBT community from areas such as Colombo, Katunayake, Galle, Puttlam and Jaffna.
mage source: Shubha Kayastha (sketch by participants in a sexuality workshop). Title: freedom of thought. Description: Art work showing different way in which one can access knowledge and enjoy sexual rights.
Shubha Kayastha interviewed research team including Sanchia Brown, Programme Officer at Women and Media Collective (WMC) Sri Lanka and Coordinator of EROTICS, Sri Lanka; Subha Wijesiriwardena, a writer and a blogger working on gender and sexuality project in WMC and also associated with Internews in a project which supports Freedom House which looks like strengthening local LGBTIQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer) groups in Sri Lanka; and Paba Deshapriya who has been working at The Grassroot Trust around the issue of sexual reproductive health and rights, HIV and gender based violence. The team also comprised Shermal Wijewardhana and Micheal Mendis who were not part of the interview. The team conducted research on use of internet and online platforms by LGBTIQ, and published a report on the basis of the research based on survey among 85 respondents carried out in English, Sinhalese and Tamil; desk review; key interviews and Focus Group Discussion (FGD). The study is in two parts first part: 1) human rights of Sri Lanka LGBTI and 2) is on use of online space by lesbian women.
Shubha Kayastha (SK): Could you tell me why the focus of the research is LGBTIQ?
Sanchia Brown (SB): The research was conducted based on the gaps found in existing research on sexuality and internet rights. There isn’t much research conducted which focuses on the LGBTIQ community in Sri Lanka and how they use the internet.
Subha Wijesiriwardena (SW): In terms of the timing with relation to LGBTI rights in the context of wider socio-political context in Sri Lanka, we believed that in 2015 with the new regime, there is some hope for the new government to be more progressive. Civil society has been consulted on many fronts, including the drafting of constitution, drafting transitional justice mechanisms, and LGBTI groups did their submission in both the processes, specifically looking at inclusion of a clause around sexual orientation, gender identity and expression especially in relation to inequality , in fundamental rights chapter and transitional justice mechanism. There was also resistance from various sections inside the government and their broader constituency. Since last year the conversation has been in public as well, so this research is very timely.
SK: You mentioned that LGBTI community are being involved in various policy making process, however you still have penal code in Sri Lanka. So given the legal scenario, how is the situation of LGBTI people?
Paba Deshapriya: In terms of legal framework in Sri Lanka, there was a hope that the issues around LGBTI will be liberalized with the regime change, but we have penal code 365a and 365d that criminalizes homosexuality mostly in its interpretation. It is still vague, and even the LGBTI community isn’t sure if these laws criminalize them, because it only talks about ‘unnatural sex’ or ‘carnal intercourse’ which is termed as ‘against the nature’, and this is being interpreted as anal sex assuming only homosexuals have anal sex. We also have ‘cheat by personation’ and ‘vagrancy ordinance’ acts.
On behalf of LGBTI people, the recent ‘gender certificate’ rule by Health ministry in which one can get identity card on the basis of their preferred gender identity, however their birth certificate is amended or changed, they put a seal saying ‘sex changed’. In addition, they get judgmental and discriminatory treatment from the local governmental offices. Despite the changing laws, societal attitude towards LGBTI people isn’t changing.
SW: focus on the issue is mostly from medical perspective and not from human rights perspective. In addition to that, the work around LGBTI is male centric through HIV and public health related programs.
SK: How is the scenario in Sri Lanka in terms of LGBTI and gender non-confirming people using internet and online spaces to explore and express their sexuality?
PD: The last regime didn’t let anyone and LGBTI people to exercise their freedom of expression, which also contributed to the closing of one of the leading LGBTI organization, Companions of Journey. Similarly, another organisation Dust had to evacuate from their office who used to get inquiry calls from Presidential office. Thus with the change in regime, we wanted to see how freedom of expression of LGBTI has changed. Using online space to express themselves, but r we aren’t able to use it to its potential. During the research it was found that the online space is not much utilized for expressing one’s sexuality through mediums like blogs, except for the personal messaging. One reason could be because people are not comfortable or are scared to use online space openly. Some marginalised groups are using online spaces for different purpose, for e.g.: sex workers use Emo to find their clients, young gay people are getting to know about gay parties through Facebook messages or WhatsApp, some people are able to find romantic partner through online platforms.
SK: What was your perception towards importance of online spaces for such marginalized groups? Did the research participants share anything around this?
SW: It is very clear that it is an important space. One of the things that the study talks about is to construct identity including use of anonymity as part of self-expression. Women participating in the research also spoke about surveillance, and it is important to talk about gendered surveillance at both family and state level. In addition, the shrunken democratic spaces that we have in Sri Lanka gives online platforms even more values. Even in the current situation, we have examples of state trying to control online speech. It has been happening for a while but Colombo is just realizing it, however there has been continuous militarisationin North and North East for a while. Recently, someone posted a photo of a government office online and the state was trying to find out who it was.
