Pakistan strategises around violence against women and tech

The morning of 19th February was one that we had been working toward for some time. There was anticipation and yet there was fear – anticipation because it was an important initiative that we were all excited to be a part of; fear that perhaps we had taken on more than we could handle, that the relevant people would not show up, etc. etc.

But we needn’t have worried. They were all there – the presenters and all the stakeholders – an interesting mix of women’s rights organizations, activists, media professionals, bloggers, lawyers and technologists who had gotten together to develop a National Strategy for the “Strategic Use of ICT to combat Violence Against Women and girls.” We had made arrangements for between 40 – 50 participants but were not expecting more than 25 to show up. Imagine our surprise when close to 50 showed up on both days and actively and passionately participated in the proceedings.

After having got the welcome and introduction of the project out of the way, Shahzad Ahmed of BytesforAll and I (on behalf of P@SHA) handed over to Nuzhat Kidvai who has been a key part of the Women’s Movement in Pakistan for many years. Nuzhat had been requested to present highlights from the draft Country Issue Paper which had been put together by Kyla Pasha. She did this very coolly while pointing out that the statistics and surveys were weak and some of the facts inaccurate.

Tahira Abdullah, a very outspoken and well-respected long-time activist from Islamabad, was not that gentle. She tore the paper to shreds (metaphorically speaking) stating that whoever had written it had very little knowledge of the women’s movement in Pakistan, its uphill struggle for decades and its achievements. Some of the key areas that she highlighted were:

1. The statistics, facts and figures in the paper were taken from an Aurat Foundation report that was already out of date and contained results that were questioned by Aurat Foundation themselves.

2. The surveys conducted for the Issue Paper were very superficial and limited to a very small segment of te population. The results therefore did not reflect the facts.

3. Types of VAW that were listed in the paper were incomplete

4. The commentary and opinion stated about the Women’s movement was offensive, insulting and false. The paper stated that the women’s movement targeted religous groups and was anti-religion but did not take up the legitimate causes of VAW. The paper also stated that women’s rights organizations did not conduct research or provide input to the government on policies. Nothing was further from the truth, said Tahira. Consistent research had been carried out, policies had not only been scrutinized and commented on point by point, some policies had actually been drafted and provided to the government to move things along.

5. The list of organizations in the Issue Paper was anything but complete and in fact contained some organisations that were responsible for some of the ills that were faced by women in Pakistan.

6. The policies mentioned within the Issue Paper were also incomplete.

Tahira’s critical analysis of the paper was added to by Nuzhat Kidvai (who now felt she didn’t have to hold back how strongly she felt about the quality of the paper and its contents), Hilda Saeed and Nilofur Farrukh, all of whom had been active members of the Women’s Action Forum for decades.

After much passionate discourse, there was consensus that the paper needed to be re-drafted. Nuzhat Kidvai and Tahira Abdullah were requested to take responsibility for different parts of the paper and involve anyone else who was required.

After the intense discussion on the Issue Paper the group broke for a sumptuous lunch.

After the intense morning session, Dr. Awab Alvi (better known as Teeth Maestro), gave a very enlightening presentation on “Online Activism Tools”. He engaged the participants in a discussion on how they currently engaged in activism, awareness-creation and policy advocacy and showed them how various online social media and SMS tools can be used to effectively involve people in activism on important issues. He also showed them how to organize groups of people for rallies and protests and how to remain annonymous if one needed to, while engaging in these activities. Some of the tools were even new to those of us who are actively using new media already. Awab’s talk was received very well and participants asked him a lot of questions which he answered very patiently.

The next presentation was by Rabia Garib, Editor-in-Chief of CIO Pakistan. She spoke about Online Privacy and how to keep oneself safe online while using all the latest technologies. “We are our first line of defence”, she said and there are simple things we can do to ensure that we are secure online and that our privacy is not invaded.

She gave some common-sense tips that participants could follow to avoid being cyber-stalked and to keep ones personal data “private”. She made it all sound so simple and easy to do. The Q&A showed how interesting and relevant the talk had been.

On the second day of the workshop Tahira Abdullah gave a very comprehensive presentation on existing laws and policies that affected VAW in Pakistan. She explained how many of the policies were actually in conflict with the Constitution of Pakistan. The presentation was extremely detailed and presented with the passion that one has come to expect from Tahira. She had participants listening intently to every word she uttered. A copy of the presentation is available for download here.

Tahira spoke about several pieces of legislation and policies that had been enacted over the years and explained how they were inadequate. These included the Women’s Protection Act, the distorted Domestic Violence Bill, the laws on Sexual Harrassment in the Workplace and a draft bill on Reproductive Health and Rights. Her contention was that positive new legislation cannot be effective without repealing existing anti-women legislation. She also emphasized that there was a need to collect, compile and analyze all data sets disaggregated by gender. There also needed to be greater participation of women in all fora: political, economic, legislative – decision-making and policy planning, she said.

I then made my presentation on the Prevention of E-Crime Ordinance & VAW – the gaps, the issues and why all of us should be concerned and should work with the government to bring about the changes that are necessary. In fact the consensus was that any policy that was being formulated should have a gender element and focus to it.

Following the policy discussion, the National Strategy Workshop broke up into a general discourse on VAW and ICT and the future course of action that we needed to adopt as a group.

There were a lot of suggestions – here are some that there was a consensus on:

1. VAW and ICT needs to be taken to schools, colleges and universities.

2. There is a need to develop an online portal where all policies, resources, reports, discussions, strategies, links to videos and presentations & to women support groups can be provided. This portal should also contain information on how or who to report VAW to, what process to follow and who to contact in case help or advice is needed.

3. It was strongly felt that the TakeBacktheTech website should be localized to achieve maximum impact and outreach.

4. Presentations on VAW & ICT should be developed and shared so that various TBTT activists can use the same material when presenting at schools and colleges across the country.

5. More detailed hands-n workshops and awareness sessions are needed to learn the Online Activism Tools and how to maintain Privacy and Security online.

6. There was a need for various stakeholders to continue to raise issues, keep them current and advocate policy interventions that were required to ensure that women-friendly policies were framed and adopted.

Participants were told about the upcoing Feminist Tech Exchanges (FTX) that were being planned, the Digital Storytelling sessions and the Small Grants that would enable some interesting and useful initiatives.

Fariha live-blogged from the workshop on both days and I have a sneaking suspicion that a few of the people who showed up on Day 2 did so because Fariha made it sound like a discussion that just couldn’t be missed – and she was right.

I came out of the two day workshop feeling that we had accomplished a great deal, that we had created linkages that would serve us in our activism and our policy efforts for a long long time. All the work that had gone into organizing this workshop, had been more than well worth it. Shahzad and I thanked Nuzhat Kidvai and Tahira Abdullah for their support and their guidance throughout the process. Without them we would never have been able to get the kind of participation that we did. We also thanked all the out-of-towners who had showed up and engaged in discussions.

The workshop may have ended but Fariha, Nighat, Shahzad and I sat in the hotel lobby having coffee or tea and going over all that had been said over the past two days, and planning what needed to be done next. Follow up activities were very important to keep the momentum going. Many important issues had been flagged and we needed to make sure that they were addressed and we lived up to our commitments.

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