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Tearing down the digital gender divide

As more of human life becomes wrapped up in the internet, the inequalities witnessed in the physical world are starting to rear their heads in the digital sphere. Organisations are now working to eradicate the digital gender divide, which is affecting women and marginalised genders.

Feminism in India and Internet Sans Frontières are two of the groups working towards online equality in specific countries. The internet is a globally accessible space, and the advances they make in those countries could have an impact on the entire digital world, and even the physical world.

Changing the Wikipedia conversation

Encyclopedias and Encarta ‘95 are nothing but distant memories for many people with internet access. Now, Wikipedia is often the first port of call for a quick source of information. However, research shows that the online encyclopedia may have a problem with gender-balanced representation.

The problem of gender imbalance is nothing new. Throughout the history of encyclopedias, men have wielded the pen, and women have been left on the sidelines. The great encyclopedia of the Enlightenment was created solely by men, and the Encyclopedia Britannica was crafted by a male publisher, a male scholar, and a male illustrator. The original entry for woman suffered from a content quality issue, and only received a three word description: “Female of man.”

According to a Wikimedia Foundation survey, only around 10% of Wikipedia editors across the world are female, which one group says is leading to gender bias. Wikipedia even has a page on this very issue.

The digital feminist portal and organisation, Feminism in India, said that the picture is even worse in India, with female editors making up only 3% of the total - the lowest percentage of any country reported in the most recent editor survey.

Founder Japleen Pasricha said that this has an impact on the topics being written about, with subjects such as men in sports having more Wikipedia entries than women in sports. Topics related to women and marginalised genders are not only being written about less frequently, but the quality of the content is also being jeopardised. The group says that topics relating to men are covered in far greater detail than their female counterparts.

To redress the balance, the organisation hosts regular Wiki-editathons, where female would-be content creators are invited to spend a day writing new entries for the site. The cohort is offered a list of subjects to choose from, based on a broad topic. Last month, as Pride was celebrated across the world, Indian Queer Pride marches were picked out as the topic of choice.

Japleen said: “This is part of our organisation’s larger agenda, which is to have a better representation of Indian women, Indian feminism and the Indian feminist movement on the web, to have more content about all of these topics.”

Wikipedia edit-athon

Most of the participants are complete beginners, and the workshops offer them the chance to develop editing and research skills, so that they can continue creating Wikipedia entries long after the session ends.

When it comes to gender-bias, Wikipedia is just the start: “The larger question here is definitely of representation, because women are not represented. There is not just a gender gap on Wikipedia, but there is a digital gender gap.”

Men are welcome at the sessions too, but only as a plus one to a female editor.

Wikipedia has also made moves to tackle the problem, and has launched the Gender Gap Task Force. Alongside the problems facing female editors, the group is tackling issues such as the type of language used when writing articles about women, to avoid sexist stereotypes. With such a low number of female editors, most articles about women are written by men.

The Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit which supports Wikipedia, said they have taken some important steps to address content gaps and the editor pool. Last year, the foundation gave nearly $300,000 US in grant funding for community-led projects specifically aimed at improving gender diversity.

They said: “In order to reflect knowledge that captures the diversity of experiences of our world, including those of gender identity, we need to hear from a diversity of voices on the Wikimedia projects.”

From this funding, projects like the Art+Feminism campaign and Wikiproject Women in Red have made advances in tipping the scales when it comes to content. However, the foundation acknowledges that there is still a lot more work to be done.

Mitigating harassment is also a focal point for the group, and they have recently developed a team to tackle the issue. For the Wikimedia Foundation, addressing harassment is now a priority.

The Feminism in India director said that this gender-based harassment is one reason that fewer women are becoming Wikipedia editors: “There have been a lot of issues where pages have been vandalised and deleted. There’s a lot of aggression and sexism on the talk pages, and this also reflects in the lifespan of a Wikipedia editor. How long will you put up with this kind of behaviour?”

Tackling online violence

Alongside work to level the playing field on Wikipedia, Feminism in India has published a cyberbullying report, analysing social media violence against women and minorities in India.

The report uncovers the serious nature of online abuse in India, with more than half of survey respondents saying they have experienced the problem. Of those people, 36% took no further action.

This is a problem repeating itself right across the world. In Australia, a survey in 2016 found that half of all people asked had been victims of online abuse. For women under 30, the results rocket, with 76% saying they had experienced some form of online abuse or harassment, ranging from unwanted contact to death threats.

