May 30, 2020 - Comments Off on COVID-19 GOV PK: The Tech to Battle Coronavirus

COVID-19 GOV PK: The Tech to Battle Coronavirus

As COVID-19 has spread across Pakistan, questions have been raised about how the Government will tackle the spread of the virus. Across the globe we have seen different approaches to this, varying from comparatively relaxed to extremely stringent.

A popular global approach to health surveillance has been contact tracing[1], followed by surveillance and testing. Contact tracing is an old public health technique which tracks an infected person by tracing the places they visited and the people they met. In order to stem the spread of the virus, all those who came into contact with the infected person are then tracked down, informed of their contact and told to self isolate, or are immediately tested for the virus. This process goes on with each new case and is supposed to help ‘map’ the virus as it spreads. In some countries, mobile applications have been launched to track the virus and help people see ‘where’ the virus is.

These apps act as a way for governments to warn the public about cases nearby, and also allow people to report themselves as patients, so as to keep the cycle of contact tracing going. While such extensive mapping may be helpful for tracking the disease on the macro level, these apps present on the flip-side, major privacy concerns.

Take for example this detailed account of South Korea’s Patient #10422:

Before being diagnosed, patient #10422 visited the Hanaro supermarket in Yangjae township on March 23 from 11:32 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. The patient was accompanied by their spouse, both wearing masks and using their own car for transportation. On March 27, the pair visited the Yangjae flower market from 4:52 p.m. to 5:18 p.m., again wearing masks. They then had dinner at the Brooklyn The Burger Joint at Shinsegae Centum Mall from 6:42 p.m. to 7:10 p.m. This detailed record can be found, publicly available, on many government websites, and is a testament to the extensive contact tracing carried out by Korean authorities.[2]

The minutiae of this account goes to show the extent to which data is being collected and observed.

In many instances, the state response has been immediate and comprehensive which hints at the presence of such tech and mechanisms being in place before the pandemic swept the globe, as is apparent from Pakistani PM Imran Khan’s statement: "It (system for tracking and tracing) was originally used against terrorism, but now it is has come in useful against

[1]https://www.brookings.edu/techstream/how-surveillance-technology-powered-south-koreas-covid-19-response/

[2]https://www.brookings.edu/techstream/how-surveillance-technology-powered-south-koreas-covid-19-response/

coronavirus."[1]  This necessitates the inclusion of a detailed data protection and destruction policy to accompany the launch of such apps which mandate the destruction of the data once the health-related utility is over.

At home, our concerns begin from the knowledge that the government of Pakistan is implementing a policy of mapping that involves tracking citizens and their movements. Internationally, there has been debate about the efficacy of contact tracing, however, at the same time, some countries have seen success with this policy. In the context of Pakistan, unfortunately, these measures are accompanied by a lack of trust between the State and citizens. Multiple instances[2] of citizens' data being leaked from one of the biggest national biometric databases in the world, i.e. the Nadra database, has created a faith deficit. Instances of CNIC and family registration certificates (FRC) information being sold online for as low as $1-2 a piece due to a data leak at a provincial level and possibly national level cement this belief.

The “COVID-19 Gov PK” app, released by the National Information Technology Board (NITB) and the Ministry of National Health Services, has been available for use since early April and has been downloaded with an unsurprising frequency given the alarm among the masses, with a rough estimate of more than 500,000 installations at the time of writing.

The very limited privacy policy (found below) states that it is ‘adhering to social, moral, ethical values, and privacy’ while providing no details of the same and referring to no framework under whose jurisdiction these values are defined and the same goes for the element of privacy.

Given that the app seeks permission for geolocation data of the device it is being used on, and personal medical and geographical data of the user, the policy included within the app is not sufficient or clear on exactly how this data is being processed and who has access to it.

[1]https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/pakistan-intelligence-services-track-coronavirus-cases-200424073528205.html

[2]https://digitalrightsfoundation.pk/drf-condemns-yet-another-breach-of-nadra-database-and-demands-strong-data-protection-legislation/

A rapid evidence review published by the Ada Lovelace Institute in the UK sets out, amongst other measures, the proposal for the formation ‘of a new Group of Advisors on Technology in Emergencies (GATE) to oversee the development and testing of any proposed digital tracing application.[1]

We at DRF submit the same and ask that a GATE advisory be created to oversee the development, rollout and implementation of fair and citizen rights-protective technologies to combat the pandemic in Pakistan and that a proviso be extended from the outset as to the limitations, especially in terms of time-frame, be allotted and notified with every new tech measure the governments, both Federal and provincial, take to combat the pandemic.

As more and more of offline life has moved online, the increased activity has subsequently led to more complaints of online harassment and crimes. In light of this, there is no reference to heightened concerns regarding the ‘security’ of the app and the personal data being saved. In a White Paper, titled ‘Decentralized Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracking’ (D3PT), experts in the field highlighted that centralised databases made about patients are at a higher risk of being attacked and leaked than decentralised ones. The white paper makes the case for a decentralized database since it offers a more stringent security policy and quicker response to any attempted data breaches. A centralized system requires a phone to upload all its contact information onto a central database, similar to what the UK is doing currently. In contrast, decentralized systems cross reference a device’s contact information without uploading it to a central database. This is similar to how the European Union has implemented contact tracing. If intelligent decisions are not made about how this data is saved, attackers can access personal information, malicious actors can target patients and in some cases lead to discriminatory practices being adopted. Already we have seen this happening in Balochistan where COVID-19 positive patients’ medical data was leaked[2] to reveal their identities which is not only a massive privacy breach on its own but is only made more complicated by the social stigma attached to corona patients.

The White Paper talks about how the transmission of data works in such apps. Most COVID 19 tracking apps have a feature called the ‘Radius Map’ that tells the user if their immediate surroundings have had a reported case of the novel coronavirus. It does this by using bluetooth signals that bounce off of other users of similar apps. Because of this, specific locations of patients can be pinpointed to the average user. The White Paper highlights this as a privacy concern. Additionally, they also highlight the fact that these signals can be manipulated by hackers to create false alerts of nearby COVID 19 patients, spreading panic in an already volatile situation.

More worryingly, the government app does not rely solely on Bluetooth technology but also makes use of location data which makes it more invasive by a significant degree. These concerns are not helped by the fact that the app does not even meet the standards set by tech giants like Apple and Google, who have collaborated together to develop the APIs for coronavirus app development and have released a detailed set of documentation on exposure notification, its framework and cryptography to promote ‘privacy-promoting contact tracing’.

We submit that the Government of Pakistan share detailed SOPs regarding the COVID 19 app launched by them. These should detail their privacy policy in full, addressing data retention and destruction through a clear and unambiguous sunset clause. Also, we maintain that the Government should share with the public as to who exactly has access to this database and strict guidelines regarding data sharing. While we appreciate that this is an unprecedented situation, the Government still must act in a manner that best protects its citizens' data and their right to privacy, a right enshrined in the country’s Constitution of Pakistan. This, to us, includes the maintenance of the right to opt-in in terms of app usage for everyone, even government employees or essential and frontline workers.

