By Pragya Narang
For women and girls in South Asia, accessing the internet and learning the ropes of digital navigation comes with several layers of challenges – from illiteracy to poverty to patriarchy. Given that the internet is proving to be the key tool to women’s empowerment in the 21st century, can we really afford to ignore one half of the region’s population in our race to reap the benefits of digital economies?
These were the key areas of discussion at a panel titled ‘Web Warriors: Arming Girls with Internet Tools and Infrastructure’ at eShe’s South Asia Union Summit Led by Women.
The four panelists included Paba Deshapriya, founder of The Grassrooted Trust in Sri Lanka that aims to create more dignified and respectful spaces in cyberspace; Juhi Javed Husain, UK civil servant, lawyer and senior policy advisor specialising in the digital regulation space; and Pinky Pradhan, director, communications and strategic partnerships at Plan India, who is helming the international NGO’s Digital Mitra program in India to educate girls in internet tools.
The fourth panelist – Sadaffe Abid, advocate for women’s advancement, tech and financial inclusion, and founder of CIRCLE, Pakistan – could unfortunately not make it as she was unwell. The panel was moderated by Priyanka Singh, India-based data analytics consultant and founding member of South Asia Peace Action Network.
Colombo-based Paba Deshapriya shared her view on the barriers to educating women and girls: “The biggest challenge for all of us in South Asia has been the norms and stereotypes that are rooted in our patriarchal value system. Because of this, women and girls do not have equal opportunities, they do not have accurate and scientific information about their bodies to make informed decisions about themselves.”
Her organisation is an ally of sexually marginalised groups such as people living with HIV, sex workers, and those with diverse sexual orientations. “Everything we do is based on the five principles of respect, empathy, self-esteem, trust and consent,” said Deshapriya, who also runs an online platform Bakamoono.lk, which disseminates information trilingually about bodies, sexuality, sexual pleasure, HIV and contraceptives.
She believes the internet is a convenient way to reach people in Sri Lanka since the island nation boasts of 50 percent internet penetration. On the subject of women’s safety online, Deshapriya expressed her view that online spaces are merely a reflection of offline spaces such as roads, schools, or even home, which are unsafe for women everywhere in South Asia, with family and property laws dating back to pre-colonial days.
In New Delhi, Pinky Pradhan of Plan India shared her vision for the NGO’s new Digital Mitra project to educate young girls in internet skills. “Mobile penetration is higher in urban areas than rural and the gap increases further when it comes to women. During Covid, we struggled to keep up with what was happening in our communities and with the task of keeping our stakeholders and the government informed, since our frontline workers couldn’t handle operations due to the sudden onslaught of the second wave,” she said.
They found an innovative solution, and decided to connect over mobiles with their girl changemakers to assess the situation. “This campaign became popular and more than 80 girls sent us regular messages and selfies about how their life was during the pandemic, informing us about their communities, the reverse migration, and helped us in spreading awareness,” Pradhan informed.
Inspired by the success of this initiative, Plan India partnered with Twitter for a digital storytelling and content-creation project, initially with just 15 girls, across India. These girls were trained in photography, scripting, video-making, community-building, and were also taught about privacy issues, online safety, and risks on social-media platforms.
“They spoke about some really hard-hitting concepts such as lack of education for the girl child, child marriages, sports for development, menstrual hygiene, and access to sanitary pads,” shared Pradhan about the three-month project. Plan India now aims to scale this project and train 600 girls over the next three years and, through them, create 10000 ‘digital mitras’ by the end of 2025.
Priyanka Singh brought up the topic of safety for women on the internet giving the example of recent example of Muslim women being ‘auctioned’ on social-media platforms.
London-based Juhi Javed Husain commented on the ecosystem of digital safety: “For a long time, everyone on the internet could do whatever they wanted to, there was no legal framework around them. This also gave entrepreneurs space to explore their creativity and develop new and exciting things,” said the Pakistani-origin policymaker. The downside of this is that governments always end up playing catch-up, she added.
There has, however, been a major shift in awareness with governments, civil-society organisations as well as social-media companies themselves recognising the need for more accountability. “Apart from terrorism and child sexual exploitation, there are also issues of cyber-bullying, and sexual harassment, which make it extremely unsafe for women,” she said.
People are now more aware of extremist organisations on the internet and the threat of terrorism, but, on the other hand, she said, “Sometimes nation-states who recognise such dangers flip to the reverse extreme,” and use technology-enabled tools to silence dissidents and critics of the government.
Husain believes this problem is also reflective of South Asia’s inherent cultural issues. “There are superior internet-safety laws in Western nations because in their culture, the individual is important, whereas in South Asian culture, it is all about the greater good of the community over individual choices,” she said.
Pradhan added that educating people about their rights and duties online is important. “Creating large-scale awareness of safety regulations at the school, college, and community level will help improve the active participation of girls online. Social-media companies must let people know about their safety features,” she stressed.
South Asia Union Summit Led by Women is a nonprofit initiative by eShe, a digital platform based in New Delhi that amplifies women’s voices from South Asia and globally. Supported by WISCOMP, the virtual summit brought together 50 eminent women from 13 countries to discuss solutions for peace, gender equality, social justice and a unified South Asia.