SB: The study also mentions how the LGBTIQ community has been able to access information before and after the internet, which is quite interesting. A research participant mentioned how it was difficult to find out information on homosexuality and he would go to the library for information to find out if he was ‘normal’. He shared how he is able to get more information because of the internet. Beside him, even the second part of the report shares how women are able to obtain and share information on social media for LGBTIQ activism and advocacy purposes.
SK: Given the state is trying to control online spaces, in what way do you think that has or it might affect LGBTI people in Sri Lanka?
SW: The government is including civil society in formulating policies, however there could be some level of manipulation that might be taking place where civil society isn’t given what they are asking for.
PD: In the beginning of the current government regime, we saw some progressive changes, however it has changed. The last government was against LGBTI community and abortion, but this government is not. Even then there is a lack of enthusiasm around repealing the laws against homosexuality because people are fine with it.
SK: In the research report, it does speak about online harassment towards LGBTI community. Could you please highlight what were the findings and issues?
SB: The study looked at the adverse online experience including online violence and a majority of research participants had experienced online violence in the form of harassment, bullying, verbal abuse, misuse of posted content and photographs, etc. In addition, lesbian women felt that being under surveillance by family members restricted them for expressing their sexuality online.
SW: It was also interesting to find that women had their own strategies against surveillance by family which we have light-heartedly called ‘lesbian tutorial’ in the report. They learn about privacy setting and other strategies from each other. They were informed about surveillance and strategies to use.
PD: Through focus group discussion and survey we found out that perpetrators of offences against LGBTI are mostly their friends or those who know them or family or ex-partners who already knew about their gender and sexual identity. There was a recent case of murder of trans-person in Dambulla. Online space is just a reflection of what happens in physical world.
Online space is just a reflection of what happens in physical world.
SK: How concerned do you think LGBTI people are around digital security or if it is a very new area in Sri Lanka at the moment? What were some of those strategies they were using, like privacy setting of social media platforms or others?
SB: People know about securing their profiles. In addition to privacy settings that Facebook offers, they were using some of their own strategies by consulting each other when they would need for their safety and security. However, language plays a role as well. As Sinhalese and Tamil are the commonly used languages in the country, Facebook is in English and has the option of Tamil . Either way converting local languages into English or vice versa is not easy.
SW: They would be concern about their profile however awareness around the politics behind data doesn’t exist even among the activists. None of women participants in the research, including the activists had been to any digital security trainings. We have criticized traditional approaches to digital security, which are mostly tech centric and intimidating.
PD: There is very little knowledge among people on what is the internet, their understanding is limited to their relation with their gadgets. Sri Lanka Computer Emergency Readiness Team 2015 has data on types of online victimization, and this suggests an increase in cyber exploitation and violence in Sri Lanka, especially around the use of social media. 2850 out of 2967 are social media related incidents. In 2016 2200 out of a total of 2341 incidents are social media related. The government data shows that most of the cases reported are on social media and out of them most of the incidents could have been prevented if people were able to setup privacy setting. They are not aware about encryption of data or how the internet works. Computer literacy is very low in Sri Lanka, most of the internet users are using it through phones.
SK: What are the alternative ways of providing knowledge on digital security in a non-threatening ways when it comes to marginalized groups like LGBTI?
SW: The Feminist principles of Internet does provide an approach to be more accessible and meaningful. The fundamental idea is that, technology belongs to you. So if you provide sense of this ownership to people and then talk to them about safety and security, that would be a better way. This will also shatter the power structure within the discourse of technology.
The fundamental idea is that technology belongs to you so if you provide sense of this ownership to people and then talk to them about safety and security, that would be a better way.
SK: What are key outcomes and recommendations of the research?
PD: We have four sets of recommendations: for the government, for the law enforcements, for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and for civil society organisations. There are some recommendations around reformation of policies that affects the life of LGBTI online and offline.
We have spoken about surveillance, and how people are to be aware of any form of surveillance including those by government or family.
Another recommendation is to the government to establish a separate body, either judicial or quasi-judicial in nature, to oversee internet service providers (ISP) compliance with surveillance measures. The government should ensure that such a body will be comprised of individuals with adequate expertise in human rights and law enforcement and that its members will be independently appointed and secure in their tenure.
Ensure that all online surveillance measures are subject to the approval of an independent body.
Also to amend the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission Act (as amended in 1996), to specifically exclude the Commission’s power to oversee surveillance measures in individual cases.
Require any general evaluation of an ISP’s compliance with surveillance requests, if provided for, to be transparent and in the public domain.
There needs to be investigation of cases of online harassment.
In addition to that, we have recommendation for civil society organisations to work with media, the government and to create awareness among people, amongst the others.
To civil society organisations including those working with LGBTI community, we recommend that they use the internet more.
SK: Were there any challenges while in the process of conducting the study and writing the report? And are there any suggestions for other researchers interested to conduct research around use of internet?
