JASS Blog Archives for July 2015

by on July 19, 2015 on 12:37 pm
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 ritu@defindia.netPicture Source: Association for Progressive Communications.

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by on July 19, 2015 on 12:02 pm
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 Luana Coelho, Terra de Direitos, Curitiba Brazil

“[In Brazil] it’s not so much about government censorship," Luana Coelho of human rights NGO Terra de Direitos which provides legal assistance to social movements and communities, particularly those struggling to access land and rights, cutting across urban and rural movements. "It’s economic censorship. If you don’t pay, you don’t get the news there. It’s very manipulated by capital. We are in a democracy but it’s a direct democracy of the capital, it [is about] following the money.” For Luana, the context throws up challenges and contradictions, with a highly-engaged civil society that strives against deep inequalities, rising conservativism and a lack of political will as well as a high degree of political polarisation in a Brazil that seems to contain multiple “Brazils” within it.

Maggie: If you’re looking at a Brazilian context, what does “shrinking space for civil society” look like for you?

Luana: Formally, we are not facing any kind of attack or even if you say we don’t have a “good environment,” it’s the opposite actually in some ways.What’s going on is Brazilian civil society gained a lot of space with specific mechanisms at local, state and national level to participate in the formation of government policies, through thematic conferences and councils. Everyone in civil society was really involved in this conference process. You need to be a part of the local conference to take part in the state and then nationally—so people are very engaged in policy discussion in Brazil.

The wave of conservative politics worldwide is happening in Brazil. In the last elections we elected the most conservative parliament since 60 years. So the first thing that this congress did was to attack the process of civil society participation through conferences, dismissing it as ‘we want to become communist’. The government is having trouble [holding onto the gains].

Conservatism was always there, in society, but hidden. Why is that? Brazil, as most Latin American countries, has a history of bloody dictatorship. It took more than 20 year and a lot of struggle to build again our democracy under the 1988 Constitution.  Since the re-democratization of the country, some actions or thoughts were almost forbidden, because it would bring back memories of the dictatorship. To give an example, all the debate on sexual and reproductive rights have very little environment to be openly discussed (abortion is a crime in Brazil). The feminists groups were discussing gender equality on political representation and we have had quite a few setbacks in terms of representation in parliament recently, some bad losses for women.

But at the same time, in the 90s, there was what some people would call privatisation of state services where a number of laws made it easier for government to give money to CSOs to run public services. But then this was completely distorted and the last  years many NGOs were attacked or became targeted for getting easy money. In order to improve control over organization, government is debating a new legal framework for NGOs that allows civil society to raise themes for government to finance but this is very idealistic, no? We can work with government in some projects but not in projects where we’re going to question the government’s actions, for example.

Maggie: What does this look for women in particular? Because we know from experience around the world that women are often on the frontline of fundamentalisms that play out on women’s bodies, and restrict women’s choices. How do you see that in your work?

Luana: In general, women are the ones suffering the most with poverty. In my work, most of community leaders I deal with struggling for housing are women. The lack of infrastructure and a gender oriented understanding of the city have negative impacts on how women enjoy rights and/or are subject to violence.

Maggie: You’ve spoken about the privatisation of state services, sustainability and how difficult it is to keep going when there is a lack of resources, can you elaborate?

Luana: Brazil made too much propaganda of how much the country became better, an example of democracy, people improving, and many people out of poverty. Then we come to the sustainability issue – Brazil is the 6th wealthiest country in the world but there is so much inequality. You have this contradiction, you know, it’s not about money or being rich—inequality is so huge that you have many countries within a country, and some areas in Brazil are as poor as the poorest country in the world.  When you look at Brazil and just see the GDP, they don’t see anything.

This privatisation had a direct consequence on NGOs who were depending on international donors, which slowly left the country. If we need to count on individual donation, we do not have the culture for that. People might donate to kids, poor starving children. But can you imagine people donating to the landless movement, which is so stigmatized and criminalized? Someone fighting for land? So the reality we see a lot is if we lose international donors, the challenge of sustainability and independence of CSOs is on the table.

Because we are facing this challenge now, our biggest sponsor is putting the question of whether to keep supporting or not, you look at the experiences in a strategic way. What bridges can we make that we can survive? We do need money to survive.

Maggie: What about strategies? What is needed or what is possible to navigate the context?

Luana: It’s interesting to see things from outside. Because here at the HRC, Brazil is in a position where it wants to be seen as the leading country on human rights of the global south. So this makes some things very complicated. If we as civil society want to point out issues, then we hear in this space that Brazil is a leading country on that!