The requirement of immunity certificates must also not be made a condition on which citizens’ mobility and access to benefits rests. These immunity certificates are a focus of debate at the moment with several European nations considering issuing ‘passports’ which allow the holder (a recovered COVID-19 patient) access to a social life but also to civil liberties like the freedom of association and movement. These measures have the potential for unprecedented surveillance and control over public life and cannot be made a prerequisite for exercising fundamental and inalienable constitutional rights.

While we understand the imperatives of the public health emergency, it is important that the State establish some boundaries and limitations to their policy, to ensure their citizens have tangible reasons to place their trust and data with them. The current privacy policy contained within the app itself is inadequate to address these queries and cannot be supplemented given the absence of any data protection legislation in Pakistan. We demand also that the apps that are developed to aid the healthcare emergency be open source[3]. This would not only promote transparency but give a tangible boost to the faith placed in the government’s initiatives for its citizens.

The principle of proportionality is required here, in terms of the strength and effect of the measures being employed. Technology is an asset in these times, however we demand that the increasing centrality of technology be done in a safe, transparent and just manner.

[1]https://www.adalovelaceinstitute.org/exit-through-the-app-store-how-the-uk-government-should-use-technology-to-transition-from-the-covid-19-global-public-health-crisis/

[2]https://balochistanvoices.com/2020/03/private-data-of-coronavirus-patients-leaked-in-balochistan/

[3] Open Source refers to software whose source code is readily available online can also be audited by digital security experts for security standards etc.

May 20, 2020 - Comments Off on Evidence of Twitter, Periscope and Zoom restrictions in Pakistan

Evidence of Twitter, Periscope and Zoom restrictions in Pakistan

Network data from the NetBlocks internet observatory confirm that Twitter, Periscope and Zoom were restricted on multiple internet providers in Pakistan on the evening of Sunday 17 May 2020, commencing approximately 18:30 UTC and lasting over an hour. This report produced in partnership with the Digital Rights Foundation presents findings on the schedule events.

It is shown that the Zoom restrictions appear technically unrelated to international issues that affected call quality earlier in the day. Further, it is shown that Twitter, Twitter’s image and video servers, Twitter’s streaming platform Periscope and the Zoom videoconferencing website share the same timeline of disruption, consistent with previous documented social media platform disruptions in Pakistan.

Sunday’s incident matches the characteristics of previous documented restrictions applied on grounds of national security or to prevent unrest such as the Pakistan’s November 2017 social media blackout.

What happened on Sunday?

Late on Sunday 17 May 2020, users across Pakistan started reporting inability accessing the Twitter social media platform and Zoom videoconferencing service.

Users were able to regain access using VPN tools which circumvent national censorship or filtering mechanisms. During this period the #TwitterDown hashtag trended in Pakistan.

A real-time incident alert was issued by NetBlocks presenting initial findings which are developed and examined further in the present report:

The bulk of reports from Pakistan describe a loss of access to affected services. Other reports from Pakistan describe the “throttling” or slowing of Twitter. NetBlocks data indicate that backend image and video servers were specifically unavailable during the disruption period, corroborating these reports.

How does this relate to international outages?

Zoom experienced technical issues earlier on Sunday affecting certain types of meetings on the service for a limited subset of users. The company issued an update at 15:43 UTC confirming that the problem was resolved, hours prior to the onset of social media disruptions in Pakistan.

No widespread user reports of outages are evident in other countries at the time of Pakistan’s social media blackout. NetBlocks performance metrics from around the world show that Sunday’s disruption was localized to Pakistan:

International reachability metrics show impact by country over two days, with nation-scale disruption evident solely in Pakistan during the reported period

A closer examination of the specific time interval for Sunday’s disruption in Pakistan also shows no restrictions or disruptions in effect outside of Pakistan:


Additionally, timings show that the services were disrupted in the same time window in Pakistan, and restored at the same moment:

Findings are drawn from a core sample of 300 network performance measurements observed from 30 network/location pairings across Pakistan supplemented by a wider dataset of international metrics for comparative use.

Why were Twitter, Periscope and Zoom disrupted in Pakistan?

No explanation or legal order has been presented by authorities or network operators at the time of writing.

Pakistan has previously implemented similar restrictions during mass-protests and limits internet access each year during Ashura. However, no protests were held on Sunday and public manifestations are unlikely as Pakistan remains under partial lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Researchers note that the timing of restrictions as well as the set of platforms affected coincide with a “virtual conference” critical of Pakistani policy held via Zoom, shared on Twitter and reportedly streamed via Periscope on Sunday evening.

News report suggest the virtual event generated controversy in Pakistan, stoking tensions between Indian and Pakistani political activists. Nevertheless, a nation-scale social media blackout in response to a virtual event would be a notable development for Pakistan.

NetBlocks encourages network operators and governments to report disruptions and their legal basis, where available, in a transparent manner in keeping with international standards.

This investigation is conducted by NetBlocks and the Digital Rights Foundation.

Methodology

Internet performance and service reachability are determined via NetBlocks web probe privacy-preserving analytics. Each measurement consists of latency round trip time, outage type and autonomous system number aggregated in real-time to assess service availability and latency in a given country. Network providers and locations enumerated as vantage point pairs. The root cause of a service outage may be additionally corroborated by means of traffic analysis and manual testing as detailed in the report.

originally published on @NETBLOCKS

May 18, 2020 - Comments Off on Digital Rights Foundation urges for accountability in Waziristan honour killings

Digital Rights Foundation urges for accountability in Waziristan honour killings

May 18, 2020

Digital Rights Foundation expresses its outrage regarding the cold-blooded murder of two teenage girls at the hands of their family member, killed in the name of misplaced and patriarchal notions of “honour”. The honour killing was prompted by a short mobile video of the young man that surfaced on social media. The video was leaked without the girls’ consent and contained private imagery.

Regrettably, killings in the name of so-called honour are not a new phenomenon in Pakistan and several parts of the world, technology-enabled violence is emerging as a tool for shaming women and controlling their autonomy. Videos and images of women are often weaponised to blackmail, exercise control and inflict violence on women, employing technology as another tool in service of the patriarchy. In Pakistan, the digital gender divide is among the largest in the world, as women are 37 per cent less likely than men to own a mobile phone device of their own. Furthermore, women’s access is often surveilled and controlled by patriarchal figures in their lives. This gap is particularly stark in areas such as Waziristan where mobile internet access has been denied due to a prolonged internet shutdown, resulting in women being deprived of access to resources and crucial information that can potentially save lives.

This is not the first time honour killings resulted from the leaking of women’s private information and images. In a society where women’s consent and their bodily autonomy is regularly violated and dismissed, technology often serves as a handmaiden of these patriarchal structures. Women accessing online spaces or using technology to express themselves or exercise pleasure have heartbreakingly been met with violence and censure. Qandeel Baloch subverted online spaces to express herself and her sexuality, only to be met with online violence and privacy violations which culminated in her murder at the hands of her brother. The 2011 Kohistan case, which saw the murder of three men and five young women due to a video in which they were dancing in their private home, took multiple investigations, intervention by the Supreme Court of Pakistan and nearly eight years to see justice. 