SB: There were difficulties in reaching out to the people in the communities, for interviews and for FGDs, mostly those who were anonymous. Apart from that, when we had approached government officials, they were not willing to speak to the researchers perhaps because of the legal framework and stigma surrounding LGBTIQ. The second part to the research was included because the data gathered for the research showed that there were areas that needed to be addressed. In Sri Lanka, there is a need to study how feminists and women rights activists use the internet and what challenges they face when using the internet for their work.
The main objective of this meetup is to look at the Feminist Principles of the Internet through the lens of the experiences related to gender, sexuality and technology in Asia Pacific. We would also like to come up with a set of recommendations for the Asia Pacific Regional Internet Governance Forum (APrIGF) synthesis document as a way to surface gender and sexuality into the internet governance platforms and discussions in the region. This pop-up event will also serve as a space for bringing in more activists and those working in the development sectors and their voices to spread the word about the Feminist Principles of the Internet.
The event will feature the soft launch of the EROTICS (Exploratory Research on Sexuality and ICTs) South Asia three country (India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka) research study on sexual expression, sexual content online and its various gatekeepers in the larger context of a free internet for all.
We hope you can join us for this Feminist Internet eXchange and add value to the event with your knowledge, expertise, and overall awesomeness.
Women and Media Collective, Sri Lanka
Note on logistics:
Address to the Reading Room – 19 Si Lom, Khwaeng Silom, Khet Bang Rak, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10500, Thailand
The venue is centrally located in Silom, known for its street food marketand a variety of restaurants. We will have a 1.5 hour long lunch break for participants to be able to explore local cuisine.
Thisis a community–organised event, and so we’d really appreciate any contribution to cover the venue rental.
Storytelling is a powerful medium that allows people to describe an experience to a listening audience. While there are many ways in which stories are told, the Association for Progressive Communications together with the Women and Media Collective held a digital storytelling workshop to provide participants with the skills and knowledge to tell ones story in ways that would leave an impression in the ever evolving digital space. Thus, from the 6 -9th of July feminists, women’s rights and sexual rights activists gathered in Colombo to learn the craft of digital storytelling and to share their thoughts on what digital rights means to them in the current context. Why digital? Because today, digital is known to be an easy way of communicating with one another as opposed to other methods, such as telephones, due to factors such as costs.
Following the enthusiastic introductions of all those present the resource persons of the workshop, Jennifer Radloff and Valentina Pelizzer from APC described the methodology to the participants. Short stories of similar nature were screened and discussed for participants to understand better of what is to be expected of them. The screening included telling stories of sex workers, transgender persons, acid burn victims and other stories surrounding women’s issues. Thus the importance of building on such stories were highlighted.
Through the workshop participants were expected to create a story that could be shared online, within their personal spaces or in the story circle of the workshop. The stories were to encapsulate a theme: ‘me, body and rights in the digital’. To begin with, story telling and writing was introduced to the participants through various activities and by the end of the first day everyone had plenty of stories in hand.
Subsequently, participants began the process of creating the stories they were to produce digitally at the workshop. After introducing them to assistive techniques to script writing, the stories were shared within the group. Video and audio editing software’s were used among participants for the digitisation of stories.
The third day consisted of image searching, audio recording and editing of stories. Participants were encouraged to be creative with the story images they selected by producing their own pictures or artwork that would best describe their chosen narrative. For this purpose, the basics of selecting pictures and the general rules of photography were explained so that each image sent out a clear message to the viewer. On the final day, once the stories were complete they were screened at the workshop.
Storytelling is known to be beneficial to not just the storyteller but to the listener as well. A story is a reflection of one’s values, attitudes, beliefs and it depicts a situation that can reach a diverse group of people effectively and with ease. It is with this in mind that the digital storytelling workshop sought to share stories that are most often left untold, particularly by women, due to the lack of opportunity, constant discrimination or stereotyping that impede women and activists from telling stories that they want heard. Thus, this workshop was an opportunity to enhance the capabilities of those who attended by engaging them in the art of storytelling in a form that is more relevant in today’s world.
The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) is a multi-stakeholder platform that facilitates the discussion of public policy issues pertaining to the Internet. From the 16th to the 18th of May, the Sri Lanka Internet Governance Forum convened for the second time in Colombo. Hosted by the Internet Society Sri Lanka Chapter, in 2016 the Forum was described as having the primary goal of “allow the voice of people to be heard by policy makers on the issues related to Internet Governance and to help people to take an active part in the decision-making processes”. One would assume that the same goal and purpose continued for the second installment of the Forum in 2017. It was on the first day of the Forum that the Women’s IGF was convened – described in the agenda as a ‘gender perspective discussion forum within IGF Sri Lanka”. This was done so through a series of panels and discussions that happened in the discussion on The School of Internet Governance.
