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April 17, 2023 - Comments Off on Feminist Approaches to Digital Safety: Perspectives from the Global South

Feminist Approaches to Digital Safety: Perspectives from the Global South

By Shmyla Khan
April 2023

How does one advocate for digital safety in a world where women and gender minorities are constantly made to bear the burden of the violence enacted against them?

The rhetoric of safety and security is often used in South Asia to police femme bodies, restrict their freedoms, and place the burden of ensuring safety on the victims. Any woman from South Asia will attest to these paternalistic solutions offered under the grab of offering security.

So, how does one practice and advocate for digital safety from a feminist praxis? At Digital Rights Foundation, we have learned that the answer is simple–by committing yourself to a learning, participatory and intersectional practice.

As an organization marking its ten years of work in Pakistan on Tech-Facilitated Gender-Based Violence (TFGBV) and digital safety through flagship programmes such as the Cyber Harassment Helpline and Hamara Internet, our starting point has always been the lived experience of those most impacted by digital insecurity. By placing marginalized communities at the centre, we can create practices that are accessible and take into account the ground realities of who they want to serve.

This point was made brilliantly by Deobarti Das during our online Regional Event titled “Inclusive and Intersectional Digital Safety in South Asia”, conducted in February 2023. Deobarti shared that working with marginalised and diverse communities means that there is no “one-size-fits-all solution in response to online gender-based violence or digital security and safety for the range of issues that marginalised communities have to navigate. Therefore, it is important to talk to communities and understand their specific needs, really work in a participatory manner, and start where they are at–a bottom-up approach.”

The regional event mentioned above was organized by Digital Rights Foundation in partnership with Meedan’s Global Check program, moderated by the organization’s Senior Research Associate, Noor Waheed, with panellists Debarati Das (co-lead, Grassroots Capacity Building at Point of View), Kat Lo (Content Moderation Lead at Meedan), Namya Gunawardena (Project Lead at Hashtag Generation) and Seerat Khan (Programs and Comms Lead at Digital Rights Foundation). The event served as a convening of practitioners from South Asia and beyond to share their experiences of working with communities on the ground in developing capacities regarding digital safety.

Digital security tools and practices are often designed in, and designed for, the Global North, reflecting the same biases as the platforms and technologies they intend to provide security against. Practitioners in the Global South have been quick to point out the need to indigenize these practices and tools. Namya shared the importance of using “local languages and simplifying the technical jargon.” She posits that, for instance, “when we say ‘end-to-end’ encryption, we understand it because we are working in this space, but what does it really mean and how do we explain that to someone who does not understand the technical jargon?” Seerat adds that working on digital security means making the content more accessible to the communities you work with, and that is done “not just through [more] languages, but also through a hands-on approach… and follow up with them to get feedback regarding whether the tools are user-friendly.”

Kat points out that while the content of digital security interventions is important, it can often depend on who is working with communities: “One of the most important things is trust, a lot of these [digital security] resources need to be from organizations that the communities can trust, and these are often not governments or LEAs, especially when there is a concern is there a backdoor or do we feel safe using them.”

Digital Rights Foundation shares this vision of digital security design coming from community-based organizations, and this was the approach taken when designing workshops for the Global Check project. Given our history of being part of and working with various communities, our focus in these workshops was on making digital safety–often the exclusive domain of “experts”–accessible to the participants by ensuring that the medium of instruction was Urdu and Hindi rather than English. Furthermore, tools introduced in the workshops were specifically chosen on the basis of their usability and relevance to the experiences of the participants. Feedback from the workshop participants was used to further hone digital security materials, ensuring that the learning process is not one-way, but rather grounded in genuine co-learning practices.

Lastly, by way of further democratizing discourse on digital safety, a Twitter Space on “Making digital safety more accessible in Pakistan” was held on February 22, 2023. The Space featured Digital Rights Foundation’s Digital Security Trainer, Noman Fareed, who addressed key barriers to integrating digital safety into one’s daily life and simple ways in which digital safety can be practised.

These interventions are part of a larger effort by the organisation to create collective resilience through intersectional and community-driven digital safety practices that can start to create a culture of safety in digital spaces. The ultimate aim is to build the capacity of communities so that they can lead these conversations both locally and globally.

Published by: Digital Rights Foundation in Blog

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