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Everywhere at the Human Rights Council (HRC) the catchphrase on everyone’s tongue is “shrinking spaces for civil society”. But what does it mean, really? How are activists grappling with this “shrinking space” in their work? To try and find out a little more, JASS Southern Africa’s Maggie Mapondera interviewed activists from as far afield as Mongolia, Brazil and India to learn from their experiences and analysis.

In Conversation with Ritu Srivastava, Digital Empowerment Foundation, India

“If I talk about the shrinking space for WHRDs in India,” says Ritu Srivastava who works with Digital Empowerment Foundation a non-governmental organisation that works to provide digital literacy and build the capacity of rural communities to access and use ICTs. “It’s absolutely correct that there are fewer and limited spaces for women in India to talk. And when a woman in India becomes a human rights defender, they have even less space.”  Digital Empowerment Foundation provides connectivity to the masses and explores at how freedom of expression and association traverses the online and offline worlds, and how women can use ICTs to access their rights and transform their communities. For Ritu, the cross-section of online and offline allows us to see how space is shrinking for women and especially for women human rights defenders but it also allows for exciting opportunities and surprising strategies.

“You are talking about 1.2 billion population, how many women talk about human rights and experience challenges in online spaces? When a woman in India speaks out in an online space, especially when she is an activist, when she is talking about her identity, her sexual identity or political issues—it can be really difficult.” 

Maggie (JASS): That’s interesting what you said about digital spaces, could you talk more about that and share some of your experiences in such spaces?

Ritu: We feel that empowerment is important work. Women are hesitant to engage in activist work because they are bound by culture and by their husbands and not only by husbands but by their families, culturally and socially bounded. And there is very little space for them to talk about it. But when you go to the families and talk about digital literacy, tell them computer and internet can help in accessing their information and rights and how this will help them to improve the livelihoods, their income then family are more open and women are more open to talk about it. If I say let’s do activism and come out and fight, they might not be interested. They might be thinking who will take care of my kid, who will provide the food. So what do we do? We link rights with their daily activities. Right to food. Right to health. Right to access and enable them to think why are these rights important for their livelihoods and how can they improve by themselves. They are working women, even if they are bounded labourers or labourers, they need to go and get their job cards. They need to get their money and that is directly related to their lives and livelihoods. So we provide digital literacy linking to their rights.

Maggie: That’s one of the things we grapple with in JASS, how do you link needs and rights because that is what women’s realities are—but what does it mean to do that in a politically conscious way. What are some of the challenges that you see activists experience online in terms of access or harassment?

Ritu: Only about 10% of the population can access the internet in India, even though we are third largest country in terms of internet access. Most users are from urban cities, semi-urban not from rural areas. You don’t have connectivity or electricity, how would you do that – even with a laptop or a desktop. So what happens when you start talking about how important this is? Let’s think about women in online spaces who are talking about VAW, their issues and rights in relation to their gender, sexuality, LGBT, sex workers—you can count them on your fingers. What happens in those spaces, particularly online spaces—hate speech comes to you, harassment, abusive language, threats and intimidation. It may not be physical but it is psychological and it is real, and it can become so much that a defender will choose to leave that space.

Even famous journalists or well-known celebrities can be targeted because they are culturally or socially doing something “wrong”, whether it is wearing something that “provokes men to rape”, wearing too-revealing clothes or she is being outspoken online. These things happen every day, and people become too used to it that they don’t often care about it.

Maggie: We’ve seen that in Zimbabwe, women being attacked for wearing clothing that is deemed too revealing like miniskirts and getting violently attacked and it’s about how women navigate space in the offline world and the online world.

Ritu: There’s a music band media collectively led by women in North India, there was a fundamentalist group that released a fatwa against them saying that women are not allowed to do music or dance on the internet. They said using the internet is “haram” or forbidden. It’s a funny statement because when did religion start defining the internet as bad? When did they know the internet was going to come and change the world hundreds of years ago? Is it in their religious texts? So you hear those things that it’s forbidden and trying to restrict women’s access, you as a woman cannot do certain things, if you use mobile form, which is another sort of shrinking space. You feel that we are still living in Stone Age.

[In the end, it is about] how you change the mind-set of a person. If I am able to change the minds of one woman, that’s a lot. Of five women, that’s a lot. It’s all about a multiplier effect, if I speak out, and convince another woman then she might speak out and speak to five other women, then ten women and that’s the way a movement starts as well.

Maggie: What opportunities do you see for activists, especially women when it comes to the Internet and ICTs?

Ritu: I want to talk about how activists can use the internet to fight back. Even if you are threatened by hate speech but there are good things happening, you can build campaigns, you can support movements like the Pink Chaddhi Campaign. Even though the space is shrinking, we have the tools and there are opportunities, we can find ways to exercise our rights online and raise our voices again and again. The good thing is that it’s not limited to the space of Bangalore, or India, it goes beyond borders.

Looking more locally at our work, India has over 600,000 villages. We follow the bottom-up approach and believe transformation happens from the bottom. That means one village is empowered, it affects another village and this way we connect the dots. We have made cluster based models to show how women can use online spaces to impact offline lives. And how women can improve their lives [in real ways]. We have a cluster-based programme, Chanderiyaan where we are working with handloom weavers. Most of members belong to Muslim community. Every day women face social barriers, cultural barriers and environmental challenges in their daily lives. 

Most of the women have access to looms but they were making the same patterns every day, and most of their patterns were not being sold because they all looked the same. It was hard for us to help them to understand that the marketplace needs variety. What is trending in the fashion market? So we trained them how to use computer, search new patterns, archive the design pattern, you can see what will your sari or scarf look like and then you can replicate it. Designing the pattern is one thing and doing the work takes up to fifteen days by hand-made technique. So we provided them with 5-6 computers with internet so they can use them to support their industry. Now they have more than 2000 design archives. And this was the start. Gradually, the committee started thinking about ways to bring young girls into weaving community. 

To talk to Ritu Srivastava or to know more about the programmes, you can contact her at Picture Source: Association for Progressive Communications.

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