Gender and Internet Governance, along with concepts like Cyber Feminism have been topics of discussion for some time now. Gender IT in 2012 launched ‘Women in Internet Governance: A Policy Advocacy Toolkit’ which looks at “several relevant issues area addressed regarding women’s participation in shaping the internet as a democratic space, where women’s freedom of speech is respected and valued and where they can access and develop crucial information”. Following the 9th international IGF in 2014, Through Gender IT, APC also launched a public document entitled ‘the Feminist Principles of the Internet’ which outlined principles on how to govern the harassment, intimidation, violence and other issues women and gender minorities face online. Cyber Feminism is a term that was coined in 1994 by Sadie Plant, director of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit at the University of Warwick, to describe the work of feminists interested in theorizing, critiquing, and exploiting the Internet, cyberspace, and new-media technologies in general. It was heartening to see a recondition of the fact of a need for a specific discussion on women and internet governance, and an opportunity for these issues to be raised and discussed in a Sri Lankan context. An acknowledgment of the issue and the creation of a space to discuss it is always the first step towards beginning to constructively address and develop solutions.
Sanchia Brown of the Women and Media Collective said that a space to discuss aspects of internet governance and its implications to women is indeed a rare occurrence, particularly in Sri Lanka. “As a woman who is constantly engaging online and encouraging other women to do so, especially through my work, the Internet Governance Forum ascertained that the internet in fact enables and enhances women’s choices in a local context. The internet is not new to the country, yet, it’s a technology that society has uniformly dismissed over the years due to issues such as access and the inability to afford it.”
The first panel was entitled ‘Does Gender Matter?’ and was reasonably effective in providing a context to the need for a Women’s IGF. Chithrangani Mubarak (Chairperson, ICTA Sri Lanka) pointed out that the gender digital divide is complex and there are racial, ethnic, and socio-economic factors that contribute to it. It is at this intersection that issues in internet governance should be discussed. The other panelists (Thelma Perera, Dilrukshi Gamage, and Sameera Jayawardena) focused heavily on the lack of access to technology and the internet the women face and the harassment faced online. An audience member during the discussion raised the issue of cyber exploitation and harassment. Unfortunately, there seemed to be a lack of understanding or acknowledgment of the connection between women’s issues online spaces (be it access or harassment/violence) and the fact that it is a manifestation of the general violence and lack of access that women face in the real world. Sachini Perera in a piece for Resurj points out “Even when we overcome those barriers [of access to the Internet], often women and girls’ increased access to the Internet is directly proportional to the increase of violence against women online. Many a time, rather than address the structural causes of violence, the possibility of violence is used as a reason to restrict women and girls’ access to the Internet and censor their freedom of expression and right to bodily integrity”
In the second session “Is the internet a feminist issue?” it was heartening and positive to hear Manique Gunarathne (The Employers Federation of Ceylon) talk about the issues faced by women with disabilities and their access to the internet, as well how the access can empower them. Unfortunately, the panelists who had been engaged to speak about Cyber Feminism lacked information and expertise on the concept, limiting the discussion greatly. The third and fourth sessions were merged and both the role of women in internet governance and women’s voices in the public sphere were jointly discussed due to lack of time. Prof. Maheesha Kapurubandara pointed out that women are critically absent in internet governance and this has resulted gender issues being projected by men who are unable to bring in a first-hand perspective. Paba Deshaypriya being the sole panelist from a non-solely-ICT point of view refreshingly reminded the participants that the issues of cyber exploitation and violence are simply a manifestation of offline harassment, violence and exploitation and need to be treated as such. She emphasized that a centralized non-judgmental reporting mechanism is needed for people to access when they face these issues online.
Perhaps what was one of the key gaps within the sessions was that apart from Paba Deshapriya (Director, The Grassrooted Trust) none of the panelists came from a gender/women’s rights and issues perspective. We often in such discussions fail to understand that the space of Gender is a cross-cutting, and a very real area of work and expertise. While most of the panelists for the Women’s IGF were women, they often were not approaching internet governance from gender rights/issues perspective. One cannot fault them, as they were not experts, or working on gender issues, and as mentioned before, this is an area that requires someone who has worked in or engaged with these issues to provide insights. This issue had been previously raised by Isis International following the 2014 IGF held in Instanbul. A reflection written by Sonia Randhawa noted that, “the way that technologies are built and governed is being decided in forums such as the IGF. This makes internet governance and the IGF a matter of concern for all those who want to build an inclusive, equal, and feminist future. The absence of human rights and feminist activists from the IGF could leave the playing field, the decision-making, to governments and corporations”. We do not expect everyone who works for IT companies to be experts in technicalities of IT, and in the same vein we should not expect every woman to be able to provide a gender rights perspective.
It is undeniably a positive first step that allowed the space to begin discussing what is rapidly becoming a more pressing issue. It is also important to note that the discussions on difficult conversations took place in a predominantly welcoming space, a contrast to the inherent closed nature of ‘techie’ spaces to those outside the sector. It would greatly improve the outcomes of the Forum in the next installment to see the inclusion of more stakeholder including members of civil society, grassroot women and gender organization, gender practitioners and the private sector, not only in the audience but as panelists and discussants. As Sanchia went on to note in her reflection, “On the surface, the Forums nearly successful multi-stakeholder approach brought these issues to light, but the conversation on countering violence and protecting the rights of women and marginalized groups in the online sphere were limited. Being a first of its kind the Sri Lanka, the Women IGF became a common ground for all those present to articulate their concerns with respect to internet governance while at the same time identifying how stakeholders can work towards making the internet more accessible, open, and inclusive”.
