Innovative Internet-based Projects Give Indian Women Platform to Fight Violence

by Paromita Pain
-India-

Gropes, stealthy fingers that pinch and leave bruises, catcalls, severe beatings, systematic starvation, emotional torture and worse – harassment against women takes many forms, and like issues of hunger and poverty, it is global in scope.

The recent report, "Violence against Women Prevalence Data: Surveys by Country March 2011,” compiled by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women (UN Women), says that most women will face harassment from either close partners or strangers at least once in their lifetime.

From the glitziest areas of New York to the meanest Asian street, this abuse can scar for life. For years, women have fought against this menace on their own in countries, localities, and communities. But now, thanks to the globalizing power of the Internet, women are mobilizing the world over to say a resounding ‘No!’ to this issue that goes beyond the bounds of country and region. What’s more, they are encouraging men to be a part of the solution.

Hollaback! and The Pixel Project address two different aspects of violence against women. Started in the U.S. and Malaysia respectively, these two projects now have offices and volunteers in India and are steadily expanding into other countries.

In India it is called ‘eve teasing,’ and in the U.S. it goes by the name of ‘street harassment.’ Nomenclature apart, few are safe from this humiliation. Started in 2004, Hollaback! was simply meant to be a blog documenting street harassment in New York. Today it is also an iPhone and Droid application that helps women post stories and photos of their attackers.

In February of this year, Hollaback! inaugurated its New Delhi and Mumbai chapters and hopes to spread to more Indian cities soon. This is a chance for the modern Indian urban woman to deal with the menace in a holistic and effective way.

“All of our sites are started because local activists are inspired to end this kind of harassment. Our Delhi and Mumbai teams are working hard to keep the movement contextual to the local community,” says Emily May, Executive Director of Hollaback!, in an interview by phone.

Mumbai is considered to be one of India’s safest cities. “Even then,” says Aisha Zakira, Director of Hollaback!MUMBAI, “the stories we have received and the women we have spoken to make it clear that street harassment is an extremely pressing problem in Mumbai.”

Khus, a recent contributor to Hollaback!MUMBAI, posts, “I was walking with my dad and waiting to cross the street and a guy casually walks past us and knocks his elbow on my breasts. I did feel it was intentional but brushed it off just in case it was an accident but I was feeling really ashamed already when he did it so nonchalantly that I didn’t know what to do and I don’t think my dad noticed because it was so quick, but in like 10 seconds later he walks by and does it AGAIN!”

Located 721 miles north of Mumbai, the city of New Delhi has the dubious distinction of being known as the “rape capital” of India. The Delhi Police have revealed that one woman is raped every 18 hours and one woman is molested every 14 hours in the capital. “I am a doctor,” says Amrita, 24, a psychologist at GuruTech Bahadur Medical College New Delhi. “Sometimes while walking across the road to grab a snack, casual passersby make crude remarks. I wish they would leave me alone, but if that can’t be, I just wish they would respect my doctor’s uniform.”

“Sharing experiences on the website and engaging in discussion will not only foster a sense of solidarity, but also work to raise important questions about what preempts such abuses,” says Anandi Bandyopadhyay, a college student and Program Director of Delhi Hollaback!. “We are planning to work with the Delhi Police and NGOs to increase safety on the streets and social sensitivity to gendered power politics that blight our daily lives.”

Already, both chapters have tasted success. “We have come a long way – the press is giving us attention, women are speaking out, we have partnered with many of Mumbai’s leading women’s organizations, and we have been invited to speak at a number of colleges and organizations,” asserts Zakira.

Director Regina Yau of The Pixel Project believes that men are an integral part of the solution to the issue of violence. “Everything we do – from our Twitter Tag Team program to our annual ‘Paint It Purple’ promotion – is designed to take the cause to end violence against women and fulfill our mission of getting men and women working together to end this most entrenched of human rights violations,” Yau tells me in an email exchange.

From New York to New Delhi, she and her volunteers hold outreach programs and encourage more people to speak up against violence against women and contribute to causes that help eliminate the problem. “I hatched the idea in early January 2009 in the shower (Archimedes was really on to something!), resulting in me rushing out to develop the idea while I was still dripping wet,” she writes.

Launching at the height of the global recession required innovation. “I thought, what if we took Alex Tew’s (creator of The Million Dollar Homepage) original stunt of selling 1 million pixels of online advertising space for $1 per pixel, and gave it an original non-profit twist? We could take a world-exclusive picture of a number of major male celebrities, and turn that into a 1 million-pixel mystery picture that people all over the world can unveil by buying pixels of it for $1 each – a giant virtual jigsaw puzzle that people the world over can collectively do together,” explains Yau.

The Pixel Project aims to eventually make this an annual campaign with funds raised going towards two or three selected anti-Violence Against Women charities each campaign.

The Pixel Project is completely Internet-based. “We don’t even have nor need a physical office because our team members can work on our campaigns wherever they are in the world – have Internet, will volunteer!” she writes.

Yau’s motivation is a history of domestic violence in her mother’s family. “I am a Malaysian-born Chinese who comes from a family where the women went from bound feet to Rhodes scholar within four generations…Working in this field has always been my calling. In fact, I have always been devoted to feminism and women’s issues in one way or another since I was 12.”

The Pixel Project volunteers today span four continents, 12 time zones and 15 cities worldwide. For Lalita Raman in Chennai, India, The Pixel Project has been an eye opener in more ways than one. “I have seen women who say that the day they decided to speak up and act to stop the violence that they are undergoing, their lives changed. What we do is to create and raise awareness and help women realize that silence does not help.”

For men, the project’s ideology is a strong incentive to join. As Abhijith Jayanth, an Indian volunteer, says, “Women issues are perceived to be a women-only domain…But we need both men and women to work towards a responsible change… The Pixel Project holds that promise.”

These Internet-based organizations are playing a vital role in encouraging more women to come forward and have a say in the eradication of violence. But in countries like India, with vast rural populations and areas where electricity is still a rarity but violence is predominant, issues of access and language might yet limit their influence. What might save the situation and bring even women without access to computers or Internet into the fold is the ubiquitous mobile phone. India’s burgeoning telephone industry might just be the extra push that will turn the tide in the area of gendered violence.

The first call has already been placed and its ring will soon reverberate.

About the Author:
Paromita Pain
has been a senior reporter and writer for The Hindu and has worked with several other media projects, focusing on health, development and social journalism. A graduate student in the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California, Paromita is specializing in health, human rights and prison systems.

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