Twenty years after the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BDPA) and the specific elaboration of Section J on women and the media, the platform still highlights the importance of addressing the media, particularly the impact of ICTs, as a source of both the empowerment and the erosion of women’s rights. On one hand, women from across the globe were using the internet as a means to share experiences and organise against oppression. On the other, women were finding that these same technologies, accompanied by discriminatory practices and violence against women (VAW), were being used to violate human rights.
Since 2005, the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) in partnership with local organisations in Latin America, Asia, North America, Europe and Africa has been sounding the alarm on the need to empower women as users of ICTs against negative stereotypes, violence, impunity and human rights violations. As a result, APC has played an active role in opening dialogue for discussion on the ways Section J supports and hinders women in their negotiation of ICTs. Its areas of intervention include activities that promote gender and ICT policy advocacy, work against violence against women and ICTs, develop and implement gender evaluation and research in ICTs, and provide training and capacity building on ICTs and in developing the feminist principles of the internet.
The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action’s Section J on women and the media mirrors these concerns and provides an avenue for civil society to demand change from governments and decision makers on images and stereotypes that reduce and limit women’s access to equality and justice.
Following from its interventions in Section J advocacy, APC sent representatives (1) of the Women’s Rights Programme to the 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW59) (2), while GenderIT.org and Take Back the Tech! organised an online campaign to raise awareness around Section J and work towards a feminist internet. Importantly, this online/offline approach to public awareness is directly linked to the different spheres protected by Section J, as women's rights in the use of ICTs are negotiated in both the virtual and real environments. Its primary objective was to provide concrete action on the need for women's rights organisations and activists to pay more attention to the relationship between gender and technology. This collaboration led to the development of a reference document that explored the 10 ways in which technology is directly linked to the promotion of Section J.
We interviewed Jennifer Radloff and Sara Baker from the APC Women’s Rights Programme to reflect on APC’s commitment to sharing the practical experiences of women’s human rights activities and the strategic direction of the movement for 2015 in both the virtual sphere and as participants in CSW environments.
Bianca Baldo (BB): Does Section J remain important in the strategic objectives highlighted at the 59th session of the CSW?
Jennifer Radloff (JR): Section J remains important in underpinning all the other sections of the BPFA and in their achievement.
During a high-level panel I attended, only one of the four panellists, from the NGO sector, made the links between ICTs, government surveillance, non-state actor privacy invasions and the extremely high level of violence against women online. The outcomes document has been widely criticised for not taking steps forward and as being retrogressive in the protection of Section J.
“Our activism is toothless without a strong Section J to amplify women's voices and to promote what we document. We can't moan about not being heard if we don't claim technologies and shape feminist ways of appropriating ICTs to make our voices, situations, lived realities be seen and heard.” – Jennifer Radloff
Sara Baker (SB): Section J continues to be useful for the Take Back the Tech! campaign as we work to promote women's access to and participation in the development of ICTs. The campaign focuses on online VAW that restricts women's freedom of expression. In situations of violence women may be deterred from participating in media making – whether mainstream, alternative or social – and thus are unable to challenge cultural norms and stereotypes.
BB: Were there advances during the 59th session of the CSW in terms of the reprioritisation of Section J?
JR: None that I can see in relation to the outcomes document, apart from the mention of stereotypes of women in the media and online harassment of women. For me, the real advance was a huge increase in high-level and side-events that examined tech-based VAW, hate speech and misogyny.
SB: My contribution to this process primarily surrounded our work online, where I saw an increased interest and exchange on the notion of a feminist internet. After Jac sm Kee, the APC Women’s Rights programme manager, introduced the feminist principles of the internet, we immediately supported this action with a flurry of tweets. This put the question “What would a feminist internet look like?” on the big screen at CSW. In terms of what I saw online, increasingly people were seeing the connection between Section J and other women's rights issues.
BB: What are the challenges of being a feminist in spaces like the CSW, given all the complaints and rage that were raised regarding the working group this year? Should we "stay at home" if we feel governments are not listening?
JR: No, we can't stay at home, but we need to do a lot more work inbetween the CSWs. We must focus on influencing agendas, to get into delegations and to work on influencing language. We also need to work strategically with other women's rights organisations that are interested in the feminist principles of the internet.
We must focus on co-organising panels with governments on issues relating to Section J and on the promotion of the feminist principles of the internet. We need to educate state actors and to develop governmental action plans that take into consideration what a feminist internet could look like; what the current issues are for women's and sexual rights activists; how corporations co-opt the internet for profit, often ignoring the human rights issues; and how these trends directly impact women's lives.
Sadly at present, the CSW approach favours creating outcome documents rather than taking action. We need to encourage strong non-governmental participation, government institutional capacity strengthening and public awareness!
We have a communications strategy that feeds on-site information out and encourages women to actively engage in the CSW process by expressing their comments, suggestions and demands. We must continue to support and prioritise this approach.
