How do women negotiate a gendered online space? What are the different kinds of violence that people are subject to because of their gender identity? What are various responses that violence elicits? Is the language of the law adequate to address these issues, and how do women use technology to resist and subvert the violence targeted at them? These were some of the issues addressed at a colloquium on digital media and gender violence that was organised as part of the 2013 Prajnya 16 Days Campaign Against Gender Violence.

A small group of people was invited, comprising women’s rights activists, mediapersons, bloggers, lawyers and technical experts to be part of this closed conversation.

Letika Saran, Former Director General of Police, Tamil Nadu, spoke about the trends in cyber-crimes against women. She addressed issues of cyber stalking, cyber bullying, morphing, spreading of private videos containing obscene material through MMS and abuse of children online. She said that due to the anonymity afforded by the net, a large number of people indulge in cyber-crime. Offenders also assume that laws against cyber-crime are ineffective (which is untrue), and that cyber-crime often goes unreported (true). She reiterated the importance of reporting cyber-crime.

She also pointed out that according to a recent survey conducted in schools in Chennai city (corporations schools, government aided schools and private schools) it was found that over 90% of students admitted to chatting with strangers online, and 85% said they went on to meet the strangers they had chatted with in person. She drew attention to the fact that most of these students were first generation internet users and that their parents and teachers were unaware of their online activities. She called for more awareness among parents and teachers and better communication between them and the children.

Syed Nazir Razik, Vice President, Marketing, PMI Chennai Chapter spoke about online safety (1) in the age of smart technologies, and preventive measures against cyber-stalking/bullying. Mr Razik also spoke about the Becoming Sweetie project, in which researchers carried out a 10-week sting near Amsterdam, posing as 10-year-old “Sweetie”, on video chat rooms. The computer generated image of a young Filipina girl was contacted by around 20,000 men, 1000 of whom offered her money for sexual favours. 103 of these men were from India.

Mr Razik also discussed the internet of things and how consumer wearable devices, like those that monitor health, could make one’s personal health data available to all.

Dr Debarati Halder, co-founder and managing director of the Centre for Cyber Victim Counselling addressed the legal remedies available for victims of gender violence in the cyber world. She pointed out that the legal options are often not the preferred line of action due to fear of revealing victim’s history, social ostracisation, media and privacy issues, and preconceived notions of the judicial system. She outlined other options like reporting to the website concerned and self-protection measures.

Dr Anja Kovacs, Director of The Internet Democracy Project (IDP), spoke about gender and online abuse, particularly highlighting one of IDP’s research projects titled, Keeping Women Safe? Gender, Online Harassment and Indian Law. According to this research, the kinds of abuse women faced online were very varied, and so were their responses. The research found that women with strong opinions, about national politics, feminism and sexuality, were the ones most subject to online abuse. The abuse tended to focus on the targeted person’s body/sexuality. She pointed out that among the women surveyed, legal options were the last resort. Women reacted to online abuse in various ways – some ignored the abuse, some others moderated comments, some blocked or reported the abuser, while some others resorted to naming and shaming. She pointed out that contrary to popular belief, these women did not view anonymity as a threat, but as an enabling factor – empowering them to voice their views more freely. All of them also emphasised the importance of an online support group, which they thought was more of a support-system than family or friends. In most cases the women’s families were unaware of their online activity and the women felt that taking their problems to their family would only lead to increased policing.

While it is important to recognise the prevalence of violence against women in the online space, it is equally important, if not more to look at the various ways in which technology has been employed to further the feminist cause. Initiatives like Hollaback, a movement to end street harassment powered by a network of local activists around the world, Take Back the Tech!, a global campaign that connects the issue of violence against women and information and communications technology and GotStared.At, a counter culture movement that raises awareness on social issues of violence, gender and discrimination were discussed.

Harini Calamur, spoke about the still very prevalent gender imbalance amongst users of the internet in India (approx. 3:1). She said the challenge was to get more girls to use technology and mentioned the proactive role played by certain organisations like Breakthrough, CGNet Swara and Bell Bajao in this respect.

Gayatri Burgohain, the founder of Feminist Approach to Technology (FAT) and co-founder of Joint Leap Technologies#! spoke about the whole new world that was made accessible to women and girls from socio-economically underprivileged families when they were taught to use technology. She spoke about the different empowering ways in which these women employ technology. Speaking about how the girls at FAT scripted and recorded a radio show on domestic violence,

Burgohain emphasised the cathartic effect it had on the girls. They were using a new tool in a way that made sense to them. They were effectively empowered to find their own solutions and did not need to look to someone else.

The colloquium concluded that,

• Peer group training for young girls can break culturally established myths about girls not being good with technology.

• Children and adults with disability have found space, voice and solidarity online. In fact the net enables disabled people to address the issue of violence perpetrated against them.

• Peer support for feminists, social workers, women bloggers is a huge advantage.

• Using social media is the easiest was to get across to the large number of youth on issues such as gender violence.

• Parents and teachers must be given crash courses in internet usage.

• Different women react differently to violence online: while legal action is possible, women choose to employ various other methods as well.

• Visually effective material can convey complex issues in a simple fashion and must be employed in social media to address the issue of gender violence.

• Girls and women from all sections of the society must be given an opportunity to learn to use technology.


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