One hopes that the first Women’s IGF will not be that last, and the conversations that were begun that afternoon do not end once people leave the space. It is vital that we understand these issues are dynamic and ever evolving (much like the Internet itself) and it is through continued, open, welcoming and willing dialog and collaboration that sustainable solutions can be developed and implemented.
This was a short presentation I delivered (with a few small edits) at a panel discussion organised by the Bar Association of Sri Lanka under the theme “Cross Cutting Dynamics of Online Democracy; Mainstreaming Internet Freedom and Right to Privacy in Sri Lanka” , to address women’s rights within the context of internet rights and internet governance.
It’s often said that the internet democratizes information and even knowledge itself. We more or less accept this to be true; the internet shattered the elite stronghold on ‘knowledge’. The internet has not only made information more freely available but has changed the very way we understand knowledge and information. What we understand by democratisation is not only that things are made available to more people but that they come to belong to more people. The internet was supposed to be the very embodiment of this – it belongs to no one — it belongs to everyone.
The internet was supposed to be a blueprint for a truly free, fair, equal and democratic society.
However, unsurprising to some of us, over the years it has become evident that the internet is not really fair and democratic as we once believed it could be. The online world is really just a reflection and a parallel of the so-called offline world. This means, misogyny prevails; marginalisation prevails. Violence prevails.
Online, the people who wield power and make decisions are often the same as those who do so offline. It is therefore also the same persons and groups of persons who are most vulnerable to harassment and violence offline, that face the same reality online. While women and girls are not the only groups who are disproportionately targeted in online violence, I will focus today on women and girls.
Women are excluded from enjoying the ‘democracy’ of the internet in more ways than through being the targets of online violence – they are also excluded through plain and simple exclusion. Women are often excluded from ‘tech’ circles and discourses; they are not considered technological innovators – though many are – and are routinely left out of these conversations. Certainly, there are often no women at the table when internet governance policies around the world is being discussed – though universally, it is women and girls who are significantly more likely to be unsafe on the internet than others, and who you would imagine stand to benefit from internet governance.
While in Silicon Valley the optics seem to signal that things are changing– with women tech entrepreneurs becoming more visible – we find that this is unfortunately not a sign that women, as a group, are really able to make landmark decisions that directly affect their own well being and the fulfillment of their human rights online. In ‘technology’, women are still scarce at the policy-making and decision-making levels, though many women are increasingly doing the work of technology. This is not to mention the important issue of what happens to women of colour, and women of the Global South, for whom mere ‘access’ itself is still largely curtailed by poverty, and a lack of autonomy.
The answer to the question ‘Is the internet a free and fair space?’ will vary according to who is being asked, just as the answer to the question ‘Is the world a free and fair place?’ would vary according to who was being asked. Persons who do not endure or experience daily discrimination, harassment, or violence can sometimes willfully believe that the world is free, fair and safe for everyone. This is the same logic within which policies to govern our societies are still often made.
This is the crucial thing to remember about policy and traditional modes of policy-making; for a long time, policies have been made exclusively by small, homogeneous groups of people – people like Bill Gates — who do not represent the vast diversity of the human experience, and who therefore develop policies which unfortunately do not address the vast range of real-life issues.
It is the same with the internet – all over the world, discourses about internet rights and internet governance have carried on for years while excluding persons and groups who are disproportionately and sometimes exclusively affected by all kinds of violence and harassment on the internet. Internet policy and internet governance discourses are male-dominated all over the world – though it still cries ‘democratization’.
Melanie Stewart Millar, an award-winning scholar and political science teacher, extensively analyses the tech magazine Wired to develop a critique of the imagery, symbolism, language and methodologies used in tech discourse to build an exclusively elite male narrative which necessarily excludes women and others – while spreading the ideology that technology will ultimately lead to the dissolution of all social inequality.
‘Wired discourse constructs an artificial world which continually sends the same basic message: the digital age is the domain of a masculine digital elite. How does Wired do this? First, it excludes those it considers Other – women, minorities, the poor, the technologically illiterate – to create a high-status, masculine world. The magazine then populates this artificial world with images which reinforce existing hierarchies and support its highly individualistic ideology. Finally, by invoking images of technotopia, Wired’s discourse puts forward a vision which suggests social differences may disappear altogether in the virtual world of the future’1 — Melanie Stewart Millar
And this has been perhaps the legacy of digital discourse – to espouse equality and democracy while reinforcing patriarchal hierarchy; to peddle the fantasy of redistributed power while assigning new kinds of power to the same old powerful.
