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How are APC members improving their communities’ lives? In this column we’re highlighting stories of impact and change by our members, supported by APC subgranting. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, One World Platform has shown how this support can be crucial in developing systems of support and safety for women and LGBTIQ communities in the region.

As the only organisation in Bosnia and Herzegovina focused on the issues of online digital security and violence against women, One World Platform (OWP) find themselves in a unique and sometimes precarious position – on the one hand, their work to raise awareness around online gender-based violence (GBV) is urgently and vitally needed; at the same time, lack of local support presents significant challenges in terms of exposure, resources and funding.

With a legal system that is slow to address the crisis of domestic violence and a regionally reticent approach to enforcement, on-the-ground support for abuse victims is especially critical. When it comes to online threats and harassment, there appears to be even less recourse for victims. In a 2015 report, OWP explained that “in Bosnia and Herzegovina there are relevant domestic laws as well as international conventions that apply when it comes to a range of criminal offenses, including those that violate women’s rights. But when it comes to technology-related violence against women (VAW), these laws and agreements appear to offer little in the way of protection.”

Support for safe houses 

Fast-forward to today, and many of these same challenges remain in the struggle to end gender-based violence. This hasn’t slowed down OWP as they continue to expand their work in the region. Through an APC subgrant, they have been able to engage in capacity building in safe houses for women in the cities of Sarajevo, Banja Luka and Mostar by training staff and survivors of domestic  violence in digital security and other important online skills. According to Valida Hromadzic, the director of programmes at OWP, financial support for these projects has been crucial, particularly as funding for such initiatives is all but impossible from international or governmental funders who do not have a solid grasp on the importance of digital learning. “People do not see the work we do with the victims as economic empowerment,” she explained, highlighting the lack of understanding and support for digital skills development.

In reality, with many women arriving in safe houses without employment and dependent on partners for income, receiving training in online business skills and digital security can open opportunities to generate income and to protect themselves. Developing a range of digital skills is key to this. “We wanted to teach them how to make wedding invitations, posters, banners, logo-types, etc. using both paid-for and open source design programmes,” said OWP. “Then we want them to be able to create a website, and put their designs online. The aim of the project is to empower the women to become self-employed or employable, given their vulnerable situation.”

Elements of this training also include digital security and privacy, and these have also been presented to employees working at the safe houses, covering basic steps to protect themselves online. Interestingly, it was noted that these staff trainings were frequently met with initial reluctance, which often turned to interest and engagement as staff learned about the fundamental approaches to digital security, as well as the often critical need to implement them. These shifts in attitude and understanding have been positive indicators of the effectiveness of implementing such training campaigns.

Developing a feminist internet

OWP’s work on women’s and LGBTIQ rights in the region goes back several years, as does their involvement within the APC network. In 2018, OWP collaborated with feminists and digital rights activists from the western Balkans to develop a guide to the Feminist Principles of the Internet (FPIs) along with other types of content and research, localised into regional languages. They have also received support to contribute to the Take Back the Tech! project, participating in global campaigns to end violence against women by taking control of technology and using it in the fight against online gender-based violence.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, there has been an ongoing need to engage in actions that support the creation of safer digital spaces and to work with local activists to increase exposure to and understanding around sexual rights issues and their intersection in digital spaces. As OWP wrote in their country report in the 2015 edition of Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch), “sexual rights groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina use the internet as a tool for community building, awareness raising and advocacy on a daily basis.” Subgranting is one path that has facilitated OWP’s work in the region. Hromadzic emphasised, “Through this money we empowered ourselves: we are not experts, but we are at a certain position in our country that nobody else is.”

A story of inclusivity

At the heart of these initiatives was a common thread that was expressed by Hromadzic, and it relates to the power of APC to bring together diverse voices and support local action without setting external agendas or orchestrating complex bureaucratic requirements. It is a message of inclusivity that transcends economic necessities: “I feel human beings on the other side,” Hromadzic said of the support that OWP receives from APC for the work they do. 

For a small organisation with a powerful mandate, OWP has done invaluable work to raise awareness around online gender-based violence and champion the rights of women and LGBTIQ persons and activists, and they have done this in an environment that continues in many ways to be resistant. Hromadzic noted that “the topic of online violence against women and girls, it is still ‘new’. We have been talking about it for at least five years, and although some organisations are beginning to explore it, we are still the only organisation with a core mission to address online gender-based violence.” 

Despite often finding themselves being a lone voice in the region, OWP’s story of the need for inclusivity has created a strong model for activists, communities and organisations looking to join the movement for sexual rights and safety online.

This piece is a version of a story highlighted in Continuing the conversation: Lessons from APC subgranting, a report that presents the findings of interviews and surveys of APC members and partners who were recipients of funding through its core subgranting programme, supported by Sida, and of subgrants offered through other APC projects and staff working on subgranting in the organisation.

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