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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.