You will find many critical declarations today which say ‘The Internet is not really a public space – it’s not really a democracy’ but the fact is, it is, it is a public space, it is a democracy, in the only ways we have ever known ‘public space’ or ‘democracy’: Limited to a few, while others traverse it at risk.
We have developed the concept of ‘the digital divide’ but to bring a gendered focus to this has been a struggle.
The digital gender gap is real and is so at many levels.2
I want today to look at three issue-areas today and how these could be addressed by progressive policy reform:
1. Women and access to the internet
2. Women and girls as targets of online violence and harassment
3. Women excluded from policy-making and decision-making within internet governance discourses and spaces
I would call this a ‘matrix of exclusion’ because as you will see these things not only work independently, but also work in sync, together, to exclude women from the ‘internet democracy’. Through this we will see that the historical exclusion of women from ‘technology’ endures.
Women and access to the internet
‘Women are about 50% less likely to be connected than men in the same age group with similar levels of education and household income.’3 — World Wide Web Foundation
The World Wide Web Foundation’s 2015 Global Report titled ‘Women’s Rights Online: Turning Access into Empowerment’ was a study of seven developing cities; the report draws an almost direct link between access to education, ability to continue education and functional ‘use’ of the internet.
The most important socio-economic drivers of the gender gap in ICT access are education and age
Controlling for income, women who have some secondary education or have completed secondary school are six times more likely to be online than women with primary school or less.
Cities with the highest gender gaps in education level such as Nairobi (Kenya), Kampala (Uganda), Maputo (Mozambique), and Jakarta (Indonesia) were also the ones where the highest gender gaps in Internet access were reported.
Conversely, in the cities where women’s educational attainment outstrips the men in our sample (New Delhi and Manila), the gender gap in Internet access has closed.
The report asserts: ‘Being female deepens exclusion on every single one of these counts’.
However, it is no good simply analyzing ‘access’ as a development indicator or merely a precursor to the realization of the United Nations designed Sustainable Development Goals.
Inequality in access to the internet for a woman criss-crosses with her buying power, her economic ability and independence, her general level of autonomy and freedom of movement, her exercise of her right to privacy offline – as well as the realization and protection of her right to free expression by her community and her nation at large.
These are important things to ask: does she own the device she uses to access the internet? Does her husband or partner know her passwords? Does she have any free time and in that free time, any privacy? Is there someone looking over her shoulder and monitoring who she is friends with online? Is she generally expected to have opinions and is it acceptable that she expresses them?
Access is not a cold, statistically discernible factor when it comes to women and girls – real access is about real autonomy, and as long as we can’t grant and guarantee women and girls their autonomy, as well as their freedom of expression, in their real-lives, we can’t guarantee that mere ‘access’ will solve their problems.
Policy recommendations to make ‘access’ meaningful:
Early education for girls and boys alike in computers, programming, online tools & social networking
Erasing differentiations between ‘technical’ subjects for boys and ‘domestication’ subjects for girls in schools
Giving girls and boys alike fair and free access to computers and the internet in schools
Pro-actively ensuring girls become familiar with computers and the internet
Educating girls on exercising their right to privacy offline and online, right to autonomy and free expression
Making time to educate parents (especially mothers) and students together on the internet, computer skills
2. Women and girls as targets of online harassment and violence
‘Preventing technology-related VAW is an important component in ending violence against women today and contributes to creating a safe and secure environment for women and girls in every sphere of life’— Association for Progressive Communications (APC)4
It is now a well-known fact that women and girls are disproportionately targeted in a range of online violence and abuse, ranging from stalking, verbal abuse, defamation, blackmail, death and rape threats, revenge porn etc – these are now universal problems. Where there is net connectivity, it has opened up new avenues and forms of violence against women.
An article published in 2016 in The Guardian (UK) explored a study, sampling over 1000 women, conducted in Australia5. Some excerpts from this article:
‘Australian research finds that nearly half of all women report experiencing abuse or harassment online, and 76% of those under 30’
‘Researchers found that women received twice as many death threats and threats of sexual violence as men.’
‘But 38% of those who had experienced online harassment chose to ignore it, and only 10% reported it to police.’
‘The findings suggested that women believed that online abuse was a growing problem and felt powerless to act over it.’
What’s important to note here are the last two points, which signal the unsettling truth that women don’t really believe that reporting abuse or violence has any positive effect on their lives.
Grassrooted Trust, a Sri Lankan organisation, has been working in schools and with young adults to understand and address some of the fundamental cultural problems around gendered violence and importantly, relationship violence: the framework within which online violence against women and girls is commonly committed.
Earlier this year, they published a now widely read piece called ‘Investigating Sri Lanka’s nude culture’6 which opened our eyes to the way gendered cyber exploitation works in age-groups as young as 14-15 years. This also shows the troubling pattern of violence within intimate relationships.
The article explores the organisation’s experiences with 70 cases of cyber exploitation reported to them by young girls, in which they uncovered a dangerous world of online databases of nude photos and home-made videos featuring young Sri Lankan girls, from whom no consent has been taken. Young women are threatened or blackmailed into sending photos of themselves, and often by boyfriends or ex-boyfriends, who then sell this data for profit.