I think what is good for us is we don’t have a good environment at home to bring some topics related to HRDs, for instance, sometimes it’s good to come here internationally to make it visible there. So you kind of take the tension that is so polarised, to be able to bring some topics from outside that we cannot talk about at home. But even so, it is hard because the UN system is slow and we deal with people’s lives every single day.


Picture source: Terra de Direitos

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by on July 19, 2015 on 11:49 am
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 Sukhgerel Dugersuren, Oyu Tolgoi Watch, Mongolia

“Mongolia is a traditional nomadic country. Nomads need space to move and it is not about culture or tradition. It’s important because the grass is very thin in arid lands and in order for the herds to survive they need to follow the grass. So pastures are a crucial necessity, a life-sustaining resource. And this right to pasture for nomads is not recognised by the company and government. Pastures are regulated by custom to date. It is not incorporated in the current legal framework. So nomads have no title to pastures and in addition in these arid, semi-desert areas they don’t even have titled rights to water wells.”~ Sukhgerel Dugersuren, Oyu Tolgoi Watch, Mongolia

Oyu Tolgoi Watch (OT Watch) monitors the compliance of transnational corporations with international environmental and human rights standards. “We cannot go against local players without transnational support and alliances, as well as international civil society can’t go against transnational corporations without being grounded in local context” says Sukhgerel. “As civil society you need both to tackle the complex issues when it comes to business and development and human rights.” One of the greatest challenges for business and human rights defenders is the tentacle-like reach of big corporations and the need to build strategies that cut across the national-local and the transnational in order to protect people, communities and the environment from corporations who prioritise big profit.

Sukhgerel: Mongolia is now being brain-washed that it can be a hydropower– building HPPs, dams and 1000 km pipelines funnelling water from the north to the south so that thirsty mega-mines can continue extraction in the desert with no benefit to the local economy or even adequate compensation to affected nomadic population. 

Maggie: This resonates with the Zimbabwe situation, we have this precious minerals explosion, diamonds in Marange and it has meant a whole lot more extraction but very few standards and very little attention paid to human rights, so you have people being displaced for mining projects, violence in multiple forms taking place but no recourse. May you speak more about how OT Watch is being viewed and positioned, is that how you would think about shrinking space?

Sukhgerel: We have a NGO law that is very prescriptive and thus not conducive to civil society work. Not only is the law very poor, there is also arbitrary interpretation that allows officials to harass and pressure NGOs to yield.

For example, I cannot file a claim for damages caused by deporting our international expert from Mongolia to a court because the law says that “an NGO shall have “chairperson”. My position title is a “country coordinator”- therefore I have no standing in court. We cannot hold companies and\or government accountable with such arbitrary interpretation of laws by the judiciary and government bureaucracy.

In addition human rights NGOs do not have standing in court to claim damages to public interest. Only environmental NGOs have the right to claim damage to public interest but they have now been disallowed participation in adversarial process, e.g. no right to speak on behalf of the claimant in the court session. These practices close a very important space for us.

Most recent reform of judicial sector further reduced space and access to judicial remedy to local communities and HDRs in rural areas. Mongolia has 334 settlement and only 29 inter-province (aimags) and inter-town (soum) courts. Some towns can be located in 300-500 km from the province centre requiring 8-10 drive off road. There is no legal aid or independent notary at town level. Courts do not accept documents without notary verification. Civil society space is shrinking but it still an important platform that is open for women to protect their own and their children’s rights. Majority of NGOs, especially human rights and local community activist groups in Mongolia are led by women. I believe this is an evidence of women being the first in line targets in human rights abuse or negative impacts of male-dominated extractive and infrastructure industries.   

So shrinking space for civil society is also being achieved by reducing access to judicial and non-judicial mechanisms of accountability. 

Maggie: How do you strategise in such a context?

Sukhgerel: Weak governance and accountability in resource rich developing countries is a given development model. So, it is important for civil society in developing countries to have transnational links, exchange of expertise and information to attack transnationals working locally using their own operational standards and policies. Rio Tinto has prevented a major land-slide in its mine in the US but has not done the same in its mines in developing countries. It is important for us to join in vertical and horizontal alliances to pressure for compliance with the same set of standards regardless of where they work. National companies need to adhere and comply by the same standards. The IFC (International Finance Corporation) standards are considered the best but they are the bare minimum standards. So in order to ensure that the environment is safe for us, they need to comply with at least those standards. And this minimum level compliance has to happen at all levels -only then we can ensure that society and the environment are protected.

This discussion about a binding business and human rights treaty isn’t going to help us if we only work on transnationals. We want all businesses to respect human rights.

Picture source: Bank Information Centre.

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