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Through Safety Apps And Open Platforms, Technology Can Address Gender-Based Violence

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ReimagineTogether logoEditor’s Note: This article is a part of #ReimagineTogether, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with UNICEF India, YuWaah and Generation Unlimited, to spark conversations to create a new norm and better world order in the post-pandemic future. How have you and those around you coped with the pandemic? Join the conversation by telling us your COVID story and together, let's reimagine a safer, better and more equal future for all!

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Written by: Dr Simi Mehta, Anshula Mehta, IMPRI

Information is the new oil of the 21th century. Therefore, digital literacy is very important to understand the basics of internet safety as cybercrime is on the rise. Women are survivors of gender-based violence in every sphere. Subsequently, they must make their voice and concerns heard out loud in public spaces, and technology can be an amplifier in that regard.

Given the context of the rising reported cases of violence and the gendered impact of Covid-19, Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi, hosted a webinar on ‘Using technology to address gender-based violence’ with Elsa Marie D’Silva, Founder and President of Red Dot Association, the United States of America.

ElsaMarie_Using Technology to address Gender based violence

Professor Vibhuti Patel initiated the discussion by underlying that girls need to use technology effectively to help themselves in tackling gender-based violence. The use of technology has introduced the possibility of accessing support from the community and building evidence safely.

There has been an exponential increase in cyber-crime, which has exacerbated following the Covid-induced lockdown. The Bois locker room incident indicates that sustained public education on nature and consequences of cybercrime is important to eradicate toxic masculinity. Capability-building programmes by colleges can be a helpful mechanism in empowering young women.

Sexual Violence Is A Spectrum

Elsa Marie D’Silva pointed out that one in every three women experience sexual harassment at least once in their lifetime, and 70% percent of them before they turn 16. The statistics further detailed that more than 50% of the survivors of sexual assault were women. Underreporting of sexual assault cases is a major problem in India as girls feel under-confident and tend to blame themselves.

The lack of statistics on sexual assault in India also adds to the worry. Even with laws present to prevent sexual violence at workplace, women tend to take the recourse of resigning from their own position. Spatial location and trends help women in better preparation to understand the crime that is rampant in the geographical location.

It’s important to understand that sexual violence and abuse is a spectrum as it involves non-verbal, verbal and physical action that affect a woman’s choice, movement and mental health. It is also important for us to not normalise sexual violence as it then becomes difficult for a woman to speak up. D’Silva’s app Safecity encourages anonymous reporting of people’s personal experiences, which are then geo-tagged on the map. The aim is to make public spaces safe and equally accessible to all through individual awareness, community engagement and institutional accountability.

The app aims to gather information, publish it, and then study the patterns and trends. The app protects identity and privacy of it users, and provides support through legal information and helplines. It is a low-cost and low-technology solution. There is a successful online-offline model. It focuses on making crowdsourced data more useful. The app aggregates location-based trends and visualises them as hotspots on the map. The applications’ goal is to provide an opportunity to women to build situational awareness in order to respond better. The team used the pandemic-induced lockdowns as an opportunity to add empathy layers to reporting and expand privacy settings to ensure anonymity.

Communities need to rally themselves around the issue and demand better accountability from institutions as girls need to be empowered to speak up and stand for their rights. Institutions need to build better relationships with the community by using the dataset. Data can be a push for legislative change and create deeper engagements on taboo topics like gender-based violence and sexual violence. Technology should be used as an enabler to work towards creating an equitable society.

Empower The Marginalised

Dr Sangita Dutta Gupta, Professor of Economics at Jagdish Sheth School of Management, remarked that gender-based violation is a violation of basic human rights and not just confined to geographical location. The ICT can help in mapping data, which can be further used to bring change in society. It can provide support and information to survivors. Smartphones are not accessible in villages and women are not literate enough to use ICT, so it becomes crucial to empower the marginalised and work towards bridging the gap between rural and urban areas.

