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Gender, Sexuality And The Internet

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BySmita Vanniyar

Currently, there are more mobile phones than people in India. 294 million Facebook users are from India, the highest from one country in the world. India is also the seventh largest market for Twitter. And the number of ‘good morning’ forwards you receive every morning will tell you more about the proliferation of WhatsApp than any statistics could.

The digital space is becoming an integral part of our daily lives, especially with smartphones and internet data plans becoming more affordable. The number of people going online everyday—including people from marginalised communities—is increasingly rapidly.

However, while women, people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ people, and other often disenfranchised communities are now entering the digital space, knowledge about digital rights and how they are connected to rights in the ‘real world’ is scarcely available. More often than not, digital rights are seen as something separate from other human rights, which is not the case.

So, what are digital rights?

Simply put, digital rights are human rights in the online space, that cover the access to and use of this space and related technology. In addition, they address the protection and realisation of existing rights and freedoms (such as freedom of expression, right to information, right to privacy, redressal in case of violation, and so on) in the context of new technologies and the digital space.

Why do they matter to marginalised populations?

More and more marginalised populations are using the internet to tell their stories, explore their identities, and find community. The digital space is playing an increasingly critical role in activism and in access to rights and freedoms for these populations (think: #MeToo movement).

When the digital space is such an important part of a community, their rights to access and use this space need to be protected. Without this, their human rights are incomplete.

Offline and online rights are interconnected:

The offline power structures which exist in the physical world have also moved to the digital space, and therefore so have the inequalities and violence resulting from them.

Let’s take the example of women and girls to explain this: For their safety, they are told not to go out at night (offline), and not to be on social media or speak out (online); to protect their virtue they are told that having sex for pleasure is wrong (offline), and that sexting or sharing nude photos consensually is wrong as well (online); and when it comes to placing blame, it is always on them, be it for  sexual harassment or rape (offline), or having their intimate messages, photos, and videos shared publicly against their wishes (online).

Knowledge about digital rights and how they are connected to rights in the ‘real world’ is scarcely available | Photo courtesy: Flickr

Related article: Why the goal of digital inclusion is missing the point

What needs to be done to even the playing field?

At Point of View, we work with grassroots women’s rights activists, adolescents, and queer persons in urban as well as peri-urban and semi-rural regions to build their knowledge, understanding, and capacity to occupy and use the digital space as per their needs and wishes:

Through our work with them, we have identified a few things that each of us can do to begin to level the digital playing field:

  • Try to break the hierarchy in internet usage. Do not deem some usage as ‘good’ (such as applying for jobs or studying), and others as ‘bad’ (such as using social media or watching pornography).
  • Spend more time online to become more confident and comfortable with occupying the space—you can find content that matches your interests, and communities to share them with as well.
  • Start with the spaces and technology which you use in your everyday life and work, and work on learning more about these. For example, you might be using Facebook every day—take the time you spend on that platform one step further and learn about how they handle data and explore the privacy options available, and how that pertains to your account.
  • No one knows everything about technology. Ask for help to understand and learn new features and devices.

At the same time, while you become more aware of and comfortable with your digital rights, you need to challenge the notion that the internet is neutral. Due to the very nature of its conception, the default user online is presumed to be someone who is white, middle to upper class, English-speaking, cis, straight, and male, possibly living in the global north. This is because most of the people behind the technology belong to this profile. Add to this the unequal access, and it’s not surprising that women, and other marginalised people are like second class citizens online.

For this reason, it is important that we do what we can to help even the digital playing field—at a personal level we can ensure that we are not restricting ourselves, at a community level we can help others access the space more freely, and of course at the policy level we can take learnings from the ground to meetings and conferences and make people challenge their preconceived ideas about who is using the internet, how it works for them, and what they need.

In ‘A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace‘, John Perry Barlow said,

We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice
accorded by 
race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.

We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs,
no 
matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.”

For a truly free and equal internet, everyone needs to be able to enter the digital space without prejudices based on gender, sexuality, ability, caste, and language as well, apart from those mentioned by Barlow. For this, the cyberspace needs to be reclaimed by people across each of these identities.

 

This article was originally published on India Development Review. You can read it here.

 

About the author:

Smita Vanniyar: Smita is a queer feminist, currently working at Point of View, India, on gender, sexuality and technology. They hold a Master’s degree in Media and Cultural Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Their areas of interest include gender, queer studies, internet, technology, popular culture, films and TV shows, and fandoms.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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