While a First Information Report (FIR) of the incident has been registered at Razmak police station in North Waziristan, we would urge the authorities to closely monitor the investigation and prosecution of the case given the heinous nature of the crime. Honour killings should not only be condemned across the board, but the action taken by the police and courts should reflect this. Too often, societal pressure, familial collusion and uneven application of the law have marred cases in the past. Since the Criminal Law (Amendment) (Offences in the name or pretext of Honour) Act, 2016, the law is clear regarding the limited ability of the family to pardon the perpetrator in cases of honour killings and the state must ensure that section 311 of the Pakistan Penal Code is implemented in its true spirit. In addition to ensuring justice against the honour killing, an investigation should also be launched into the leaking of the private and intimate video. These videos put women’s lives at risk and contribute to a culture where women’s bodies are consumed as objects for male pleasure. Women, through exploitative imagery, are dehumanised, blackmailed and often re-traumatised.

We also urge the state to take immediate and pre-emptive measures to ensure the safety of the other two individuals in the leaked clips. Particularly the security and privacy of the young woman must be ensured and should serve as a precedent for all future investigations dealing with leaked images and videos of women.

Unfortunately, honour killings are not a relic of outdated or fringe ideas, they are grounded in current notions of viewing women as familial and societal property, bearing the impossible burden of carrying the honour of the family, community and nation. In just the last month alone, there were six reported cases of honour killings only in Swat. Furthermore, it is important to state that digital rights such as privacy and protection from online hate speech should be universally enjoyed, however they are particularly important to ensure the safety of women and gender minorities in online spaces--for women and gender minorities, effective mechanisms ensuring the enforcement of these rights can be the difference between life and death.

May 15, 2020 - Comments Off on April 2020: Online Campaigns and Initiatives 

April 2020: Online Campaigns and Initiatives 

Joint Statement by Digital Rights Foundation and BoloBhi: The Digital Gap During the COVID-19 Pandemic is Exasperating Inequalities

DRF and BoloBhi released a statement regarding the impact of the digital gap during the COVID-19 pandemic and the exclusions that will arise in terms of class, gender, geographical location, ability, and digital literacy.

Read the full statement here:

Joint Statement by Digital Rights Foundation and BoloBhi: The Digital Gap During the COVID-19 Pandemic is Exasperating Inequalities

https://digitalrightsfoundation.pk/the-colombo-declaration-march-6th-2020/

Girls in ICT Day 

DRF launched an online campaign for Girls in ICT Day on 23rd April to encourage more women to be part of the tech industry. The day emphasizes the need for women to be a part of the ICT sector and how women's access to technology is still limited and hindered. DRF asked women in tech about their experiences in tech and why it is important to keep online spaces safe and inclusive for women.

International Women’s Day: Media4Women 2020 Campaign

 DRF joined the global campaign with 48 partners from 21 countries committing to putting gender equality in the media on the local and international agenda. The global theme was Inclusive and Equal Portrayal of Women by the Media.

DRF’s campaign involved a design competition and quotes from network members on the problematic gender stereotypes portrayed by and in the media. The cash prize for the design competition was PKR 15,000, which was won by Amara Sikandar. Here’s her painting.  

About her design, she said, “Media plays an important role in promoting inclusivity and should put in all efforts to include their perspectives and talk about their rights as a step towards them having their lawful rights.”

COVID UPDATES
Cyber Harassment Helpline 

The helpline’s toll-free number is finally operational. Thanks to the PTA, our number is operating remotely, helping our team to continue practicing social distancing while also assisting you all out too! You can now call us from 9 am till 5 pm, Monday to Friday, or email us on helpdesk@digitalrightsfoundation.pk.

IWF Portal

Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) in collaboration with the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) and the Global Fund to End Violence Against Children launched a portal to combat children’s online safety in Pakistan. The new portal allows internet users in Pakistan to anonymously report child sexual abuse material in three different languages – English, Urdu, and Pashto. The reports will then be assessed by trained IWF analysts in the UK.

The new portal can be found at https://report.iwf.org.uk/pk

Ab Aur Nahin

In times of COVID19 domestic abuse is at an all-time high with women having nowhere to go and ask for help.  Aur Nahin is a confidential legal and counselor support service specifically designed for survivors of abuse. We provide a comprehensive directory of lawyers around the country to provide you with the support and assistance you need. You are not alone, and you do not need to fight alone.

Media Engagement

Spread of Disinformation has increased during lockdowns 

https://www.samaa.tv/video/2020/04/spread-of-disinformation-has-increased-during-lockdown-says-nighat-dad/

https://twitter.com/nighatdad/status/1250405111152730119?s=20

During COVID19 disinformation is putting lives at risk especially when it is repeated and amplified by influential and political leaders, it puts true information at the risk of having an only marginal impact. Our Executive Director Nighat Dad  shares her thoughts about fake news in times of the pandemic.

Events and Sessions

Digital Security During The Pandemic


On 23rd April, DRF alongside our friends at ‘Bolo Bhi’ held an Instagram live session to address concerns following a rise in phishing attacks and sextortion emails. The session was moderated by Bolo Bhi’s Kashaf Rehman and our digital security expert and communications lead, Arslan Athar represented DRF and answered questions regarding digital safety during COVID 19.

 

May 5, 2020 - Comments Off on Digital Rights Foundation’s Legal Analysis of the 2020 Personal Data Protection Bill

Digital Rights Foundation’s Legal Analysis of the 2020 Personal Data Protection Bill

History of Data Protection Legislation in Pakistan

According to the UN, 107 countries across the world have enacted data protection and privacy legislation. In order to ensure the fundamental rights of its citizens and compliance with international human rights standards, Pakistan has also taken steps to enact a personal data protection law in Pakistan. Article 14 of the Constitution of Pakistan guarantees the Right to Privacy, however serious efforts to introduce a law were first taken in 2018 (though a draft Bill was put forward in 2005 but was deemed too weak) when the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication (MOITT) introduced a draft Personal Data Protection Bill in July 2018 and invited comments from the public. The Bill was lauded as a good first step, however suffered from serious issues in terms of scope as it restricted the definition of personal data to “commercial transactions”, limiting its applicability to government-held data, and the proposed Data Protection Commission was not sufficiently independent in its functions and composition. 

A second iteration of the Bill was shared by the Ministry in October 2018, with slight improvements in terms of definitions but many of the same concerns remained especially when compared to international best practices such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). There was little headway by the MOIT since despite appeals from civil society and being taken up by bodies such as the Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights. The third draft of the Personal Data Protection Bill (referred henceforth as the “Bill”), was put forward by Ministry in April 2020.

Executive Summary

We appreciate the efforts by the MOITT in making data protection and privacy of citizens a priority. Furthermore, we welcome the consultative process adopted by the Ministry. However we hope that during a time when the entire world, including Pakistan, is under lockdown and reeling from the economic, social and public health implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, that such important legislation will not be passed hastily and without the opportunity for an inclusive and open consultative process.

