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Safe City: Online Crowdsourcing Empowers Women in India

Safe City: Online Crowdsourcing Empowers Women in India

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“Today I’m trying to understand how someone’s freedom to be trans or lesbian or asexual is impinging on someone else’s freedom. Any thoughts?” Tweeted Shambhavi, an asexual feminist writer who has just taken over the Twitter account of Genderlog India.

Started in January 2013 by journalist and novelist Nilanjana Roy, Genderlog has fueled the conversation on gender disparity in India by bringing in a diverse range of voices as guest curators. Each curator brings up a unique gender related issue every week, and along with the followers of the account, attempts to scrutinize it wholeheartedly.

The infamous gang rape of the late 23 year old physiotherapy student on 16th December 2012 in Delhi was a key turning point in the use of technology, specifically online crowdsourcing, as a way to empower women in India. Genderlog, for example, was born as a result.

Another movement that leverages on online crowdsourcing is Blank Noise. Started in 2004 by Jasmeen Patheja, Blank Noise is a unique crowdsourced movement that combines art and technology to inspire women to raise their voice against sexual harassment, or “eve-teasing” as it is often trivially referred to. It is credited with changing the women empowerment movement from a monologue to a dialogue.

Talking about the importance of the movement being crowdsourced, Patheja says, “There is no other way to build a movement, but for it to be ‘crowdsourced’, or built by plural voices and identities. It cannot be top down. It just won’t be a movement then. The role of leadership, in this case, lies in being a listener and a facilitator, rather than being a message disseminator.”

What started as an effort led by a handful of volunteers is now a robust army of ‘Action Heroes’, thanks to the omnipresence of social media. Over the years, the movement has taken seemingly simple acts of just being and turned them into perceptive and powerful campaigns that span through various forms and mediums like protests, installations, street theatre and workshops.

I Never Ask For It, for example, ridicules the common assumption that women get sexually harassed because of the way they dress. Meet to Sleep is a campaign that gets women to just sit, laze around or take a nap in a park in their city. And in their current campaign, #AkeliAwaaraAzaad, about 100 volunteers will simply walk in the cities they live in on a particular date. Most of the campaigns crowdsource participants online, and are then executed offline.

From conversations on harassment to a list of trustworthy (read: non-judgmental) gynaecologists, tech crowdsourcing continues to manifest itself in various forms. Having access to a gynaecologist you can trust might be a given in many countries, but is a rare occurrence in India. Enter a much needed initiative – ‘Gynaecologists we Trust’. Started by Amba Azaad in Delhi, the Google Doc based project asked women to fill an in-depth online survey to come up with a list of gynaecologists that they trust.

When the project initially popped up, it was like a bizarre revelation. So many women in India have faced problems with their gynaecologists – one tale more horrific than the other – but somehow, it was always a coffee-time discussion before Amba and a few others rolled up their sleeves and put tech crowdsourcing to work.

Interestingly, Amba mentions in the same document that the project was triggered by a piece she read on The Ladies Finger, a firecracker of a webzine that publishes powerful stories about women that the mainstream media usually ignores.

Last year, The Ladies Finger partnered with Amnesty International India for its campaign ‘Ready to Report’ in which the webzine helped crowdsource a number of stories about the process of reporting sexual violence in India (where victim shaming is very common). The campaign’s objective was to eventually inspire more victims to report the crimes.

Similarly, Safe City, another crowdsourced initiative, marks the places deemed most unsafe on a digital map, based on anonymous reporting by victims. The idea is not just to “pin the creeps” as the project tagline says, but also to analyze the data to find solutions.

When I last checked, the website had over 9500 reported stories from not only India, but also places like Nepal and Kenya. The initiative, which was inspired by the Egyptian project HarassMap, also provides various resources for the victims of sexual harassment and holds offline events.

online crowdsourcing has given many Indian women a sense of ownership, power and community spirit

And then there is the globally acclaimed Khabar Lehariya which is India’s only local newspaper run entirely by women in rural parts of India. The paper has recently gone digital which includes video reporting and updates on the newspaper’s social media channels from the journalists’ smartphones.

One of the biggest challenges to online crowdsourcing is the fact that there are still many communities in India which have no access to the internet (despite India’s smartphone revolution). As Blank Noise’s Patheja rightly points out, there’s a need “to engage with various kinds of media/ communities for this movement to evolve.” So it would thus seem that the online crowdsourcing movement has some distance to go.

That being said, in a country like India, where the mere act of a woman walking on the road or taking a nap in the park by herself can be a form of protest, online crowdsourcing has given many Indian women a sense of ownership, power and community spirit, and the recent efforts have turned a somewhat comatose movement into a livewire.

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