5 Indian Changemakers Tell Us Their Stories Of Being A Woman On Digital Spaces

It is high time women have complete access to resources and safe spaces online and offline to be themselves and grow as human beings. 5 changemakers tell their stories.

This year’s UN Women’s day theme explored women’s role in digital spaces and how to use innovation and technology for gender equality.

Our lives have now become more technology dependent than ever. The internet is an amazing tool that women can use to empower themselves, educate themselves and amplify marginal voices.

The digital divide by gender

But sadly not many Indian women have internet access let alone own a phone.

According to the National Family Health Survey of India, 54% of women have a mobile phone that they themselves use. And 71% can read text messages.

Only 26% of Indian women own smartphones and 30% use mobile internet. Lack of education, economic and social reasons keep women from using the internet and smartphones especially in the rural areas.

This keeps women from upskilling and unlocking their full potential that comes with using digital resources. Although digital accessibility in India is slowly improving, the digital divide for Indian women is still pretty large.

Our women miss great opportunities to pursue their careers, educate themselves, express themselves and form a safe supportive community online because they are unable to access the internet and do not feel secure doing so.

Women and the digital landscape – a panel on Twitter Space by Change.org India

Change.Org India recently arranged a lively discussion on Twitter Space among women changemakers who have made their mark in the digital space. It was a safe space for women to discuss how to utilise technology and online platforms to bring about change, advocacy, and the challenges faced by women in the online space, such as dealing with trolling and harassment.

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The speakers included –

Citizens for Public Leadership co-founder Ananya Chhaochharia, MPP masters in Public Policy candidate from Harvard Kennedy School. Founder of Paint it Red, an organisation working on menstrual rights. 

Shreya Joshi, from One Future Collective, a social worker and facilitator on sexuality, safeguarding, protection and prevention and redressal of sexual violence and mental health.

Paromita Bardoloi a much loved author here at Women’s Web, Founder of Let’s Huddle India and Letter from a Stranger India, and sitting State President of Assam Mentoring and Soft Skills Council at Women’s Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Mayuri Bhattacharjee, a 2020 sustainable development goals champion from World Economic Forum, and an advocate for period friendly flood shelters in Assam, and a podcaster for change at Dignity in Disaster.

Pranaadhika Sinha Devburman, a dynamic changemaker and founder of 1 Million Against Abuse Foundation. She was just 10 when she started to raise awareness against child sexual abuse.

What are the challenges faced by women in the digital space?

In today’s ultra tech era, trolling and online harassment are at their peak. So how does one go about creating positive change safely?

According to Paromita, creating small safe spaces on the internet is the way to go for women as a lot of the internet can be unsafe territory driven by hate. To deal with this, women themselves have to create safe spaces online. “I have two such spaces” she says of her endeavours Let’s Huddle India and Letter from a Stranger India. “Small safe spaces with clear rules” Empathy with leadership where people can relax is the need of the hour to tame the hateful nature of the internet beast.”

Pranaadhika on the other hand uses comedy to deal with social media hate and started a Facebook called Shontu, United Against Online Harassment to deal with the issue of trolling in a light yet impactful manner. “It helps users deal with all those creepy messages by having a laugh at it.” She uses humour to build momentum on discussing online harassment and to build more allies.  

Women changemakers in the digital space require to have thick skin to do their job. It becomes important for a woman to pick her battles in the digital space and maintain her privacy and that of her family. Therapy and a sense of community are the need of the hour to survive in this brutal age of trolling and harassment.

“When you talk about trolling or any kind of cyber abuse you need to look at it from an intersectional approach.” says Shreya. Women and queer folk in the digital space are the most vulnerable and face intense abuse. There are many women steeped in patriarchal systems that don’t even know that their voices have value. In a landscape of rampant false news, misinformation, digital ideological echo chambers where does one even begin to create gender justice?

But there are many positives too

Ananya, speaking about her journey of online activism believes there are many positive changes happening, especially among the youth. She has seen a lot of positives in her work with Paint it Red, which was a passion project to bridge period inequality through sustainable menstrual products.

She has seen young passionate volunteers from across the country wanting to create positive change. She and her team created change based fellowships, to tap into their nurtured potential of young people to be action oriented in their own local communities.

Pranaadhika too with her work with online trolls has seen positive change. “Many trolls do not realise the impact of their actions.” By having direct conversations with them and also taking serious legal action against them (mostly young men using fake accounts) a lot of these trolls were then willing to change.

A lot of them began working against online trolling after being held accountable and understanding the consequences of their actions. “Using humour allowed me to facilitate conversations that previously had never taken place before.” says Pranaadhika.

It was in the interiors during the Assam floods where Mayuri discovered to her shock the ordeal female flood victims had to go through during their periods. That is when she got the idea to do something to help these women.

“Why don’t I use my privilege to do something for a cause I really believe in?” Mayuri thought at the time. That small idea led to the birth of a campaign asking the Government of Assam to include menstrual hygiene materials like pads in their flood relief kits that are distributed in the camps. She used Twitter, Change.org, and other online platforms to spread her message. Gifted a box of pads to the then Assam health minister, and published it on online platforms like Facebook, Twitter, online media platforms to bring spotlight to her cause.

Is change on the horizon?

According to Paromita, change will not happen unless we stop looking at women through a patriarchal lens and see them independent from men’s stories.

“Women are still looked at from the lens of the male gaze,” she says. “’She is trying to be a man, itna kyo bolti hai?‘ We don’t look at women as a person, as a human, we look at her through the male gaze. But the moment that we start looking at a woman as her own story, the moment that we start listening to a woman as her own story, that is when the changes will happen.”

“We were all brought up in the male gaze. We have to talk about it in our digital and offline spaces. The moment that gaze is over, for the first time in history a woman can breathe!”

It is high time women have complete access to resources and safe spaces online and offline to be themselves and grow as human beings. To live with dignity, freedom from fear are some of the basic tenets of human rights. We need to start seeing women as individuals with unique stories and until that happens in society these incredible women will continue to fight the good fight!

To listen to the full discussion go to Twitter Spaces.

Images source: LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube

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