The new 2020 Personal Data Protection Bill, while a better version in comparison to the drafts issued in 2018, still does not fully capture the data protection needs of people in Pakistan. The most prominent issue we see with the draft is the exemption-making and wide-ranging powers given to the Federal Government, in particular under Sections 31 and 38 which risk undermining the protections afforded under the Act. Government bodies collect and process vast amounts of personal data and the obligations in the Act must extend to them and the Government should not be able to introduce further exemptions without proper scrutiny and safeguards. Additionally, the independence of the Personal Data Protection Authority of Pakistan needs to be ensured, by limiting the powers of the Federal Government to appoint members and approve rules made by the Authority (Section 48).

The need for and reliance on technology has and will drastically increase during the COVID-19 pandemic and in a post-Coronavirus world where we will see a predominantly offline world transform into an online world. Access to online platforms of communication, healthcare, education and business is no longer a luxury. In the midst of all this, the need for protection of our personal data is essential more than ever.

Our primary recommendations to the Ministry are:
  1. Definitions of terms such as “Public Interest” and “Critical Personal Data” should be explicitly defined under the Act;
  2. The definition of “Sensitive Personal Data” should be expanded to include categories such as “membership of a trade union” and “philosophical and/or religion beliefs”;
  3. Implementation of the Act should be on a progressive basis to ensure a balance between rights protection and a grace period for data controllers to ensure compliance;
  4. Clearer language regarding scope and jurisdiction of the Act;
  5. Mandatory requirements for obtaining consent should be expanded to include information on intention to transfer of personal data to a third country and the level of protection provided, the existence profiling for targeted purpose, and the existence of automated decision-making;
  6. The Act should develop a higher consent standard for personal data of children and young adults below the age of majority;
  7. Clearer and minimum requirements for security measures for data controllers should be laid down in the Act;
  8. Data localisation measures introduced for cross-border personal data flows should be seriously revised in light of international best practices;
  9. Procedure for withdrawal of consent should be simplified to ensure that it is as easy for the data subject to withdraw consent as it is to give it;
  10. Rights of data subjects such as the right to data portability, right to information related to profiling and automated decision-making, and right to compensation should be explicitly included in the Act;
  11. Powers of the Federal Government to make exemptions under Section 31 be removed;
  12. Safeguards should be included to ensure independence of the Data Protection Authority;
  13. Powers of the Federal Government to issue policy directives under Section 38 should be removed.Find DRF’s detailed, section-by-section analysis of the Personal Data Protection Bill 2020 here.

 

April 24, 2020 - Comments Off on How private is the COVID 19 App

How private is the COVID 19 App

Around the world, governments have taken to technology to stop the spread of COVID 19. The experiences and the success of this strategy differed in each area, however, it seems the world is in agreement- we need to employ technology to help with handling the novel coronavirus. Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and China all used technology in their fight against the disease. They all used mobile apps in some form or the other, to track the movement of the disease and to find out who might have come into contact with a victim. These countries credit technology for helping them understand how the virus moved and where to implement harsh lockdowns and quarantines. As the virus has spread across the globe, more countries are seeing these applications as their way out and are beginning to adopt these technologies also.

The Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication (MOITT) along with the National IT Board (NITB) recently launched an app called ‘COVID-19 Gov PK’. This application gives people up to date information about the spread of the novel Corona virus in Pakistan. However, the app has a feature that allows people to trace the disease, and allows the Government to track the trajectory by tracking the movement of its citizens. The app itself is based on a global trend towards using mobile applications for the mapping of the novel coronavirus.

(Image Source: Corona100M / CNN)

While countries the world over are engaging in health surveillance, we believe this is a problematic approach to the current situation given that such features are intruding on the privacy of citizens, as well as providing unfettered access to users' data. Contact tracing has been faced with backlash across the globe for its invasive approach to countering the spread of COVID 19.

While the situation concerning the virus is an emergency, it is still important for the Pakistani government to establish boundaries and limitations for its activities and be transparent, especially if they involve tracking the movements of its citizens and saving their health information on a mobile application. We would welcome the release of SOPs regarding how the data available on the app is being kept and processed.

Data related to an individual’s health is extremely private information, and it is information that affects not only them, but those whom they live with. This is extremely important to remember especially in such times, with a pandemic on our hands. Having sensitive information about where cases have been confirmed on a mobile application is dangerous as it puts families of victims at risk, as well as exposes their location and data regarding their health. The stigmatising of those with this particular disease has only made matters in this regard, worse.

Additionally, as the virus spreads, the Government needs documentation of confirmed cases, however, this information should only be collected as long as COVID 19 continues to be a threat to Pakistan. Some key elements here that would be comforting would be transparency in how patients’ data is being collected, as well as how it is being stored and lastly, what the data destruction policy, if any, is in this regard, as the Privacy Policy contained with the app is not very illuminating.

As people have moved towards remotely working and communicating, there has been a lot of activity online which has subsequently made cyber criminals and hackers more active. In light of this, the app does not address heightened concerns regarding the ‘security’ of the app and the personal data they are saving. In a White Paper, titled ‘Decentralized Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracking’ (D3PT) (https://github.com/DP-3T/documents/blob/master/DP3T%20White%20Paper.pdf) , experts in the field highlighted that databases made about patients are at a high risk of being attacked and leaked. If intelligent decisions are not made about how this data is saved, attackers can access all the information, thereby affecting the patients themselves, as well as the doctors and scientists working against the spread of the virus.

In the same white paper, the experts explained how their databases should be constructed and maintained, as well as how the transmission of new data works. They gave two case scenarios to the construction of databases. One being a centralized database, and the other being a decentralized one. They made the case for a decentralized database since it offers a more stringent security policy and quicker response to any attempted data breaches.

Lastly, they talked about how the transmission of data works in such apps. COVID 19 tracking apps have a feature called the ‘Radius Map’. It tells the user if their immediate surroundings have had a reported case of the novel coronavirus. It does this by using bluetooth signals that bounce off of other users of similar apps. Because of this, specific locations of patients can be pinpointed to the average user. The White Paper does highlight this as a privacy concern. Additionally, they also highlight the fact that these signals can be manipulated by hackers to create false alerts of nearby COVID 19 patients, spreading panic in an already panicked situation.

We submit that the Government of Pakistan share their detailed SOPs regarding the COVID 19 app launched by them. These should detail their privacy policy in full, detailing data retention and destruction. Also, we maintain that the Government should share with the public as to who exactly has access to this database. While we appreciate that this is an unprecedented situation, the Government still must act in a manner that best protects its citizens' data and their right to privacy, a right enshrined in the very Constitution of Pakistan.

April 21, 2020 - Comments Off on March 2020: Launch of IWF Pakistan reporting portal

March 2020: Launch of IWF Pakistan reporting portal

Online Campaigns and Initiatives

On March 19, Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) in collaboration with the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) and the Global Fund to End Violence Against Children launched a portal to combat children’s online safety in Pakistan. The new portal allows internet users in Pakistan to anonymously report child sexual abuse material in three different languages – English, Urdu, and Pashto. The reports will then be assessed by trained IWF analysts in the UK. It is the 33rd portal set up around the world to fight the spread of online child sexual abuse material.

