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Posts Tagged ‘India’

Sometimes a work trip accidentally has a theme, and my recent trip to Cape Town was one of those. I arrived on Thursday, December 5th to the news that Mandela had passed away. My cab driver was on the phone, telling someone that Friday would be a holiday. He glanced back at me and asked “Do you know who Nelson Mandela is? He’s passed.” I turned on the television when I got to my hotel and watched for a few hours, but it was already after midnight and so there was not a lot of new content.

Screen Shot 2013-12-13 at 7.56.17 AMThe following day I went with a small group to an ecumenical ceremony in the square, but it didn’t feel yet like the news had really hit. I had no idea how to interpret the crowd, the messages, the speakers, the politics. As the news traveled and people began writing about Mandela and his life, I dipped in here and there. The typical conversations happened. Was Mandela and his life going to be sanitized by the mainstream media for political purposes? It was good to see people attempting to show the full man, with all his complexities. It was striking to remember that such a short time ago apartheid was alive and well, and to really think about that, I mean really really think about it, and to be reminded yet again of the fact that social change is not easy, clean, or straightforward. It’s most certainly not a technical problem waiting to be solved with a new device or invention, though clearly international and national political pressure play a huge role.

Mandela and his life became an underlying base for the conference, as I’m sure was true for much of what was happening around the world. Whether he was directly mentioned or not, his life’s work was present. I participated in sessions on ICTs and open development, ICTs and children, ICTs and raising critical consciousness. In all of them, the issues of equity and power came up. How can development processes be more open and is there a role for ICTs there? What world do we want to see in the future? How do we get there? How do we include children and youth so that they are not marginalized? How can we take a critical approach to ourselves and our agendas in development and in ICT4D? Can ICTs play a role in helping people to change existing power structures, achieve more equity and equality, and transform our societies? All these sessions were planned before anyone knew of Mandela’s passing, but talking about issues in light of the recent news and the renewed presence of him and his life made them feel more real.

Fast forward to the flights home. My first flight was the long one, from Cape Town to Amsterdam. My seat mates were two inexperienced flyers in their late 30s or so. They didn’t know where to put their bags or that they could not get up to go to the bathroom while the seatbelt sign was on and the flight was taking off. They were tattooed and looked a little rough around the edges. One of them carried a small, stuffed cheetah and wore hot pink pumps. I fell fast asleep the minute we took off and woke up an hour before we landed. The woman with the pink pumps started a conversation. Almost immediately she told me that she and her friend were returning from 2 months in rehab. They were both struggling with addictions to alcohol and sex, she told me. She was originally from Croatia and had lived in Amsterdam for years. She had recently relapsed and that’s why she went into treatment. She was returning to a safe house now, and it was her daughter’s 10th birthday. She was feeling positive about her life, yet sad that she would spend her daughter’s birthday in a safe house. She had recently revealed her addiction to her boss and received a negative and disempowering response. She was trying to be strong and accept that she was a recovering addict, learning to not feel ashamed, and working on being proud of the fact that she was moving forward. I was struck by her vulnerability and sweetness and left wondering how she would fare in a world where addiction and mental illness are so buried and stigmatized.

I got on my last flight and checked my Facebook while waiting to take off. My friend Subir had posted that two Supreme Court judges had overruled the Delhi high court’s decision and upheld the constitutionality of Section 377 –  essentially ruling that homosexuality is a crime and throwing India back into the dark ages.

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My seatmate on this flight started up a conversation and I mentioned the India decision. I also told him about some of the different work that I do and the various hats I wear, including my involvement as a board member with ICAAD, the International Center for Advocates Against Discrimination. ICAAD’s work is fascinating because they look at discrimination that is embedded into law, and the link between structural and legal discrimination and racial, gender, religious and social discrimination, violence, and hate crimes including those against religious minorities, immigrants, women, the LGBT community, and people of color.

As we talked, I learned that my seat mate’s mother had been a Holocaust survivor and that he was traveling to the US to attend an event in his mother’s honor. Her father survived a concentration camp, and she had been hidden and sheltered by different families for many years until the two were finally reunited and moved to the US.  She spent years dealing with the psychological impacts of the experience, but now works to help children and youth understand and deal with bigotry and hate, to identify it around them even when it’s not directly aimed at them, and to find ways to stop it. She highlights that it can manifest itself in seemingly small ways, like bullying at school.