Rwitee Mandal, Programme Manager at Safetipin, Gurugram, emphasised that it is important to understand the nature of the problem as information is not available in the public domain. More importantly, there is a lack of spatial information, which begs us to the question: does built environment need to be investigated to understand what contributes to sexual harassment at workplaces? Street lighting is crucial; access to public spaces is linked to accessing opportunities. The Safetipin app aims to map the built environment to ensure that cities are planned effectively. The digital divide is a problem that needs the attention of various stakeholders.

Public Education

Professor Vibhuti Patel shed light on the importance of workshops and training programmes in the service sector. While technology may be a part of the solution, it cannot be the sole answer to the problem of gender-based violence. Assertive training programme is another pillar that teaches women to speak the language of empowerment. The power of language and counselling is important. Similarly, capacity building programmes can be a step forward. Technology should also reach senior citizens and not just be restricted to the youth. Social solidarity and town planning are the need of the hour.

D’Silva reminded the audience that patriarchy is deeply embedded in society. Education is the key to solve the problems, but technology needs to be aided with education. A space needs to be created for conversations on sexual-based harassment to normalise them. Collaborations with NGOs aided the cause of Safecity. The silence around sexual harassment needs to be challenged.

“Women’s lived experiences need to be taken into account.”    

Change in the social mindset can be a way forward. Many women have to compromise on the quality of their education as they tend to choose colleges near to their home. There is also an increase in the participation dropout rate among female employees. The way forward is to recognise restorative justice and provide the reconditioning necessary to grapple with the issue of gender-based violence.

Dr Gupta highlighted that smartphones are usually possessed by male members in rural areas as access to smartphones makes a woman less focused on her household responsibilities (a myth). Women have started using the importance of technology and that is a good sign. Women should be financially independent to be able to raise their voice strongly. She pointed to the advantage local NGOs can have in creating awareness.

Intersectionality Of Issues

woman on phone
A partnership between technology, and law and order can enable women to fight against sexual harassment.

Mandal talked about ‘Safety Chaupals’, where she talked about the intricacies of built environment to generate awareness among women. Certain areas like tea stalls and beer shops are places that become intimidating for women as they are male-dominated places. In urban spaces, women do more carework than males. Trends and patterns help us to identify fake news, said D’Silva. Education is crucial and needs to talk about what is appropriate and inappropriate. Intersectionality needs to be kept in mind.

Dr Simi Mehta focused on the partnership between technology, and law and order. Workshops with police officers are important as their role becomes crucial in ensuring justice and being sensitive towards these issues. Digital divide is rampant and smartphones should be counted as a necessity as it facilitates the use of applications like Safecity.

D’Silva emphasised that as a non-profit organisation, Safecity collaborates with other NGOs. It is also important to understand that we can’t solve every problem as a non-profit. Awareness at the local level needs to be amplified via posters, street plays and theatre. The community should be given more power to create solutions by providing data for their local areas.

Mandal echoed D’Silva’s opinion by asserting that there is a need for sensitisation and advocacy. The government is putting in efforts, but work needs to be put in every field. Delhi Metro’s reserved bogey for females has created more confidence in women as now they are more visible in public spaces. There is a need to move forward steadily. Gender sensitivity needs to be cultivated in our society.

Body Autonomy

Professor Vibhuti Patel concluded by asserting that we should not question a woman’s character if she is a survivor of sexual harassment. Using your tongue power and speaking for your cause is very crucial for women. Self-defense programmes should be organised more frequently. Public education is very important as people should feel free in sharing their stories. Region-specific material is also very important so that people can access information in their own language.

Gender sensitisation needs to be started from the pre-school level to understand the meaning of body autonomy and integrity. A consistent effort in the right direction can be a way forward. Accept the problems and only then change can be initiated. Networking with different stakeholders can be a part of the solution. Our criminal justice system needs to be reformed in its approach towards women-centric issues. A McKinsey report has located for us four key reasons for the declining female participation in the workspace, the fourth reason being safety. Spatial security and safety can be better catered to using technology.

Acknowledgment: Ishika Chaudhary is a research intern at IMPRI and is pursuing BA Hons in Political Science from Lady Sri Ram College, Delhi University.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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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