‘Writing this report has, in some sense, been a race to keep up with breaking news, as girl after girl and woman after woman, has come forward to expose physical and verbal attacks on them: teenage girls driven to suicide by online trolling; an airline passenger using her cell phone to record and report physical and sexual harassment from a male co-passenger; an actress publicly responding to targeted online hate speech against her; a former Major League Baseball pitcher using doxing3 to identify people responsible for “Twitter troll” posts with obscene, sexually explicit comments about his teenage daughter.’7 – UNWomen
A UNWomen report, Cyber Violence Against Women and Girls, published in 2015 subtitled A World Wide Wake Up Call, shows us alarming numbers and statistics, and acts as evidence that universally, women are disproportionately targeted in online violence and that this violence intersects with the discrimination and violence they face offline. It also confirms that a large proportion of cyber violence against women is committed by an intimate partner, a former intimate partner, a relative or someone they know – once again, mirroring real-life exactly.
In many countries, cyber violence against women can only be legally remedied through defamation laws, and in civil court, not in a criminal sense. In Sri Lanka, we barely have any capacity to deal with cyber crimes against women at all.
But this again is a reflection of what justice systems are like for women in the offline world; it took us so long to even accept violence against women – especially in their manifestations as domestic violence – was violence at all. Even today, sexual crimes are rarely reported by women, because systemically, the odds are stacked against survivors of violence. The burden of proof is on the victim.
“Until domestic violence became a national policy priority, abuse was dismissed as a lovers’ quarrel. Today’s harmless jokes and undue burdens are tomorrow’s civil rights agenda.”– Amanda Hess, Technology Journalist
Organisations which deal with cyber law and policy like CERT Sri Lanka can only meter out archaic solutions to a very quickly growing problem – they can shut down sites where unlawful nude images are shared, for example, but won’t catch the perpetrators. Because there is little to no acceptance of the problem as systemic, gendered violence.
But where laws and policy has failed, technology itself has been helping women feel safer and more secure. Across studies, women report feeling safer because they have a mobile phone, and there are now many apps internationally and regionally, which women can use to alert a friend or relative in case of harassment or danger. Human rights and women’s rights organisations have developed mapping programmes in collaboration with tech organisations, where incidents of physical violence / cyber violence against women can be documented and recorded, geographically.
Policy recommendations for combating VAW online
Reasonable reporting mechanisms, actually accessible to women
No immediate burden of proof on victim
Women officers to receive reports – trained on cyber VAW and how to address victims
Policies which enable girls and women to report cyber VAW without a relative/spouse present, knowing sometimes perpetrators are family/partner
Officers specifically trained in how to deal with victims who are minors while respecting their autonomy
Guarantee of no further invasion of victim’s privacy in court
Guarantee of victim’s confidentiality being protected, from time of report being made
Educating girls on their rights online and on reporting mechanisms
Educating girls to identify violence as violence, no matter the perpetrator
Acceptance of cyber VAW as criminal, with consequences for perpetrators
Tech companies and organizations work together with rights organisations to use tech to bolster documentation and reporting of cyber and other VAWPolicy must most importantly address structural and deep attitudinal changes in the way justice systems and the legal systems see violence against women***
3. Women excluded from policy-making and decision-making within internet governance discourses and spaces
Women have long since been excluded from decision-making spaces and have been discredited as ‘knowers’, and as purveyors and producers of knowledge – because to accept them as equal in knowledge and insight would be a threat to patriarchal establishments of ‘knowledge’. One of the chief justifications given for excluding women even today from ‘tech’ spaces is that they lack the relevant knowledge; ‘they don’t know’.
When it appears women ‘do know’, there is a large machinery which kicks in then to discredit women. Ultimately this just keeps women out of the room and absent from the table when critical decisions which affect their lives and lives of others are being made.
So much of the work advocacy done in the last 25 years, of getting women connected to technology has been geared towards ‘access’ and increasing connectivity.
APC’s 2012 report Critically Absent 8 discusses how many more women around the world are now active internet users through mobile phone, how technology has helped women grow their businesses, feel safer and engage more actively in the ‘online world’. It cites women tech leaders like Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook CFO, in saying that ‘women are increasingly more likely to be active users and engagers on social networking sites etc., and are more active as buyers online.’
So much so that the online world has been referred to as a ‘matriarchy’ by a few male analyst and critics.
But has all our work to bring women into connectivity achieved anything more than turning women into better consumers and more lucrative business opportunities for massive corporations like Facebook?
Unfortunately, in terms of actually bringing women in to decision-making roles at the level of governance and policy-making, we have not made as many leaps.
