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“Women radically transforming a world in crisis” was the suggestive title of a virtual dialogue that global women-led human rights network Just Associates (JASS) held along with Iniciativa Mesoamericana de Mujeres Defensoras de Derechos Humanos (IM-Defensoras) and members of the APC Women’s Rights Programme on 2 April. The dialogue revolved around collective safety as a key component of transforming the world, coinciding with the launch of a new JASS manual, “Our Rights, Our Safety: Resources for women human rights defenders”.

Marusia López Cruz of IM Defensoras opened the dialogue with insights from the manual. "In this moment of many uncertainties, we can see groups with power are taking advantage of fear and inequality," she stressed.

Members of the APC team were invited to contribute their perspectives on how critical digital safety is in the work of women human rights defenders (WHRDs). They referenced APC’s collaboration with JASS on the "ICTs for feminist movement building activist toolkit", as well as the "FTX: Safety Reboot", a training curriculum made up of several modules for trainers who work with women’s rights and sexual rights activists to use the internet safely, creatively and strategically. As a feminist contribution to the global response to digital security capacity building, it enables trainers to work with communities to engage technology with pleasure, creativity and curiosity.

"We need to centre self-care and collective care in everything we do," said APC’s Jennifer Radloff.

Identifying the needs

The discussion on WHRDs and a feminist approach and response to digital safety revolved around the need for a holistic discourse on feminist self-defence and self- and collective care that does not distinguish between online and offline activism, “because women, transgender, and gender non-conforming individuals experience high levels of violence both in offline life and in digital spaces,” the participants stressed.

The pandemic of online gender-based violence must be factored into any response to digital safety, it was stressed. Being conscious of power relations is critical, particularly around technology, an area in which women – in particular, black women, LGBTIQ persons and indigenous women – have been historically excluded and their contributions made invisible.

Given that the internet is where many activists have gone for so long to find safety, community and recognition, realising that this space is under threat is a reminder of how fraught the question of safety is more generally. This was another highlight of the discussion, which also explored how digital safety responses require investigating and changing how we approach working in our movements, so that we do not exclude those with no – or little – access.

WHRDs will continue to have their privacy breached and compromised by governments and other actors, as this collective is under the microscope, worldwide. “We often tend not to worry about our own personal risk, but we need to because we are part of connected communities,” a participant emphasised.

Regarding the need for enhanced security and safer technological alternatives, it was pointed out that not all activists have the same level of access or knowledge when it comes to these. “Some activists have to use Facebook, WhatsApp and other private-owned apps, so it’s important that we try to be aware of that, do what we can to adjust settings, and not judge people because they are not using safer alternatives.”

Some ideas and possible solutions

The dialogue brought forward some ideas and solutions, including the importance of realising that we now are hyper-connected and need to be aware of how much we are using technology. “We should take breaks from the screen and the constant flow of information as well as make sure the information is not fake news and that we validate it before sharing.”

Being gentle with ourselves while also being aware of safer alternatives that we may explore was among the conclusions: “There are some very good tools and apps, but practices are probably as important. Behaviour change is also important. If you are based in an organisation, explore together and don’t set up one person to do this alone.”

Becoming familiar how the internet works, knowing who is behind the technology, the social media we use, those who are controlling that space and our information, gives us greater power to respond. The Feminist Principles of the Internet were raised as a good starting point. “Digital safety is often frightening, technically confusing, and unmanageable. Strategising from a place of pleasure and fun, rather than of risk and threat, is a response which feminists are increasingly seeing as far more effective.”

Diversity was also highlighted as key. Respecting and listening to the experiences of people with diverse identities and locations offers an opportunity for learning and understanding different experiences, along with fostering local capacity and relational networks of support to build collective knowledge and ownership. This approach counters a common organisational strategy of bringing in trainers from outside of local contexts for short interventions, which does not ensure sustainability or build trusted networks for activists. Training of activists should be reframed within an arc of capacity building, embracing skills sharing and collaboration, hands-on experience and adaptive, inclusive methodologies.

How do we communicate? What channels do we use? How do we collect and store data? These questions are crucial as first steps to assess risks and needs before embarking on developing an organisational safety strategy, as the new JASS manual stresses.