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I organised and moderated a session in this year's RightsCon titled Big Brother is really watching:Digital surveillance and gender-based violence. The session aimed to examine how existing policies and practices have diminished democratic spaces and increased surveillance and gender-based violence by surfacing experiences in the context of different countries. This was one of the few sessions that tackled gender issues out of the more than 400 sessions at RightsCon, and it was also one of the last sessions on the third day, just before the closing plenary, which made us apprehensive that people would not come to our session. Surprisingly, people came and the attendees seemed to be extremely interested in the topic.
Our session opened with thought-provoking presentations from three women who have worked closely within the intersections of gender and technology in various parts of the world. Irene Poetranto of Citizen Lab talked about the many challenges posed by technology on women. These include the proliferation of commercially available tools and the dangers that come with them, including spyware that disproportionately targets women.
Dr. Anja Kovacs of the Internet Democracy Project, an initiative of APC member organisation Point of View, talked about how surveillance can shape and harm women's lives. According to her, surveillance can incentivise certain kinds of behaviour and discourage others. To illustrate, she cited the impact of banning mobile phones in India for women and young girls.
Naomi Fontanos, a transgender activist from the Philippines, talked about the impact of having a populist and misogynist president on women and transgender persons, citing cases of women who experienced being harassed for being critical of the Duterte administration.
We were supposed to have been joined by a speaker from Egypt, but unfortunately she was one of those who was unable to attend RightsCon because she was denied a visa. An issue that was very criticised by participants in the event.
The three presentations served as triggers to the conversation that ensued. One participant disclosed her distressing experience of being surveilled. She shared how it made her life miserable, how she tried to stay away from gadgets, and did not open her email for a time.
There were still many views to be heard, many things to be said, but our time ran out far too soon. We ended the session with an agreement to continue the conversation online. Business cards were exchanged and one participant ensured that there will be a follow-up on the conversation that was started, to further discuss and share ideas and resources on possible interventions against gender-based violence.
Some resources that can be useful for further discussion:
Submission of the Citizen Lab to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women
Dreams of Control at a Distance: Gender, Surveillance, and Social Control
Image: Header of the Gendering Surveillance website by Internet Democracy Project.