“Our #Section J online campaign is an example of carving out spaces for the principles of a feminist internet, as it opens channels of communications around CSW and creates online spaces of collaboration with other feminist media organisations around Section J campaigns.” – Jennifer Radloff
SB: The restrictive nature of these spaces is one of the main reasons why we are committed to undertaking an online campaign. This ensures that we engage state actors, civil society organisations and activists on two levels, and it allows us to be involved in critical online conversations around the problem of being a feminist in a government-centred space. The more we connect with other organisations and activists, the stronger and louder our movement can be in and outside of such spaces.
BB: How can we provide clear, action-oriented and sustainable links between Section J and its connections with patriarchy?
JR: For us, the dismantling of patriarchy over the next 15 years must include the promotion and evolution of the feminist principles of the internet. It is about seeing how important Section J is in relation to the other sections of the platform! We cannot dismantle patriarchy if we don't have safe and secure ways of communicating and mobilising and the internet is critical to this.
SB: There are two important aspects that stand out in the dismantling of patriarchy over the next 15 years. First of all, Section J is about women's voices. Freedom of expression is an enabling right; therefore creating environments where women can speak freely and be amplified transforms power relations in every area. It's essential that women's narratives inform everything from state policies to cultural ideas. The second aspect involves how women are portrayed through media. Gender equality must be mainstreamed in all aspects of media.
“If we push for gender equality in all aspects of media, then equality will spread beyond media.”- Sarah Baker
BB: Are you optimistic about the pace of change? What stories motivated and inspired you to continue to advocate for change around section J? Do you still consider the CSW a relevant space for advocacy around this?
JR: I am feeling very bleak about CSW and Section J. Particularly on how we should advocate in this space. I really, really don't know right now. It remains important to be targeted in our activism at CSW by being active in the pre-work to influence governments and get into government delegations. Substantial work still needs to be done to re-evaluate our advocacy strategies in the Women’s Rights Programme.
On a positive note, there was one session, organised by Isis-WICCE from Uganda, that integrated an inclusive feminist perspective into the peace-building and marginalised voices discussion that mirrored our strategies to diversify and actively mainstream a wider spectrum of women’s experiences in the analysis of ICTs.
SB: Change around women's rights online has moved slowly until recently. We cannot forget that the sudden attention to technology-based violence against women, for example, is the result of many years of effort on many fronts. But I am optimistic that people who make decisions are finally paying attention. The question that remains is: Will decision makers take action or will they just talk? Every day, we see stories about how technology-based violence against women affects women's other rights, such as the right to privacy and right to work. It makes perfect sense for us to continue to campaign around Section J, as it can have such wide-reaching impact on women’s rights.
BB: What makes your work feminist?
JR: We work in a consultative and inclusive way with a strong commitment to incorporating women's rights at the top of our agenda, overthrowing patriarchy, and working with the lived experiences and realities of women. We link issues of race, class, sexual orientation, location, economic justice, etc. as inextricable from our activism. We listen deeply to each other and learn. We have fun and work creatively as our lives reflect our activism.
“The integration of Section J and its relations to ICTs at CSW59 was extremely disappointing on many levels and probably across all the platforms.” – Jennifer Radloff
SB: Take Back the Tech! is implicitly feminist, as it reclaims technology to prevent violence against women. This is achieved by promoting collaborative local campaigns, by amplifying women's voices through global social media campaigns, and privileging women's narratives through mapping and digital storytelling. Take Back the Tech!, like all APC areas, works toward an internet based on the feminist principles of the internet, which are premised on the need for equal access to a universal, affordable, unfettered, unconditional internet.
The participants expressed an overall disappointment with the expansion of Section J to ICTs and their effects on women's rights. The panel groups and the strategies that were discussed at CSW59 seemed to primarily focus on ways to limit impunity and decrease tech-based violence against women, particularly examining privacy, surveillance and hate speech. There was some discussion around restrictive government policies that do not address sexual violence, reproductive rights and patriarchy, and the particular needs of lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals in using tech-based communications. These discourses were primarily from actors in the non-government sectors and promoted a Western and European perspective.
CSW59 did not address the need to move from a view of ICTs as a luxury towards one that recognises them as tools for enabling the rights and freedoms of women. It did not challenge stereotypes of development centred around poverty, VAW and the imagery of “Southern women” as victims. And it did not incorporate diverse perspectives, including women from a wide range of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds into Section J analysis.
Serious strategic reflection must be undertaken to develop the next steps for Section J advocacy and counter the weaknesses expressed by human rights advocates at CSW59. Together, we must question structures, norms and standards that limit the imagination of real equality. We must strengthen the adoption of feminist principles relating to the internet and promote women’s rights to equality in access, voice and control over the media and ICTs that affect their lives.
Image by P K used under Creative Commons license.
(1) Jennifer Radloff, Jan Moolman, Jennifer Radloff, Jac sm Kee, Dafne Sabanes Plou.
(2) The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) was created by Council resolution 11(II) of 21 June 1946.