The launch was due to take place in Pakistan and would have been attended by representatives from the British High Commission in Pakistan, as well as representatives from the IWF. However, following the cancellation of flights and public gatherings because of the coronavirus, it was decided a virtual launch would be the best solution.

The new portal can be found at https://report.iwf.org.uk/pk

#EndOnlineChildAbuse

M4W campaign 2020

DRF participated in Media4Women (M4W) 2020 campaign with around 48 partners from 21 countries committing to putting gender equality in the media on the local and international agenda. The campaign was run between March 1st and March 15th and the theme for this year focused on, Inclusive and Equal Portrayal of Women by the Media. Members of DRF’s Network of Women Journalists for Digital Rights shared quotes on challenging problematic gender stereotypes that portrayed women as less important than men, these were shared on all social media platforms of DRF. DRF also conducted a design competition on the global theme for the year and received numerous submissions.

Policy Initiatives

DRF on Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020

https://www.geo.tv/latest/275191-social-media-rules-digital-rights-group-calls-govts-call-for-consultation-token-to-deflect-criticism

The Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020, notified by the Federal Government, was the government's attempt to centralize control of all online content through one central ‘National Coordinator,’ which was granted unprecedented censorship powers. It required all social media companies to have a local presence, obligated them to remove any objectionable material and flag as ‘false’ any content communicated to them as being false by the Coordinator. These rules were made without any consultation with any stakeholders and outrightly infringed the Constitutional rights of privacy and free speech. Realizing the devastating impact these rules would have on the already precarious human rights condition with regards to user privacy and freedom of expression, Digital RIghts Foundation issued a statement condemning these rules followed by a Legal Analysis of the same which was also shared publicly. Apart from other things, it was discussed in the legal analysis how these rules violate fundamental right of privacy and free speech, exceed the scope of, as well as contravene, the legislative enactments under which they were framed.

Joint Statement by Digital Rights Foundation and BoloBhi: The Digital Gap During the COVID-19 Pandemic is Exasperating Inequalities

Joint Statement by Digital Rights Foundation and BoloBhi: The Digital Gap During the COVID-19 Pandemic is Exasperating Inequalities

DRF Contributed To ‘The Colombo Declaration’. South Asian Feminists contribution to the Beijing +25 process and other processes

Feminist organizations from South Asia got together to write out a feminist declaration that would be used to create modern states that champion causes like equality, freedom and privacy. You can read the entire declaration here:

THE COLOMBO DECLARATION (March 6th 2020)

Events and Sessions

DRF holds Gender and Privacy at Government College Sahiwal

DRF conducted an informative session on Gender and Privacy at the Government College in Sahiwal on the 3rd of March, 2020 where an audience of 100+ young men and women were in attendance. The session covered a host of topics around the theme and was well-received.

DRF at ‘Empowering Women to fight disinformation’

DRF in collaboration with Global Neighborhood For Media Innovation (GNMI) conducted a session on empowering women to fight disinformation- coming together to combat fake news on 4th March 2020 in Lahore. The session focused on how fake news manifests itself in online spaces and the importance of source verification for not only journalists but also common citizens of the country. The audience included female journalists and media practitioners.

DRF at ‘Bridging Gaps between GBV Survivors and Response Services’

Dastak Charitable Trust held an event, titled: ‘Bridging Gaps between GBV Survivors and Response Services' in which they brought together their first responders and community workers with organizations and institutes in a bid to better inform them and give them a chance to exchange information and ask questions about practical elements of the important work they do with domestic abuse victims. DRF was part of the panel and introduced the Cyber Harassment Helpline to the audience. Informational material was also distributed to the participants of the event.

Other participant organizations and institutions were the police, PCSW, a mental health care helpline, HRCP, AGHS, amongst others.

DRF at FNF’s seminar on ‘Strengthening NGOs: Strategy, Management and Fundraising’


The Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF) held a seminar on 'Strengthening NGOs: Strategy, Management and Fundraising' at the International Academy of Leadership (IAF), Gummersbach from 8th March till 20th March.

During the seminar, the participants took a deep dive into what it takes to set up the organisations. All the participants planned for different ways through which they will be able to upsurge and increase the capacity, sustainability and impact of their organisations. Participants were invited to reflect on their organisation’s purpose and vision, and explore the concepts of leadership and management. The facilitators discussed their organisational culture and NGOs in Germany i-e Mother-hood, a German initiative for the safety of women and children during the birth. A fundraising workshop with Jonathan Moakes was also held on “Managing Donor Relations and Performance Management Plans.”

Media Engagement

Battling for women rights online in midst of patriarchy

AFP wrote a piece on DRF’s executive director Nighat Dad on her work related to women rights and digital rights in Pakistan. The article uncovers Nighat’s journey as an activist and also sheds light on the formation of the Digital Rights Foundation. You can read the full article here:

https://www.dawn.com/news/1537944

‘How to Pakistan’ podcast CHAYN

Our Executive Director Nighat Dad was part of the podcast ‘How to Pakistan’ by Chayn which focuses on the #metoo movement in the country. The podcast in available in both urdu and english here:

https://twitter.com/ChaynHQ/status/1232575812228067328?s=20

COVID Updates

Helpline Virtually Available amid Coronavirus pandemic

In wake of the Pandemic COVID 19, Digital Rights Foundation decided to take all the precautionary measures necessary to prevent the spread of this infection, prioritizing both the health of its team members and its callers by shifting the operations of Cyber Harassment Helpline virtual and responding to complaints through emails and social media platforms. Contact us through our email helpdesk@digitalrightsfoundation.pk

April 17, 2020 - Comments Off on Joint statement on safety of journalists and access to information during the COVID-19 crisis

Joint statement on safety of journalists and access to information during the COVID-19 crisis

In the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the undersigned chairs and members of the Groups of Friends on the Safety/Protection of Journalists are calling on all states to protect journalists’ and media workers’ safety, safeguard a free and independent media and ensure unhindered access to information, both online and offline.

Free, independent and pluralistic media play an indispensable role in informing the public during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Everyone has the right to comprehensible, accessible, timely and reliable information concerning the nature and level of the threat COVID-19 poses to their health, allowing them to follow evidence-based guidance on how to stay safe.

Public health needs public trust. Trust is crucial to achieving adequate support for and compliance by the general public with efforts by governments to help curb the spread of the virus.

Trust cannot be achieved without transparency and accountability provided and guaranteed by a free media. Conversely, free and independent media has an important role in pushing back against disinformation by providing access to accurate, fact-based and verified information. In this context, it is essential that governments and private entities address disinformation, foremost, by providing reliable information themselves.

We see with great concern an increase in restricting measures taken by States that disproportionately limit the right to freedom of expression and impede journalists and media workers from reporting on the COVID-19 crisis. Arrests, persecution and harassment against journalists and media workers, especially women, as well as smear campaigns to discredit their work and the expulsion of foreign journalists due to their COVID-19 coverage or the criminalisation of alleged misinformation, online and offline, may constitute human rights violations. There should be no place for impunity in democratic societies.

