Embedding digital security in feminist movement building


A picture made available on 09 March 2012 shows an Afghan women surfing internet at the first womens internet cafe after its opening in Kabul, Afghanistan, 08 March 2012. 

For women’s rights and feminist activists, activism, advocacy, and movement building are affected by the digital landscape, bringing new opportunities and challenges. From CCTV surveillance of women garment workers in Indian factories to intimate photos distributed online without women’s consent, the internet—so bound up in our everyday lives—can be a place of fear and risk. Feminist responses to the risks and threats are multiple, and at the core of this work are intersectional approaches of building skills, confidence, and networks of solidarity to effectively engage with and transform digital technologies through a politics and practice of care and safety. Strengthening the resilience of movements requires feminists to place digital security firmly at the center of our engagement with the internet.


Digital security as a feminist response

The harassment of women online has gained increasing attention recently, especially with greater attention to the #MeToo movement, originally started in 2006 to support survivors of sexual violence. A holistic discourse around feminist self-defense and self and collective care does not distinguish between online/off-line activism, because women, transgender, and gender non-conforming individuals experience high levels of violence both in real life and in digital spaces. For example, a recent study by Amnesty International explores how women often endure similar human rights abuses on social media platforms like Twitter to what they experience offline. In addition, an analysis of incidents of technology-related violence against women reported on the “Take Back the Tech!” Ushahidi platform revealed the very real harm of online violence against women. Alok Vaid-Menon, an Indian-American gender non-conforming performance artist, writer, educator, and entertainer, notes: “Online violence can feel particularly painful because the internet is where I have gone for so long to find safety/community/recognition—my creative space. When that space is under threat it's a reminder of how fraught the question of safety is more generally.”

This pandemic of online gender-based violence must be factored into any response to digital security. Being conscious of power relations is critical, particularly around technology, an area in which women—in particular, black women, LGBTQI persons, and indigenous women—have been historically excluded and their contributions made invisible. Respecting and listening to the experiences of people with diverse identities and locations is an opportunity for learning and understanding different experiences. Creating safe spaces of exchange—where physical, political and personal safety needs are considered—and fostering local capacity and relational networks of support build a collective knowledge and ownership. This approach counters a common organizational strategy of bringing in trainers from outside of local contexts for short interventions, which does not ensure sustainability or build trusted networks for activists.

In training spaces organized by feminist activists nationally and globally, such as the Feminist Internet Exchange hub at the AWID Forum in 2016 and a training event with Mama Cash in 2017, core values of participatory, creative, and inclusive methodologies are combined with appropriate and sustainable technologies that emphasize women’s control of technology and reclaim women’s hidden contribution to technology.


Digital security: more than training and capacity building

Despite the clear need to integrate digital safety and security into our activist agendas, digital security is often frightening, technically confusing, and unmanageable. Strategizing from a place of pleasure and fun, rather than of risk and threat, is a response which feminists are increasingly seeing as far more effective. One example is the Costa Rica Women’s hackathon where students and professionals from information technology and related disciplines, using a gender lens, met to solve problems in local communities, such as information needed by teenage mothers or opportunities for women-led enterprises. Another example is the methodology of digital storytelling where participants learn to use and take control of technology to tell their own stories. The methodology is as powerful for the storyteller as the end product is for the audience. In addition, security responses are often tools-based, which although important, are not sufficient to completely mitigate risks.

But how do we as feminist activists respond effectively in ways that ensure ownership and agency and enable digital security to become an integrated and everyday practice? What is the new thinking and practice? Although some level of training will always be part of feminist activism, training is just one component of capacity building, and capacity building is one response in a growing number of counter-strategies to digital security.

In a 2017 global convening, Making a Feminist Internet: Movement Building in a Digital Age, participants discussed the terrain of digital security and named many strategies outside of the traditional workshop training response. Some of the suggested strategies were: 1) re-frame training of activists within an arc of capacity building which embraces skills sharing and collaboration, hands-on experience and adaptive, inclusive methodologies; and 2) grow networks of local trainers and facilitators (connected to regional and global partners), which mitigates isolation. One of the biggest concerns was local capacity to enable communities to eventually support themselves (particularly around urgent/rapid response support) in relevant languages with resources that are contextualized and customized.

The convening also identified a need for ongoing research and evidence building through creative approaches such as storytelling and art. Research should be interactive, experimental, transparent, include feminist visualization, and create and share our collective experience in visual, audio and kinetic ways. Adequate monitoring and evaluation can build collective knowledge, enabling activists to analyze risks and build collective and sustainable resilience.

In addition, participants highlighted the need to shift existing mind sets about technology as difficult or scary to pleasant and manageable. Raising awareness around the political value of technology is critical to shifting the dominance of gendered, corporate, state and Northern ownership in internet governance structures.

Raising awareness around the political value of technology is critical to shifting the dominance of gendered, corporate, state and Northern ownership in internet governance structures".

Another key element to changing the technology landscape is to raise awareness with donor partners to invest in their own digital safety strategies and resource grantee-partners, who often don’t have the finances to invest the time and build skills and secure platforms within their organizations. As one participant said: “We are too busy to address this and everything else in our work…and when urgent actions arise, digital security is the first thing that drops off.”

Finally, digital security responses mean investigating and changing how we approach working in movements. A small group discussion named this succinctly: “[T]echnology frequently puts us in a situation where we’re left with a particular dilemma. To adapt a particular practice or tool and enhance our security, we would be leaving some people behind.... as feminists, leaving under-represented voices behind and to move forward is to silence them and we cannot do that.”

As feminist activists, we want an internet that is a space for fun and pleasure, that can sustain us, where we can conduct our activism, advocacy, collective actions, networking and intimate exchanges with agency and without the grinding fear of surveillance and violence. The arc of capacity building needs to embrace multiple strategies, tactics and creative responses, with training as but one tool in the box.