Women’s Internet Governance Forum Sri Lanka 2017: A Reflection

By Sharanya Sekaram

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[1]. 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.

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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[2].  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[3]. 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[4]

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[5]”. 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.

[1] Source: Internet Society Sri Lanka Chapter website <http://isoc.lk/events/internet-governance-forum-2016/>

[2] Source: Critically absent: Women in internet governance. A policy advocacy toolkit on Gender IT <http://www.genderit.org/resources/critically-absent-women-internet-governance-policy-advocacy-toolkit>

[3] Source: Why do the Feminist Principles of the Internet matter? On Gender IT <http://www.genderit.org/editorial/why-do-feminist-principles-internet-matter>

[4] Source: What do women’s rights have to do with the SDGs and the Internet? On resurj < http://www.resurj.org/blog/what-do-women%E2%80%99s-rights-have-do-sdgs-and-internet&gt;

[5] Source: Gender at the Internet Governance Forum on Isis international <http://www.isiswomen.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1727:gender-at-the-internet-governance-forum&catid=212&Itemid=469>

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