The strategic use of technology for social change: APC and the women's movement
By APC for APCNews
MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, 20 August 2009
When the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) screened some of the Feminist Tech Exchange (FTX) digital stories in the AWID Forum plenaries in November 2008, APC Women’s Networking Support Programme (WNSP) manager Chat Garcia Ramilo remembers how thrilled the WNSP team felt. “And I remember how nervous and excited the FTX participants were too, as their personal story was about to be shown before 2,000-plus women.” The plenary was packed, and the second the narration of the digital story started there was a complete hush. When it finished, the buzz from the audience was intense. The video immediately sparked identification, the realisation that “I could do that! I want to do that… about the women miners in my community, about abortion prohibitions sacrificing women’s lives in Nicaragua, about my organisation’s work.” The interest was confirmed by a flood of visitors to the FTX Hub later. For Chat, at that moment the point of APC’s ant-like work over the previous four years had finally clicked into place, “and I remember sitting in the auditorium marvelling at the long way we had come.”
How did the APC WNSP get the women’s movement to take ICTs seriously?
“The FTX highlighted the intersections between communication rights, women’s rights and movement building. And it has begun to make the case for why these issues matter to women’s rights work to over 2,000 women who, as a movement, have tended to be slow to take up ICTs or understand communication and technology as feminist political issues of relevance to the advancement of women’s rights,” said Anna Turley, AWID’s strategic initiatives manager.
The AWID Forum is the largest recurring event of its kind in the women’s movement, bringing together women’s rights leaders and activists from around the world every three years to strategise and learn. APC WNSP had been invited to organise a pre-forum three-day FTX in South Africa in 2008 which was attended by one out of twenty of all the AWID Forum participants. The FTX’s visibility was dramatically different from APC’s first participation at the 2002 AWID Forum, where we ran an internet café in the basement of the conference venue.
The change began around 2005, when the APC women’s programme set out to focus our work in policy advocacy and capacity building on one interconnected theme: ICT and violence against women. It was a strategic move to both engage the wider women’s movement in the politics of ICT – as violence against women was one of the most well-established issues in women’s rights – and for the APC WNSP to deepen our own understanding of how ICT policy impacts on women’s rights agendas.
APC WNSP had been training women’s rights activists long before the FTX, combining learning new technology skills in a collaborative and safe space with a focus on women’s perspectives. But from 2005 onward, we particularly focused on building capacity to combat violence against women. We chose new and appropriate technologies, looking at their benefits but also how they are being used against women, and forged a lot of our practical work around a campaign – Take Back the Tech! – and a very powerful methodology, digital storytelling (see the section on Building the network of people promoting technology for social change).
The decision to focus on a thematic area provided a hook on which to examine a whole host of internet rights (the rights to privacy, freedom of expression, information, citizenship, assembly, mobility, safety) and a whole range of civil and political rights from a clearly feminist and gender-equal perspective. It also gave a point of engagement with the wider communications rights movement, particularly on content regulation, and regarding the women’s movement it was timely politically. Issues like cyberstalking and violence against women in video games were just beginning to gain visibility. There was a dearth of information and analysis on the interconnection between communications rights, technology and violence against women, and in 2005 the APC WNSP produced two issue papers on violence against women and technology: Digital Dangers: ICTs and trafficking in women and Cultivating violence through technology? Exploring the connections between ICTs and violence against women.
The two issue papers were accompanied by further investigation exploring the different policy facets of online violence against women, and we focused our policy advocacy activities more sharply and deeply on discussing the issues of openness, privacy and security at a number of important ICT policy and women’s forums. A third issue paper, The World Wide Web of Desire, took an increasingly nuanced look at content regulation on the internet and the debate on “harmful content”.
“We do not have to convince feminists about the relevance of ICT in their lives any more,” says Chat Garcia Ramilo. “A session at AWID asked ‘Is the internet feminist?’ and for the first time women’s rights defenders from all walks of life debated the issue and were clear about their stake in shaping a feminist internet. But perhaps the most significant change of our work can be best summed up by so many individual women trained in workshops over the last four years, who came out buzzed on their new skills and vision and have gone on to be the ICT mentors in their communities and organisations, the bloggers and podcasters, or to just be themselves, feeling strong.”
Feminist Tech Exchange (FTX): Uniting feminist techies and the women’s movement
Ekaete Judith Umoh of Nigeria is a typical FTX participant. She is eager to use the internet and other technology to make a difference in her effectiveness. And she wants to understand how rights to information and communication connect with her specific advocacy area, equality for women and girls living with disabilities.
The FTX trains women’s rights advocates, particularly those like Ekaete who live in developing countries, in essential internet, audio and other technical skills and crucially, the FTX also looks at the politics and impact of technology on women’s lives.
“It is very strategic to devise a workshop centred on the issues regarding women and the feminist practice of technology. Often the tools training takes up all the space available at technical workshops and there is no opportunity for people to actually discuss the underlying policy issues or the impact on your context,” commented Margarita Salas, the thematic dialogue coordinator for the FTX and a member of Sulá Batsú, an APC member organisation in Costa Rica.
Trainers agree that it is rare for them to meet other “feminist techies” who are also advocates for both feminism and women’s rights and technology.
The first-ever FTX trained over 100 women’s rights advocates who were also attending the AWID Forum in South Africa in November 2008. It generated a demand for regional FTXs with the first starting in Latin America.
Take Back the Tech! New tools and an old problem
“Is he calling to say hi, or to check up on where you are?” The Mexican campaign produced some powerful digital postcards.
Every 25 November since 2006, the sixteen-day Take Back the Tech!1 campaign has encouraged individual women’s rights activists and everyday technology users to explore ICT tools, and especially Web 2.0 tools, from a feminist point of view. Campaigners use or are introduced to the latest technology – blogs, social networking tools, SMS campaigns, digital storytelling – to understand and be smart about the risks that online and mobile technology can represent, and to learn about other women’s realities, how we use ICT to confront violence, and how to take action.
For each of the sixteen days, the campaign site features a different action. For example, one day campaigners make and send anti-violence digital postcards; another day, they update pages in Wikipedia to include feminist perspectives. The campaign also provides tips for online safety.
“The campaign was a good incentive to start blogging and it got me thinking about the difference between blogging under one’s real name or under a nickname,” comments a campaigner in Brazil, where partner G2G translated material into Portuguese and encouraged local women’s organisations to participate in every facet of the campaign.
““Take Back the Tech!”:http://www.takebackthetech.net rejects a discourse of victimisation,” says Jac sm Kee, the coordinator of the campaign. “It is about looking at digital spaces as politically relevant, and setting aside sixteen days in taking simple, yet creative and concrete actions to address violence against women. In the process, we learn, we get comfortable with new technology and we change attitudes about women’s relationship with technology.”
Take Back The Tech! is increasingly being championed and localised by organisations and networks in different parts of the world from Cambodia to Mexico to the Republic of Congo. The campaign is helping to broaden the women’s movement as many of the campaigners are content creators, ad hoc collectives, organisations new to the area of ICT advocacy and women’s rights, and men.
This content has been adapted from the “APC Progress Report 2004-2008”:http://www.apc.org/en/node/9153/.