Internet access is essential to ensuring that information reaches those affected by the virus. Governments should end any internet shutdowns, ensure the broadest possible access to internet services, and take steps to bridge digital divides, including the gender gap.

Furthermore, journalists and media workers are subjected to significant physical and psychological risk by being at the frontline reporting on the COVID-19 crisis. They are working under extremely challenging conditions, partly because of lack of sanitary precautions and training, but also because of psychological stress linked to the rapidly evolving situation. Declarations of state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic should not be used as a basis to limit freedom of expression and constrain the working environment of journalists and media workers. It is crucial for societies and the international community as a whole that governments preserve a free, safe and enabling environment for journalists and media workers and ensure that they can report on COVID-19 and inform about responses and consequences without undue interference.

We welcome a range of initiatives aimed at supporting journalists’ and media workers’ safety in the light of COVID-19 undertaken by international organisations, such as UNESCO and civil society, media associations as well as social media companies. Projects to strengthen media in developing countries in responding to the COVID-19 crisis, such as those undertaken by the UNESCO International Programme for the Development of Communication, are particularly welcome.

We also welcome the joint statement of 19 March published by David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Harlem Désir, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media; and Edison Lanza, Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights as well as the press release and statements made by Moez Chakchouk, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information, published on 27 March.

We agree with their call that governments must be making exceptional efforts to protect the work of journalists at a moment of public health emergency and we remain fully committed to protecting media freedom and safety of journalists at this critical time.

Signed by Austria, France, Greece, Lithuania and Sweden as the chairs and co-chairs, respectively, of the Groups of Friends on the Safety of Journalists in New York, Geneva, Vienna (OSCE) and Paris

Annex:

(List of co-signatories, members in any of the four Groups of Friends on the Safety of Journalists at UNESCO in Paris, the United Nations in New York and Geneva and the OSCE in Vienna, in alphabetical order)

Albania                                                                       Lebanon
Argentina                                                                   Lithuania
Australia                                                                     Luxembourg
Austria                                                                        Montenegro
Brazil                                                                           Morocco
Bulgaria                                                                      The Netherlands
Canada                                                                        Nigeria
Cape                                                                            Norway
Verde                                                                           Paraguay
Chile                                                                             Poland
Costa                                                                            Qatar
Rica                                                                               Republic of Korea
Denmark                                                                      Senegal
Estonia                                                                          Slovenia
Finland                                                                          Sweden
France                                                                           Switzerland
Germany                                                                       Tunisia
Ghana                                                                            United Kingdom
Greece                                                                           United States
Japan                                                                              Uruguay
Kenya
Kuwait
Latvia

 

March 31, 2020 - Comments Off on Joint Statement by Digital Rights Foundation and BoloBhi: The Digital Gap During the COVID-19 Pandemic is Exasperating Inequalities

Joint Statement by Digital Rights Foundation and BoloBhi: The Digital Gap During the COVID-19 Pandemic is Exasperating Inequalities

                                                                                                    

We are currently in unprecedented times. As the world moves away from public and shared spaces into isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic; technology has become a crucial link between us and the outside world. There is no doubt that technology is an enabling tool, ensuring connectivity, access to life-saving information and indispensable to fighting the Coronavirus. However, Digital Rights Foundation and Bolo Bhi posit that an uncritical embrace of technology should not ignore the fact that access to these technologies is still a luxury for many and provision of internet is very low in countries such as Pakistan.

In light of the rapid shift to digital services during a global pandemic, Digital Rights Foundation and Bolo Bhi make the following demands:

  1. We urge the government, businesses, and civil society to recognise internet access as a basic fundamental right. This was recognised by the United Nations as far back as 2011 when the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression stated that all member states have an obligation to ensure unrestricted access to the internet. It is only when we understand the issue of internet access as one of fundamental human rights can we take measures to ensure access on an equal and non-discriminatory basis.
  2. We call on internet service providers to lower the cost of internet packages; conversely, increasing rates during a pandemic is unconscionable and amounts to profiteering during a public emergency.
  3. We urge all essential service providers making the switch to digital to conduct urgent human rights audits to assess the impact on their customers and take steps to mitigate the disadvantages that accrue to their most marginalised users and beneficiaries. 
  4. We demand that educational institutions cancel all online classes till physical lessons are possible. Given the state of budget cuts in the education sector and the possibility of fee hikes, we believe that the education sector is currently not equipped to switch to digital classrooms without excluding a significant part of the student population. 
  5. We demand an immediate end to the mobile internet shutdown imposed in ex-FATA territories and parts of Balochistan. 
  6. We also demand that the Pakistan Telecommunity Authority (PTA) works with internet service providers to increase the bandwidth capacity of the nation’s internet, as the increased load on the existing infrastructure could lead to slow-downs and unreliable access at a time when the internet is tied to essential services. 
  7. We petition the state and businesses to invest in public WiFi hotspots, during these times, in high population density areas; however free WiFi should not come at the cost of users’ privacy and stringent privacy policies and protocols need to accompany these measures. 
  8. For communities that lack infrastructural access to the internet, we urge the government to provide tools and information about setting up community inter and intranet systems to ensure access on an emergency basis. 
  9. We call upon government and private internet service providers to provide personal protection equipment for employees who carry out their duties for smooth provision of the internet to citizens.
  10. We call upon the government and telecom industry to utilise the Universal Services Fund, which was established by the government to support development of telecommunication services in unserved and underserved areas using annual contribution from telecom companies, to improve access to the internet. A more targeted approach towards specific population groups through the use of disaggregated indicators — that accounts for intersectionality across factors such as age, religion, disability, economic position and gender — can positively impact the ability of various social groups to exercise their rights online and help bridge the digital divide

Unequal access to the internet is a multifaceted issue: it is infrastructural - many communities in Pakistan do not have physical access to the internet; economic - broadband internet is not affordable for large segments of the population and many can only afford limited mobile internet packages; and social - factors such as gender and being differently-abled can limit one’s access to technologies.

Internet access in Pakistan stands at around 35 percent, with 78 million broadband and 76 million mobile internet (3/4G) connections. According to the Inclusive Internet Index 2019, Pakistan fell into the last quartile of index countries, ranking 76 out of a 100; particularly low on indicators pertaining to affordability. 

As more services move from offline to digital, it is becoming clear that the digital gap is an urgent issue of human rights. Internet access is undercut by structural inequalities such as class, gender, location, ability, and ethnicity. 

Gender:

In Pakistan, the digital gender divide is among the highest in the world. According to the GSMA “Mobile Gender Gap Report 2019”, Pakistan had the widest mobile ownership gender gap as women were 37 percent less likely than men to own a mobile phone due to economic inequality and patriarchal attitudes. 

Location:

Additionally, mobile internet (often the most affordable mode of access) has been shut down in parts of Balochistan and ex-FATA due to generalised security reasons. Even for areas that do have access, internet speed varies based on one’s location. For instance, internet speed in Gilgit-Baltistan is significantly slower than internet speed in urban centers of Punjab and Sindh. Lastly, internet access is often linked to an uninterrupted and reliable electricity supply. Loadshedding in several parts of the country can go upto 16 to 18 hours a day, often during the day when virtual classes and official work takes place.

