Meerim Ilyas to help Access Now Grants target support for digital rights activists at the front lines

With the spread of COVID-19 and a global wave of protests and brutal crackdowns in response, it’s crucial to strengthen the resilience of the global human rights community. We want to do that in a way that builds toward a more just and equitable technology and human rights ecosystem, using an intersectional approach that is tailored to the communities and groups that are most likely to be the targets of attacks on digital rights. So we are especially excited to welcome Meerim Ilyas to the Access Now Grants program’s Advisory Board, and to share with you her reflections on the human rights challenges all of us are facing, and how funding organizations like Access Now should respond.

Meerim is the Deputy Head of Protection at Front Line Defenders and previously led work at the Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights focusing on security for women human rights defenders. Her engagement in social justice and human rights work is vast and intersectional. She is a passionate advocate for women’s and Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) rights and has often focused her efforts on the relationship between gender and natural resources, indigenous rights, and disability rights. At the core of her activism is a longstanding commitment to the holistic security of human rights defenders who are most at risk. She was born and raised in Kyrgyzstan and is active in the women and transgender rights communities in Central Asia and the former Soviet Union.

Meerim joins six other members of the Advisory Board, which provides strategic guidance on our grants portfolio and makes recommendations for new grant applicants. Each of these board members has expertise in the regions and fields in which we provide grants, helping us meet our commitment to accountability, local relevance to communities most at risk, and community engagement in our program. We are deeply grateful to Abir Ghattas, Arzu Geybullyeva, Gayathry Venkiteswaran, Grace Mutung’u, Harlo Holmes, and Loreto Bravo for donating their time and energy to guide us.

Without further ado, here’s our Q and A with Meerim. 

What brings you to Access Now? 

My first exposure to Access Now goes back to 2014, while working at the Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights. We were invited to present at RightsCon on the impact of online violence on women and LGBTQI human rights defenders. At the time, these topics were just beginning to surface in mainstream technology policy spaces. Our goal was to bring a feminist perspective to the understanding of how social media was being used for activism, and the threats activists face. I’ve been involved with RightsCon since then, watching it grow and expand its commitment to diverse voices, panels, and topics. I think RightsCon and Access Now continue to offer a very important space where often difficult conversations can be had, thus informing people about the support digital activists need.   

What does “human rights in the digital age” mean to you? Does it resonate with your work and the communities you are supporting?

Perhaps a decade or so ago, there was still a divide between the more traditional human rights field and those working in digital spaces. There were discussions about the role of Twitter in the Arab Spring, for example, or whether bloggers who wrote about corruption online were the same as people protesting in the streets, or how established women’s rights groups could connect with the young feminists who engaged with the world by going online. Today we are in an entirely different moment. The discourse has shifted and the terrain is extremely challenging. Many of us work toward universal clarity and recognition of human rights in a context in which corporations own our information, governments shut down the internet, and women, girls, queers, and voices of dissent are continuously shut out of online spaces. In my work with human rights defenders, I help them with risk-mitigation plans through training, grants, and advocacy. I see how urgent it is to defend human rights in digital spaces — and how necessary that we continue to collaborate, share, and push for changes together.

What is most underfunded? Where do we need to go as funders, as international organizations?

I am personally very committed to addressing the ongoing digital divide that exists in many communities. Historically, the digital divide was understood as a lack of access to equipment, software, and the internet, but I think this has shifted too now. To me, the digital divide is also political. What kind of agency or ownership do activists and human rights defenders have when they engage in digital spaces? That agency impacts how you handle security problems and basic digital safety hygiene. Using technology can be empowering but it can also be a violent experience, especially for certain groups. I would like to see more support for youth activists in rural areas, for developing information in non-colonial languages, and for training more digital security champions. We also need to get more creative and inclusive about what security training and capacity-building activities look like, and offer a range of options. There are regions and countries where people continue to miss out on engaging in international policy spaces and getting access to resources, due to language barriers and the real and perceived obstacles to connecting with key influential players. 

What is your secret “ninja” skill? What do you hope to bring to Access Now Grants?

As someone who worked in various fields related to human rights — climate justice, indigenous and land rights, and LGBTQI rights, with one toe (or foot) always dipping into digital policy and digital security —  I can offer a broader perspective and help connect the dots. I have also worked with a wide range of organizations and networks globally, so I can help bring in groups that may have been overlooked for grants because they are not “tech savvy” or do not speak the language needed to show they fit the criteria. Given my experience with emergency grants, I also have a good understanding of the pressures and dilemmas a grants team might be facing, and can help anticipate and mitigate them.