How Access Now is working to bridge the gender “digital divide”

Last week marked the one-year anniversary of the death of Berta Cáceres, who was shot dead in her home after countless years as a fearless, tireless human rights activist in Honduras. Awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015, Cáceres was regarded as one of the world’s leading indigenous environmental activists. Her death is not an isolated incident. It highlights the very real dangers that female human rights defenders face when they fight for their causes, whether online or off.

This month is important for women working to make the world more just, equitable, and safe for everyone. Today is International Women’s Day 2017, and the theme this year is women in the changing world of work. Access to information and communications technology is a key pathway for achieving gender equality, because it enables women to enter and succeed in today’s working world. Yet, worldwide, women are less likely than men to have access to digital technologies, a divide that exacerbates inequality and also prevents women from exercising their human rights. Worse, when women get online and identify themselves and their gender — willingly or not — they often face hostility. Research has found that women get twice as many death threats and threats of sexual violence online as men do, yet only a tiny fraction of women report these incidents. At the same time, women make up only 30% of the tech workforce, and representation gets smaller and smaller in higher positions. To put it plainly, if we want women to participate online, and to be safe while exercising their fundamental human rights, there is a bridge to be built.

Below, we review our current work in this arena at the United Nations and in our ongoing initiatives within Access Now and the global digital rights community.

Minding the gap at the United Nations

At Access Now, we care deeply about inclusion and equal participation for marginalized and vulnerable communities in our increasingly digital lives. Last week, we submitted comments to the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights  (OHCHR), which is preparing a report on ways to bridge the gender digital divide from a human rights perspective.

This issue is mission-critical for us because we work to empower at-risk groups online — including women and human rights defenders — with a four-part approach: we provide direct technical assistance through our Digital Security Helpline; offer policy guidance for lawmakers; engage in advocacy for digital rights; and fund organizations working for change globally.

As we do this work, we also strive to integrate in our own practices as a growing organization multiple strategies for inclusion, and to share what we learn as we go. We document what we discover to inform our work in this space, and to help other organizations in their efforts to do the same. So we shared information about our inclusion initiatives in our submission. Also submitting to the OHCHR were 11 other civil society organizations, numerous countries, and several other industry and institutional stakeholders. You can find all the comments here.

Our submission: how to bridge the gender divide online

Here’s an overview of the information we shared about what Access Now is doing to help bridge the gender divide online.

Promoting inclusive, digitally secure communities

  1. Develop, implement, and share inclusion practices. We’re building an inclusive culture within our own organization and in our sector through our internal Diversity Working Group. The group conducts surveys and reflects on our inner workings, advancing suggestions for transforming practices and assisting our team with diversity-related issues. In 2016, the group developed the Access Now Anti-Harassment Policy to help us build a community without intimidation, discrimination, or hostility for everyone — regardless of gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, nationality, origin, race, ethnicity, religion, age, disability, or physical appearance.
  2. Provide direct digital security support. As we note above, we have a Digital Security Helpline, a free-of-charge resource for civil society around the world. Through the helpline we offer real-time, direct technical assistance and advice to civil society groups and activists, media organizations, journalists and bloggers, and human rights defenders. Attacks on these groups are often gender-based.
  3. Educate women on threats and security best practices. We employ common threat models, including gender-based attacks, to help individuals better navigate the online space. To this end we create resources such as our booklet, A First Look at Digital Security, which aims to provide simple-to-follow steps at-risk users can take to improve their security and safety online.
  4. Fund groups that empower women and provide safe spaces. Sustainable funding and resources are an important part of empowering communities and grassroots movements. Through the Access Now Grants program, we support community voices advocating for inclusion, giving groups a way to make their messages louder and more global.

Building norms protecting identity and bridging divides

  1. Engage in global processes for change. We joined a broad coalition of civil society groups advocating for openness and human rights protections in the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) process. We support the Outcome Document, which recognized that “only 41% of women have internet access” and drew “attention to the gender digital divide, which persists in access to and use of ICTs, and also in ICT education, employment, and other economic and social development factors.”
  2. Develop policy guidance that support inclusion. Our draft Human Rights Principles for Connectivity and Development are grounded in international human rights law and norms; they maintain that “connectivity should be rights-respecting, equitable, inclusive, promote gender equality, and strive to bridge race, class, language, culture, and similar divides. Vulnerable groups should be meaningfully consulted and their human rights robustly protected before and after coming online.”
  3. Support advocacy to protect identity online. We work to protect women and other marginalized communities from identity policy requirements that can adversely impact their human rights. The inability to use a pseudonym puts some people in danger, making them targets of persecution and harassment, including on Facebook, one of the world’s most popular websites. Access Now joined a coalition of organizations  —  including women’s rights groups, privacy organizations, human rights organizations, groups fighting for indigenous rights, and groups advocating for religious, ethnic, and sexual rights — who “found Facebook’s name policies to be culturally biased and technically flawed” and fought for changes.

Defending the defenders

One of our grantees is Japleen Pasricha, founder of Feminism in India. Through her research, she discovered that many women are impacted by online harassment, but never report on the assailants or incidents. So what do we do about that? Pasricha finds, “To support victims and stop abuse, we need to educate women, communities, and law enforcement agencies, helping them to understand the importance of prosecuting, not ignoring, individuals who use social media as a tool to perpetuate violence against women and minorities.” Access Now supports her organization’s campaign, #DigitalHifazat, which aims to raise awareness about this problem and help develop solutions that empower people.

What’s next: RightsCon and beyond

The internet can be a vehicle for either oppression or empowerment of marginalized groups. At RightsCon on March 29-31 in Brussels, Access Now will bring together more than 1,200 experts from 80 countries to develop strategies for keeping the internet open, free, and secure, so that it supports the expression of our fundamental rights. We hope you join us.

At RightsCon, and in our work at the United Nations and elsewhere, we will continue working with our partners in the public and private sectors to ensure inclusive and rights-respecting approaches to bridging the gender digital divide. We are committed to helping the OHCHR and other stakeholders achieve this critically important goal.

Image source: Free Press