Education:

Students across Pakistan have been protesting against the shift to online classrooms, rightly pointing out that as students from less urban centers move back home, they either lack access to high-speed internet, or no internet at all. Many students might have to travel long distances to access the internet just to attend one lecture, a reality that disadvantages students belonging to non-urban areas and lower-income backgrounds. Furthermore, the move will result in double discrimination for female students in such situations who often lack access and mobility due to their gender.  The move to online classes, though neutral at a policy-level, becomes discriminatory, given the disparate impact in the context of a country like Pakistan. 

Employment:

As offices across the nation have closed due to social-distancing measures mandated by the government, workers are being asked to work from home. However, work from home has significant implications for homes that do not have broadband connections or cannot afford internet packages at a time of immense financial uncertainty. Furthermore, lower-income families either do not own digital devices or they are shared by the entire family unit; this means that families with more than one member working from home or students with online classes will be forced to make a choice.

Access to Information:

Being deprived of the internet during a public health emergency creates a hierarchy in terms of access to information. Dissemination of vital information regarding preventive measures, government announcements relating to lockdowns, and public health campaigns are now being done on social media. However without access to an affordable and fast internet connection, this places a majority of communities and segments of society into an informational blackhole. This information can be especially crucial for healthcare workers in communities that are not well-connected. Additionally, information flow in the age of the internet is often two-way, meaning the vital data and stories about the impact of the Coronavirus on cut-off communities will not find their way onto mainstream social media.

As the government uses mobile-based applications to disseminate information about the virus and distribute rations of basic necessities, the most marginalised will be left behind. While financial institutions are making their internet banking more accessible and waiving transfer charges, those who rely on cash transfer services such as easy-paisa are unable to access them due to closure of shops and social distancing practices. 

During these times, the digital divide will exasperate the existing structural inequalities in society as services and resources will concentrate among the already connected, leaving behind those who are most vulnerable to economic and social upheaval.

March 31, 2020 - Comments Off on THE COLOMBO DECLARATION (March 6th 2020)

THE COLOMBO DECLARATION (March 6th 2020)

We, South Asian feminists[1] across generations, who gathered together in Colombo, in solidarity with each other, and who remain deeply concerned about developments in our region that defy the basis on which we waged anti-colonial struggles; and with a desire to build independent, modern States that respect the freedom, equality and dignity of all our peoples, do hereby declare that:

Whereas we are cognizant of the developments in the field of gender studies and feminist research on sex and gender in the past two decades and the evolving nature of such debates, we therefore state that when we say ‘women’ we understand the term to mean all those affected by violence and discrimination on the basis of their gender, gender identity, and gender expression;

Whereas, feminism is a struggle for equality as well as a critical approach that challenges individuals, patriarchal structures and systems of power that entrench colonialism, discrimination, exploitation and violence. Feminism also recognizes the diversity among women, and that we experience life at multiple intersections including nationality, race, religion, ethnicity, disability and ability, sexual orientation, class and caste;

STRUGGLE AGAINST AUTHORITARIANISM, EXTREMISM AND MAJORITARIANISM

Whereas we are deeply disturbed by the tendency of many of our governments towards religious and ethnic intolerance and extremism, heavy-handed majoritarianism and authoritarian styles of leadership and governance, supported by the threat of thuggery and violence where dissent, pluralism and difference are not tolerated;

Whereas we are also concerned about increasing extremism among some religious and ethnic groups, with major repercussions for women, whereby women’s rights and freedoms are denied in a fundamental sense and their bodies, rituals and attire become compulsory and contested symbols of identity;

Whereas militarization and securitization have become an integral part of governance in our region, severely affecting every aspect of our lives and where old and newer forms of surveillance threaten the basic freedoms enshrined in our Constitutions and international instruments;

Whereas violence is sometimes seen as the preferred option in dealing with conflict and crime; where habitual and brutal violence at the personal, community, and sectarian level, including violence against women, online and on-ground, rarely draw censure, as this violence often results in impunity and has the tacit support of the authorities concerned;

WOMEN, THE LAW AND JUDICIAL PROCESS

Whereas women, who have a complicated relationship with the law as we call on it to protect our rights, but is, at the same time, used to contain and punish us, we are, nevertheless, concerned that the rule of law in our countries is heavily compromised by lack of access and unequal structures, and within those structures, by rampant impunity, and political interference. A climate of fear is created whereby the police, prosecutors and the courts are unable to function with full independence, resulting in a lack of judicial accountability;

Whereas women’s claims for justice at national, regional and international levels are sometimes articulated from a pure law and order perspective, without respect for human rights principles, which we believe must be the framework that always guides our actions;

WOMEN’S ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL RIGHTS

Whereas women, especially dalits and  women of indigenous communities, remain the most marginalized when it comes to economic and social power, where women’s fight for land and economic rights is a constant struggle making them targets of violence by the State, corporations, and dominant castes and communities;

Whereas the “corporatization” of the State and society has led to an unhealthy nexus between governments, the private sector and the military, resulting in public services and programmes that enhance equality being routinely sidelined, in the interests of large development and infrastructure projects that are motivated by huge profits for corporate groups, often aided by the corruption of public officials;

Whereas neoliberal policies have led to corporate capture of the State and its institutions and where such capture has harmed women in multiple ways, from the loss of public services to multiple forms of exploitation, such as of women’s labour, and of natural resources that are commonly held by people or communities;

Whereas we are concerned about the practice by our states of accumulation by dispossession of land, including the land of indigenous peoples, local farmers, and urban low-income communities, recognizing the creation of a ‘precarious’ class, often due to migration from rural to urban areas with little or no access to public services and social protection;

Whereas we are deeply disturbed by the proactive engagement of the large, powerful segments of the private sector in supporting authoritarianism in our societies, and where increasing dependence on private-public partnerships enable the State’s abdication of its responsibilities towards the provision of services and the safeguarding of rights;

Whereas the international discourses on ‘gender equality’ and ‘women’s empowerment’ are increasingly co-opted and used by our governments and corporations to strategically digress from serious issues of rights violations for which they should be held responsible;

Whereas programmes for micro finance have been relatively successful in some countries, in others they have resulted in crippling debt, increasing poverty and violence, and, in extreme situations, driving women to suicide;

CLIMATE CHANGE AND ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION

Whereas climate change and environmental degradation remain a central concern of feminists, requiring immediate action by the State, including effective legislation, policies and programmes informed by research and analysis, and State responsibility in holding itself, corporations and other non-state actors accountable for violations;

Whereas introducing environmental laws and development programmes should be undertaken through consultations with local communities and indigenous peoples to ensure that women’s lives and livelihoods are not negatively impacted;

DIGITAL AGE, INTERNET AND THE SOCIAL MEDIA

Whereas the digital age has produced new technologies of communication that have given us opportunities for connecting and mobilizing, they also allow for the collection of data that infringe on our privacy and expose us to increased surveillance and harassment by the State, corporations and non-state actors;

