The internet of memory: First we’ll take Huairou and then we’ll take New York. Hacking the UN to code technology and women’s rights into the system

Despite many obstacles, the Association for Progressive Communications Women’s Networking Support Programme (APC WNSP) team who wired the Beijing process was instrumental in transforming women’s activism and networking across the globe. Women’s global networking will never be the same!

The road from Huairou to New York from 1995 to 2017 taken by the Association for Progressive Communications Women’s Rights Programme (APC WRP) is a reflection of the dynamic world of information and communication technology (ICT), electronic networking, movement building, sustained partnerships and advocating for internet rights which integrate a feminist approach to technology. From creating a space in a tent in Huairou to the well-known NGO “alternative space”, Church Centre of the United Nations, to the leather seats and imposing “heart” of the United Nations Headquarters, place of government representatives, we journey with APC WRP.

An internet for women and queer persons – in all our diversity

You may wonder, what is this Women’s Rights Programme I keep referring to? It has its roots in the APC Women’s Networking Support Programme which was formed in 1993 by a group of women from APC member organisations who saw the critical need to support the broader international women’s development movement and challenge the many obstacles preventing women’s appropriation of these new and potentially transformative communication technologies. In 2010, the Networking Programme became the APC Women’s Rights Programme, as our work shifted towards working at the intersections of technology and feminism, strengthening movements through connecting activists between fields of engagement, and influence-related policy and legislative decision making at different levels. Our long-term goal became “Women and queer persons – in all our diversity – are able to access and enjoy a free and open internet to exercise our agency and autonomy, build collective power and transform power relations for gender and sexual justice.” We’re a vibrant programme of APC with nine mostly part-time staff based all over the world doing capacity building, policy advocacy, knowledge building and research, and movement building. Check out some of our work at feministinternet.org, genderit.org, erotics.apc.org and stories.apc.org.

Back to the story of the journey from Huairou to New York....

In September 1995, governments participating in the Fourth United Nations World Conference on Women passed the Beijing Platform for Action – one of the strongest and most comprehensive international agreements on women's equality. While governments were making decisions in Beijing, the NGOs were working tirelessly (as they tend to do) in Huairou, 63.5 km away, shadowing government debates, networking, and creating vibrant alternatives spaces. Thirty thousand women from all parts of the globe had gathered in Huairou and Beijing.

Some interesting facts about the 1995 United Nations World Conference on Women:

- Hilary Clinton gave a speech in both Huairou and Beijing. She was wearing pink and had long hair. The quote "Women's rights are human rights" was given prominence as the name of a speech given by Hillary Rodham Clinton at UNWCW.

- The Holy See publicly disagreed with positions outlined by some nations concerning abortion and reproductive rights. (Nothing’s changed!)

- Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi delivered the keynote address.

- South African activist Beverley Palesa Ditsie, of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, gave a statement urging that the famous UN [ ] brackets be removed from sexual orientation. (Still a contentious and “bracketed” issue.)

- NGOs stated, “Remember that a sound and healthy environment is crucial for the full enjoyment of human rights.” (Where are we now with the environment!?)

1995 was also the year of ....

- The Srebrenica massacre, which was later ruled a genocide by the The Hague.

- Tom Hanks and Jessica Lange winning Golden Globe Awards for the films “Forrest Gump” and “Blue Sky”, respectively.

- South Africa beating New Zealand 15-12 to win the Rugby World Cup on home ground.

- The official opening of Amazon.com.

- Microsoft's release of Internet Explorer.

- The creation of GIMP (General Image Manipulation Program), an alternative to Photoshop.

- africa.wcw.news: A conference that aimed to keep African women’s organisations informed about preparations for the UNWCW, to share their strategies and information.

What was happening in APC that year?

- APC member PROTEGE QV (Promotion of Technologies that Guarantee Environment and a better Quality of Life) was created in Cameroon.

- In June, APC received consultative (Category 1) status to the UN.

- APC technicians and training activists provided skills training at an informatics symposium hosted by the UN Economic Commission for Africa in Ethiopia.

- The APC Women’s Networking Support Programme (as it was known then) gathered together a team of 40 women representing 25 countries and speaking 18 languages and set up a tent to provide internet access, information services and training to the women participating in the NGO Forum at Huairou. The statistical impact was that at the end of the UNWCW, 1,700 free email accounts were opened, 62,000 email messages were exchanged and 133,000 Web visits were registered at the electronic communication centre run by the APC team. The qualitative impact is immeasurable but it did demonstrate how computer networking can be a powerful mechanism for women's movement building. And that was just the start.

A critical space for women left behind

Let’s stop here for a moment and reflect on why this was such a critical space.

The tent provided a means to connect with those women who were left behind in their cities and villages and enabled a two-way flow of information for monitoring the conference through radio, cable news, video feeds, fax, and this new thing called the Internet. This constituted a very powerful force, driven by the daily exchange of information and communication across geographical divides. It facilitated an openness and inclusivity for wider consultation and input, something which is still held as valuable in APC.

APC has always linked activist engagement to policy advocacy. We bring the experience, vision and wisdom of members and partners into governance spaces and make the case for internet rights being central to any legislative development. In the early days of the Women’s Rights Programme, building women’s rights activists' knowledge, curiosity and capacity around how ICTs could amplify their work was a main theme of our work. As the internet grew and issues such as censorship, surveillance and online misogyny became ubiquitous and social media spawned hate speech at a rapid rate, it became more important to bring feminist activists into the governance spaces. This we’re doing via our Gender and internet Governance Exchanges (gigX).

Back at the UNWCW, the APC team not only hosted the tent but also successfully lobbied for the inclusion of a strategic objective in the main conference document, the Beijing Platform for Action, namely Strategic objective J.1: “Increase the participation and access of women to expression and decision-making in and through the media and new technologies of communication”an example of early success and impact of our policy advocacy, aggregating a powerful women’s networking experience which was the culmination of several years of hard work, building the strong linkages between women’s networks. This policy advocacy work has grown and spread into making the connections between internet rights activists and feminist movements – deepening movement building and cross-pollinating language between internet-specific legislation, human rights instruments and women’s rights platforms.

But where is the “J” spot? And why do witches feature in our narratives? Find out in the next installment.

Do you want to see more photos of internet (and APC's) history? Check our Flickr album.

Do you want to know more about the author? Check Jennifer Radloff's profile.

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