Last year, the Indian minister for women and child development, Maneka Gandhi, took a stand against online abuse towards women. She said that online abuse should be dealt with in the same way that violence is dealt with in the physical world. Putting her words into action, the minister announced the introduction of the Cybercrime Prevention against Women and Children portal, where complaints about online harassment can be made.

Online attacks against a number of high profile Indian women are outlined in the Feminism in India report. Journalist Sagarika Ghose received rape threats online, and abusers even published details of her daughter’s name and school. When this happened, the journalist was scared to let her daughter use public transport, and the real-life impact of online harassment suddenly became very apparent. Like many women in the survey, she has now decided to stop sharing her opinions online. There are more examples of threats like these, with woman after woman receiving threats of rape, acid attacks, and violence.

Japleen Pasricha, who is the lead researcher behind the report, said online harassment, abuse, and trolling are as common as violence against women in the physical world, and that the internet is a reflection of the offline reality.

She argues that the internet is as much of a public space as the street, and that it is important for women to take ownership of both those places: “If you are online and out there, that makes other women feel safe in being there. It’s the same logic as being out on the street in the evening or at night. If I see more women out I’ll be more confident being in that space.”

For this organisation, the fight against online violence is about changing mentalities in all countries, not just India: “There’s only one way to change this kind of thing. People have to view women as humans.”

According to the report, 28% of people who experienced online abuse intentionally reduced their online presence. Feminism in India is keen to encourage people who experience harassment to stay online, but they also want those people to feel free to make their own choices about how they react.

Japleen said: “We have to stop making women these goddesses who have to be brave all the time.”

The group is asking social media platforms to create better ways for people to escalate reports of harassment, and to have complaints evaluated by local staff who can understand the language and cultural context.

They also ask for law enforcement to understand the laws around online harassment better, and foster an environment where individuals feel confident reporting crimes.

Groups all around the world are setting out to tackle the global issue of online harassment towards women, from politicians to publishers.

In the UK, The Guardian’s The Web We Want campaign discusses the issue of online abuse, uncovering topics like article comments. After running a report into comments on their website, the media organisation discovered that female journalists were receiving abusive comments more frequently than their male colleagues. When it comes to developing solutions to combat this abuse, they are asking for community engagement.

A group of female MPs has also launched a campaign against online abuse. Inspired by the way Reclaim the Night marches create a safe space on the streets, the Reclaim the Internet campaign challenges online abuse, striving to make the internet a safe space for everyone.

Twitter itself has recently added a new functionality, which allows users to have more control over the comments they see. People will now be able to mute any users who do not follow them, or who have a brand new account. While this could be a step towards protecting people from seeing unwanted comments, the online abuse will still exist, and will likely still go uncontested.

Connecting Cameroon

While getting online has become a basic expectation for many people, affordable internet access is still a luxury in many parts of the world. It is this inequality that one digital rights organisation is trying to redress.

Internet Sans Frontières (literally, internet without borders), is working to eradicate the obstacles to online freedom, finding ways to safeguard a free, open, and accessible internet.

Julie Owono, the group’s executive director, said that it is still very expensive to get online in the global south, particularly in Africa. The problem is even worse for women: “It’s basically a continuation of the inequalities we observe in the real world. Since women in the real world are more likely to be vulnerable to poverty, they won’t have the means to buy internet access in countries where it’s still a luxury.”

Cameroon is one site of this digital gender divide, but a previous lack of information around the issue has left it low on the priority list for policy makers. The group is now working with the Women’s Rights Online initiative to face the problem head on and empower women through the web.

The group has identified two major barriers preventing women in the country from connecting: digital literacy and affordability. While they hope to improve digital literacy by producing training, solving affordability issues lies in the hands of internet operators.

The Internet Sans Frontières director said: “One way we’re tackling this is by producing data of the digital divide, because it’s always easier to find solutions when you know the extent of the problem.”

That data has recently been published as a scorecard, which gives Cameroon an overall score of 20 per cent in relation to women’s rights online. When it comes to online safety, relevant content, digital skills and education, the scores are even lower.

As in other parts of the world, the report shows that online harassment is prevalent. One in five of the Cameroonian women surveyed reported experiencing online harassment. To put an end to online gender-based violence, the group said the government needs to ensure proper legal tools exists, and that balanced policies are created to penalise gender-based violence.

They also recommend that digital education is prioritised in all schools and communities, as well as improvements being made to access and affordability.

The digital world could hold new opportunities for these women, many of whom are heavily involved in informal businesses. Taking those businesses online could offer labour rights, and in turn change the face of the economy in Cameroon.

Now that the data is available, Internet Sans Frontières will push the government in Cameroon to take action.

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