End violence: Most significant change story from Pakistan

By Gul Bukhari from Bytes for All
Publisher: APCNews     08 September 2014

The APC End violence: Women’s rights and safety online project is changing women’s lives. We wanted to offer a closer, more personal look at individual women whose lives have been significantly impacted by the initiative. This week, we share the story of Urooj Zia, a woman living in Karachi, Pakistan, who started the platform Laalteyn after learning through digital training by Bytes for All how ICTs could be used to help adult survivors of abuse.

Digital security has been the most important area for impact generation on individuals and organisations through the secure online communications trainings carried out by APC member in Pakistan and End Violence project partner Bytes for All, as it holds both preventive and curative potential where gender-based violence is concerned.

According to Bytes for All, a substantial constant in all significant change stories has been an increase in awareness about technology-driven gender-based violence and the need for collectively fighting it to reclaim individuals’ online and offline spaces.

Awareness of this specific form of violence has made individuals more alert and vigilant in identifying violence when they encounter it, and more often than not, in protecting themselves against it though increased digital security and privacy management skills. An added personal interest in continuing to increase their capacity has been observed, and individuals have often become ambassadors and awareness disseminators of campaigns such as Take Back the Tech! and digital security trainings.

In one case, Bytes for All documented the evident change in a creative professional and activist, Soofia. Soofia channels her thoughts, protest and expressions of resistance through various art forms such as photography and graphic design, and creates meaningful imagery to depict the female condition and stereotypes. She disseminates her opinion to the public through her visuals, and also conducts trainings to help women use photography to tell their stories. Her motivation to continue with these efforts has led her to not only actively participate in Take Back the Tech! as a campaigner, but also to keep raising her voice all year round against injustice, sexual harassment and misogyny through graphics, blog posts and other mediums.

In the past year, numerous other individuals who have been through Bytes for All trainings have helped their colleagues to learn more about digital security, either from them or through extended follow-up trainings at their own organisations. One journalist, activist and academic, Rahma, has now incorporated digital security in her media sciences curriculum, while another human rights defender, Tahir Khilji, now plans on actively pursuing digital security for LGBT activists as a focused stream of work at his organisation, in collaboration with his sister Nahid Khilji, who took part in an extensive digital security training last year.

For many people the End violence project has become a bridge between their professional work and their personal concerns.

Child abuse in Pakistan and a story in the first person

Child abuse has never been a topic of debate in Pakistan, neither in the media nor on public forums. This has been a taboo subject in Pakistan, with limited crime statistics and almost non-existent forums for medical and legal aid. From the government’s end, there is such a visible lack of priority placed on developing child protection and remedy that the state still entertains discussions on the religious acceptability of child marriage (1).

When Urooj Zia, a woman living in Karachi, the largest and most populous metropolitan city of Pakistan, started working on Laalteyn under the End Violence project, she was able to experiment with the ways in which ICTs could be used to help adult survivors of abuse, especially women – who have a far more suppressed voice and much more limited opportunities than men.

“When my own memories of childhood abuse had started resurfacing around April 2012, I realised that there was really no support group in Pakistan for survivors of childhood abuse – adult survivors in particular – and that a platform of this sort was absolutely required. I also realised, meanwhile, that reading about the journeys of other survivors was very helpful for my own understanding and healing,” Urooj remembers.

She was soon able to put together an online platform where victims could go to openly or anonymously share stories and seek respite. Laalteyn provided survivors with an opportunity to interact with people with similar experiences, and to be directed towards various forms of help. “I started writing about my own recovery, and got a lot a support from survivors, who also started opening up to me about their own experiences. I therefore decided to make this platform more public. This is when Bytes for All Pakistan stepped in to support that project,” she says.

Urooj was trained on digital security as well as physical security for human rights defenders by Bytes for All. “Since then, not only have I learned to keep myself secure online, but also how digital security is directly linked with physical security. I have also learned how to use that technology to keep others who come to me secure. I practise situational awareness as well. Before this, I and the people around me weren’t aware of how significant these issues were, the fact that things that you post online could reach out to so many people so quickly and you have to be really careful about that,” she explains.

“The most significant change that resulted through my participation in the project is that people around me are becoming quite open to talk about childhood abuse, especially sexual abuse, something that I had not seen happening previously,” she says.

The purpose of Laalteyn.com is to create a strong, reliable, online support network for Pakistan-based survivors of childhood abuse. The desire to create and sustain Laalteyn is driven by the fact that not only is Pakistani society unaware of the epidemic prevalence and insidious, long-lasting effects of childhood abuse, but there is also no peer-support network for survivors in Pakistan.

As Urooj explains: “Working on this platform showed me and other survivors that we are not alone; that our experiences aren’t really all that ‘otherworldly and unbelievable’; that we are not really ‘going crazy’ when we start remembering these things; and that, ‘forgetting about it’, as we are asked to do by both our abusers and other people who might in their heads mean well, is not a healthy response to our trauma. As such, through Laalteyn, we are also attempting to educate supporters of survivors on what healthy and supportive responses are supposed to be like and how to be good allies without minimising survivors’ trauma or stifling their voices.”

Keeping this goal in mind, as well as the issues that she faced as a woman professional and activist, Urooj actively kept pursuing her own capacity building with an aspiration to help individuals with similar experiences. As a very active student of digital and physical security for human rights defenders, Urooj has proven to be a strong-willed individual determined to create meaning out of chaos, in the face of risks.

As a part of her self-determination, Urooj has actively helped human rights defenders, journalists and CSOs facing risks in her own capacity, and has also linked them with Bytes for All and other partner organisations.

Through the two booklets that Bytes for All produced on tech tips and how to report online abuse (Online Violence: Prevention, Reporting, and Remedy) and on abusive and invasive social media (Social Media Ethics and Etiquette), she passed this information on to people who expressed how happy they felt about the fact that there are measures that they can take themselves without being dependent on anyone else. They do not have to wait for resources and people who have contacts in higher places, and can actually seek help themselves, not just with Twitter or Facebook authorities themselves but also with higher authorities in Pakistan.

Currently, Urooj is helping Bytes for All to develop a security plan as part of the organisation’s capacity-development measures, and plans to deliver physical security trainings to human rights defenders and CSOs. “Bytes for All’s trainings not only helped me in my capacity building, it also improved my understanding on issues related to human rights and how technology can help minimise and end violence against women, which is rampant and increasing in our society. These trainings helped me transform into a new person, who is more happy, enthusiastic, productive and positive,” Urooj concludes.

(1) Ali, K. (2014, March 11). Pakistani laws prohibiting underage marriage un-Islamic: CII. http://www.dawn.com/news/1092468/pakistani-laws-prohibiting-underage-marriage-un-islamic-cii

Read more End violence project most significant stories