Using technology for women's empowerment

“For someone who is abused to seek help via the internet, depends on many factors. Computer literacy, English language skills, access to the net and, most of all, a willingness to term their experience as  violence, which is the biggest stumbling block, are the major issues,” says Dr Swarna Rajagopalan of Prajnya, a public charitable trust involved in raising awareness on gender issues. “But we do get emails requesting help, which we then forward to NGOs such as PCVC, who actually provide help round the clock.”

Prajnya has just concluded a very successful 16-day campaign against gender violence in Chennai, part of a worldwide movement started by Rutgers University, America in 1991. They used different kinds of media to raise this issue in the public sphere. “The internet has been our best friend from the day we started. We have used it to our advantage. The fact that there is an anonymous interface that it is free and allows us to be in more places at very little cost helps a small group such as ours with limited financial resources,” Dr Swarna says.

The first day of Prajnya’s campaign focused on gender violence and the last day on human rights, so as to make the point that violence against women is a denial of human rights. “Reaching out to people was done in several ways. For example, we held debates for students and arts programmes for people who would come to enjoy them. We conducted a safety audit of one neighbourhood and facilitated a dialogue on safety between the police and women students, and held a workshop by Hengasara Hakkina Sangha on sexual harassment in the workplace. The internet provided us a space to both document and publicise these activities. We used Facebook, live tweets, live blogging, and Youtube, which helped us rise above our limitations,” Dr Swarna explains.
The internet works well as a tool for research and  documentation, and provides a safe haven where victims can read about other life stories.

The PCVC website even has an ‘Emergency Safe Exit’ button to an innocuous site in case the person has to leave the site in a hurry.

“We upload all the information we possibly can and let others know that it is there. If someone is running a programme in a remote area, it acts like a library and is an enormous resource for them,” says Dr Swarna.

What happens when women suffer online abuse? One of the most productive sessions of Prajnya’s campaign was the one on the flip side of access to Information, Communications and Technology (ICT), where technology is used in cyber crime. A lot of women are targets of online abuse, especially when a relationship ends. According to Chloe Zollman of Bangalore-based ‘IT for Change’, “Everyone is impacted by ICT, whether as users or non-users. We often assume that access to the ICTs automatically means inclusion and therefore empowerment. But there are digital dangers, with implications for the security of women.” But, technology when properly used, can be used as a tool to fight back.

“Stigma is the largest limiting factor, and then fear of bodily harm to oneself or the children,” says Dr Prasanna Poornachandra, who set up PCVC, the International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care. “The internet helps women from the middle and upper classes who would not want to be seen entering our sanctuary. They can initiate contact via our website and provide their email and we get in touch. The website also gives the crisis line number and once they get in touch with us, counselling is through email. Third parties who witness the abuse but are scared of getting involved also send us email,” she says.

 “We are exploring new avenues via the internet, such as chat sessions, counselling online, support groups made up of women with similar backgrounds, and discussions over hotlines. All of these will be offered soon,” she adds.

Dr Prasanna believes that battered women have benefited enormously from the internet. “In the last one year I have seen that the women who come to us have already accessed the net to learn about gender violence. This gives them the strength to come forward and speak up. The internet is definitely a help, because earlier they got help only from a relative or friend. The perpetrators of violence ensure that all avenues of help are cut off. But once women are able to understand and identify that what has happened to them is not acceptable, they come forward to ask for help. That is a big step.”

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