This accidental theme of discrimination, violence and hate, whether based on race, poverty, addiction, religious beliefs or sexual orientation was so alive for me this week. I met and learned more about brave individuals and the work of organizations who stand up in the face of injustice to take action at both the personal and the institutional level, raising critical consciousness to push for the changes that the world needs.

Despite our ‘advanced’ societies, our awareness of history, our facts, our data, our evidence, our literary genius, our ICTs, our innovations, we have very far to go, as I was reminded multiple times. But strong and caring individuals, organized communities, and political will can make a dent in structural discrimination and contribute to a more human society. More of us, self included, need to re-focus and work harder toward this end.

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In this guest post, Keshet Bachan, gender equality activist and blogger at The XX Factor, questions whether mobile phone applications addressing street violence are an effective way to prevent violence against women. What do you think? 

Can mobile ‘apps’ really prevent or discourage instances of violence against women? This question has been on my mind since a colleague shared this video from Voice of America about a mobile app called ‘Fight Back’, marketed as ‘India’s first mobile app for women’s safety’.

The video sparked an email discussion that raised some interesting questions that deserve a closer examination.

The VOA story provides a holistic view of violence against women and the developers of the mobile phone application admit that they are but one element in a broader system that needs to respond to instances of violence. They discuss the involvement of police and other duty bearers, such as municipal bodies, which need to address reports women make and do more to reduce their risks. I applaud this approach and the way in which the developers acknowledge the limitations of their application, which I find refreshing.

At the same time I feel this application distracts attention away from more prevalent (and deadly) issues. According to the World Health Organization 10-69% of women stated that they had been physically assaulted by an intimate partner at some point in their lives. The WHO also reports that 40-70% of female murder victims were killed by an intimate partner. A recent survey in the UK showed that one in three girls aged 13 – 17 reported sexual abuse from a partner and one in four had experienced some form of physical partner violence. The UK police receive a call for help regarding relationship abuse every minute.

The degree to which this mobile phone application promotes the notion of ‘stranger danger’ distracts attention from the urgent and more prevalent issue of family and intimate partner violence. Moreover, the fact that the application has a GPS tracker to trace a woman’s route home could inadvertently contribute to both increasing women’s fear of violence in public spaces as well as playing into the hands of those who seek to control women’s mobility by pleading the need to ‘protect’ them by knowing their whereabouts at all times.

In this context a colleague commented that a GPS enabled function could allow ‘even a moderately tech-savvy user to trace the woman in question’ – which could serve to increase traditional control over women who dare to step outside the confines of convention (and the home) even further.

There’s a disparity between the actual risk of being molested or assaulted in the street, and the level to which women fear it. One thing this mobile app could help with is mapping the actual instances of violence. This could in fact serve to reduce women’s fear, proving that violence outside the home is not as common or as severe as people might believe. At the same time the app could also shed light on the places where women are more prone to abuse (dark alleys or well lit train stations?) and call for concrete actions like streetlights to improve safety.

The application (as always) leaves it up to women to try protect themselves and does little to tackle the root causes of violence. For instance, research from India (where this application was developed) found that almost all police officers interviewed agreed that ‘a husband is allowed to rape his wife’, while 68% of judges felt that ‘provocative attire was an invitation to rape’ (Khan and Battacharya, 2010). The application would do well to connect its users to a platform for social mobilization and consciousness raising work that could create a critical mass of people who will work together to challenge traditional attitudes around gender.

Some of the other questions raised by this application, and others of its ilk, concern the development of such applications and the development of technology itself.

Does the sex of the person developing the application have an impact on the relevance of the application for persons of the opposite sex (i.e. can men develop useful applications for women)? Is technology itself biased in favor of one gender over the other (i.e. is technology inherently male)? As these questions assume rigid gender binaries the answer must inevitably be ‘no’. At the same time, research has shown that women use technology differently and that they are not well represented amongst technology developers.

Technology can be useful to both sexes and really it is a question of how one applies it that counts. In the same vein, it shouldn’t matter who’s behind developing the application but whether or not the application is answering a real need. (Let us recall that simply being a woman, doesn’t mean you’re more in touch with other women — the CEO of playboy is Hugh Hefner’s daughter).

I’m not convinced that women need a mobile phone application to protect them from strangers on a dark street. If I were asked ‘what do you think would make the streets of Delhi safer for women’, an app is not the first thing that would spring to my mind.

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