Whereas we are disturbed by the fact that our region has the highest rate and longest duration of internet shutdowns, used as a tool of control by the securitized State, resulting in the loss of information, and isolating and crippling whole communities;

Whereas hate-speech is rampant across the media, including social media, in South Asia, becoming a major instrument for violence and the destruction of the social fabric. Large platform-providers must be held accountable for their platforms becoming sites of hate, while ensuring that the principle of freedom of expression is protected;

Whereas internet regulation in the name of protecting women has been weaponised to target journalists, human rights defenders, women survivors of violence, and has resulted in the curtailing of freedom of expression, dissent, the right to privacy and pleasure, and the freedom of movement and assembly;

GLOBAL AND REGIONAL DEVELOPMENTS

Whereas global and regional developments have placed South Asia at the epicentre of the struggles for dominance and hegemony, and where the fight against “violent extremism” has led to international security practices that seriously violate human rights and where these practices are shared and copied by nation-states;

Whereas the porous borders that have defined South Asian history have now become sites of imprisonment due to brutal violence and/or immigration policies; where exclusionary practices sanctioned at the highest levels aim at denying people citizenship, and where statelessness that denies individuals basic rights and services provided by the modern nation-state has become an important concern;

Whereas a rules-based system of international law and relations is no longer a goal or an ambition of the more powerful states, therefore international networks of solidarity among progressive individuals and groups are essential to counterbalance the deal-making and real politiking of our governments;

FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND OF ARTISTS

Whereas freedom of expression is being severely curtailed by persecution or self-censorship, but journalists and artists in all spheres are struggling bravely against many odds to express themselves in extraordinarily creative ways, to represent and transcend the reality that we are all faced with;

SEXUAL AND REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS

Whereas some nation-states in South Asia have attempted to recognize sexual and gender diversity, and plurality, others continue to criminalize, ostracize and discriminate against those of diverse sexual orientation and gender identity, often resulting in violence, stigma and discrimination;

Whereas our sexual and reproductive rights are constantly challenged, and where bodily integrity and autonomy continue to be denied and are under attack at the global, national and community levels;

MISOGYNY AND RESURGENT PATRIARCHY

Whereas cultures of misogyny and a resurgent patriarchy, spurred on by extreme right-wing politics, entrench the inequality of women and welcome and valorize that inequality, threatening to push back the gains achieved by successive generations of women’s activism and movements;

Whereas women are affected by all these developments in a specific and distinct way and where their struggles for political representation, violence against women, equity in personal laws and equality in all spheres, must be understood in the context of national, regional and global realities challenge the basic values on which feminist movements were founded;

Whereas on the occasion of our coming together, recognizing the realities that face us, we, feminists of South Asia, gathered in Colombo on March 5 and 6, 2020, hereby pledge to:
  1. Unite across all religions, genders, ethnicities, classes, castes and all forms of identity, while recognizing our differences, to fight for the equality and freedom of all people in South Asia to live a life of dignity and respect, free from discrimination;
  2. Respect and celebrate the diversity of our peoples, recognizing that many intra-community struggles need to be waged to ensure the equality of women, but where political, legal and administrative systems must enable and strengthen a recognition and acceptance of this diversity;
  3. Create regional and international networks of women in solidarity to contest and challenge the growing tide of majoritarianism, religious extremism, authoritarianism and a climate of fear in our region;
  4. Condemn in the strongest terms wanton and brutal communal, caste and sectarian violence against women, minorities, indigenous peoples, and vulnerable communities as well as the weaponization of the “riot” as a means of control.
  5. Hold states accountable for the torture, disappearance and extrajudicial killing of individuals and prisoners, and for the impunity that is granted and sometimes attaches to all those who commit such acts.
  6. Resist the militarization and securitization of our states, and expose the disproportionate use of force (in accordance with international humanitarian law) by the military, as well as the military take-over of civilian administration and economic enterprises;
  7. Support local and regional struggles to strengthen legal and judicial processes by protecting and amending Constitutions as necessary, pushing for progressive legislation and ensuring that the judiciary and independent commissions are given full protection. We also urge that all the countries of South Asia have functional independent commissions on women as a step towards securing women’s rights;
  8. Work with women lawyers, human rights defenders and their networks to fight impunity, to ensure that rule of law processes truly result in justice, to highlight the need for judicial accountability, to especially support victims of injustice and discrimination and to supplement such legal action with political and social campaigns. Protecting human rights defenders, insisting on gender-just laws and, where necessary, gender-neutral laws must also be an essential part of this work;
  9. Recognize the importance of waging feminist struggles not purely from a law and order perspective but from a human rights framework and to recognize intersectionality, including intersections of nationality, race, religion, ethnicity, disability and ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, class and caste;
  10. Strengthen communities affected by global and national policies resulting in gross inequalities by insisting on a more egalitarian economic and social order, the provision of basic services, and by challenging systems and practices of discrimination and exploitation;
  11. Recognize the damage that has already been done to the natural environment and to work with national and global climate justice activists, indigenous peoples and all affected communities to adopt laws, policies, programmes and systems of accountability to ensure the survival of the planet and the promise owed to succeeding generations;
  12. Encourage women activists and technology communities to use their digital platforms for progressive causes, and to support their work on digital rights, fight for the protection of our data and against hate-speech and hate communities;
  13. Prioritize community concerns and support women – with their informed consent – to be a part of decision-making that affects their lives;
  14. Reclaim the “international community” as global networks fighting for the rights of individuals and peoples, leading to the transformation of existing international institutions and practices to make them more inclusive and participatory;
  15. Work towards recreating value for a rules-based international system, with the expectation that feminist movements everywhere will take a lead in making this happen;
  16. Ensure that the fight against “violent extremism” does not result in draconian measures, arbitrary security-force activities, and mass incarceration. Platforms on counter-terrorism and bilateral and multilateral support for military establishments must be founded on the principles of human rights.
  17. Ensure that the concerns of the women of the Global South, our call for justice, the need for forward-looking plans for economic independence and recovery, as well as women’s participation in the decision-making processes in prevention, protection, peacemaking and peace-building, are represented in international relations and global security agendas;
  18. Enable and support women artists and writers in their creative work to reclaim memory, represent women’s histories, and transcend boundaries, and ensure that education in structural spaces such as schools, museums and galleries, be expanded to include informal extra curricular activities in the form of plays, storytelling, video-making, and varied art activities;
  19. Celebrate the many past and continuing achievements of women’s movements, and invest in the multi-generational harnessing of collective power on platforms where activists across levels of experience can connect, organize and transform, building upon existing knowledge and momentum;
  20. Reiterate and struggle at all levels for the foundational values of feminist movements, movements which have for over two centuries challenged systems of hierarchy and fought for freedom, equality, respect for all, and the dignity of persons.
[1] This declaration is a result of a brainstorming and an inter-generational dialogue among participants from Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, who had indicated a prior interest in drafting a common Declaration.  We wish to also acknowledge past conferences and movements of the 1980s and the 1990s that brought together South Asian women from all countries to fight for equality and justice.