‘But are we only interested in increasing the number of women who consume internet and electronic tools, rather than defining the world in which they are used? Does it make sense to talk of “matriarchy” based on the large number of women in the use of certain social sites if they are not contributing to the design and function of those sites? The matriarchal analogy looks back. The debate has to get beyond this image. Women want to exercise full citizenship in cyberspace and to articulate the virtual world alongside the real one to assert their right to autonomy and the freedom to choose, without ties to traditional models.’ – Critically Absent (APC)
There are three main areas which concern women uniquely when it comes to internet rights and governance:
A. Gender-blind policies/policy-making:
For a long time, policies universally – and their makers – have not considered gender as a critical perspective through which divisions and inequalities have to be addressed. They have assumed that working to decrease the ‘digital divide’ singularly through increasing access will solve the issue, and has worked on the assumption that that the divide has no critically gendered perspective; i.e that solving the problem for men would automatically solve it for women. Agendas like the Tunis Agenda assumes that to narrow the digital divide for men would narrow it for women.
B. Privacy and data collection affects women uniquely:
Women and girls are the targets of online threats and harassment, and we have seen that online violence can often go offline and pose very real dangers to women’s lives; it becomes important to note that data collection and information-gathering, which happens frequently on the internet these days, is of specific interest when it comes to women’s rights. Critically Absent states, ‘Often [this] information can be used in ways that threaten women and their families. This aspect of the problem rarely comes up in Internet governance discussion, but is an important component that could change the general understanding of the privacy issue.’
C. Information filtering is disadvantageous to women:
‘Information filtering presents another real disadvantage to women, offsetting the advantage of access to information the Internet is supposed to bring. In many places’ says Critically Absent. Information that is considered culturally taboo can be censored by governments, for example information related to abortion services or sexual and reproductive health and rights. This often disadvantages women directly.
A major issue is simple representation. Simply put, women are poorly represented in the upper-ranks of internet governance institutions and within discourse-spaces and this prevents the agendas from ever receiving critical and valuable gendered input.
‘[in an] ICANN or an IGF meeting, there is a significant, if less than equal, female presence. But, as one moves through the various layers of leadership and responsibility, the number of women in ICANN starts to decrease. One of the big concerns each year is whether any women will get into the ICANN Board of Directors. At the time of writing, out of 15 voting directors, only two were women13. And that is as good as it has been in ICANN. In terms of the IGF and its Multi-stakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) there has always been a deliberate effort to balance the group in terms of gender as well as regional representation.In addition to women’s participation, one needs to look at how receptive Internet governance institutions are to women’s issues. In general, while women’s participation is welcome, they are not expected to bring up women’s issue. It may be the old fashioned engineering ethos that all issues are gender neutral, or it may be due to policy issues that are believed to be driven ‘purely’ by business goals and trademark issues. Whatever the reason, the issues of Internet governance are not understood as being gendered.’ – Critically Absent (APC)
Policy recommendations to increase participation of women in internet governance:
Affirmative action to increase the participation of women and representatives of other historically marginalised groups, across layers of leadership in internet governance bodies
Mandate participation of women and other marginalised persons in all internet rights discussions and spaces
Mandate that policies and laws should be gender-aware, not gender-blind
Women’s rights / gender sensitivity training for policy-makers and tech leaders
Cross-cutting analyses of women’s rights offline + online: socio-economic, autonomy, privacy etc
Broaden understanding of ‘access’ – quality of autonomous engagement, with dignity and respect, over quantity of connections / increasing consumerism
Develop justice systems to support women
Protect women’s rights overall
Since women have been historically excluded, the only way to right this wrong is to set about proactively, affirmatively including them – in spaces, in discussions, in decision-making moments. This has to go hand in hand with actually acknowledging and listening to women’s experiences, their knowledge and their insights. The truth is that the inclusion of women, a gendered perspective and women’s rights angle in the discourses of internet governance will not only benefit women but everyone, including and especially other marginalized persons.
Democratisation here can’t only mean the democratisation of access to information and knowledge. It must also mean the democratisation of the production of information and knowledge. When we say ‘increase women’s access’ it can’t just be about getting them online but about how we can increase the quality of women’s engagement online, their role as knowledge and information producers and more importantly, room for them to engage and consistently shape and change discourse, without harm or risk of attack.
Making the internet truly democratic and safe, free and fair for everyone is really about making our world safe, free and fair for everyone. Underlying this has to be a proactively enhanced and rigorously implemented project to upend the current cultures and attitudes which govern and dictate how our justice systems work – and to reform the justice systems themselves.
Finally, we have to build and promote a rights-based discussion on internet governance and democracy – we have to take it out of the sphere of the ‘digital’ the ‘tech’ and to bring it to the table where we are talking about human beings, their rights, their societies and their inequalities. We have to make it a discussion about achieving real equality – and this means a serious commitment from governments and institutions, public and private, that goes beyond the aspirational promise of tech setting us free.
1 ‘Cracking the Gender Code: Who Rules the Wired World?’, Melanie Stewart Millar (Sumach, 1998)
Technology-based violence against women (tech-based VAW) encompasses acts of gender-based violence that are committed, abetted or aggravated, in part or fully, by the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs).