Keep gender at center of global digital governance, NGO CSW68 event urges
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Collage with CSW68 logo, page from Beijing Platform reading "J. Women and Media", two women standing at a podium, purple social media card with picture of a man and statement about online abuse, banner with "Improve responsive reporting on women and girls in digital spaces"

Keep gender at center of global digital governance, NGO CSW68 event urges

The event “Digital Communication Rights: Empowering women for the digital age” on 12 March at the NGO CSW Forum 68 offered civil society advocates, academics, and media professionals tools to advance a gender-just digital world.

The Forum is a civil society gathering held annually in parallel to the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), which promotes women’s rights and global gender equality.

Co-organized by WACC, the Global Alliance on Media and Gender (GAMAG), and the UNESCO Unitwin Network on Gender, Media, and ICTs, the event featured best practices from WACC partners, the launch of resources on communication and gender justice, and planning for advocacy for gender-just digital governance.

In a time when the world increasingly conducts life online, it is critical to ensure that women’s human rights — including their communication rights — are protected online as well as offline, WACC gender and communication expert Sarah Macharia said in her introductory remarks. This means keeping gender at the center of global policy debates.

To open the session, Antonia Eser-Ruperti, associate program officer with UNESCO’s Section for Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists, highlighted two international frameworks that aim to safeguard women’s digital communication rights: the Guidelines for the governance of digital platforms and Recommendations on the Ethics of AI.

She noted that both contain provisions relevant to the safety of women on current platforms and in the development of digital spaces in the future.

Civil society building an inclusive, non-sexist digital sphere

Two WACC partners presented inspiring projects they are implementing to turn the tide on gendered cyberviolence and to create a more inclusive, misogyny-free digital space.

Safewords

Uks Research Center, a gender media watch in Pakistan, has launched the initiative Safewords to combate online sexist abuse in Pakistani languages.

“Many [Pakistani] women are not online because they are scared,” said Uks communication specialist Shahrezad Samiuddin. The impact on the few women who are working in the public space — such as journalists — is particularly acute.

Fear of online violence drove nearly a third of Pakistani women journalists to decline an assignment, while six out of 10 “have refrained from sharing their work online.”

Many [Pakistani] women are not online because they are scared.

Shahrezad Samiuddin, Uks communication specialist

With Safewords, the WACC partner and national coordinator for WACC’s Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) wants to “instill a cultural shift for a respectful digital space.”

The project is using a public awareness campaign to allow people on social media to talk about gender cyberviolence. Advocacy to governments and media organizations targets policy shifts.

Uks is working to create a comprehensive compendium of abusive terms found online with the aim of developing a content-aware filter in Urdu and Punjabi for use on X (formerly Twitter) and Meta platforms.

Such civil society collaboration with Big Tech is not always easy, Samiuddin admitted, but sheer economics can provide a persuasive argument.

“A lot of women are being driven off or are not coming onto social media. [This project] is talking about two languages spoken by almost a billion people, and half are women.”

Gender-responsible digital news on X

Fellow WACC partner and GMMP national coordinator the Uganda Media Women’s Association (UMWA) is running its own innovative project to address misogynistic speech online.

Brenda Namata, UMWA communications and advocacy officer, said the need to promote responsible coverage of women and girls in digital news has grown as media outlets increasingly shift to digital platforms.

“In 2021, during the general elections, 50% of women political candidates experienced trolling on social media platforms, especially X.”

In response, UMWA is using media monitoring to gather data about sexist news coverage on X. These findings serve as the basis for training for Ugandan media professionals and organizations in responsible, gender-sensitive digital journalism, and to challenge the normalization of sexism online.

Such training has increased awareness among the journalists about misogyny and women’s digital rights, awareness which is shifting how they craft a story.

The human-centered approach [to monitoring social platforms] is the future.

Brenda Namata, UMWA communications and advocacy officer

While digital platforms such as X already have tools in place to check for hate speech, Namata said that a manual methodology like the GMMP’s is vital to identify micro-aggressions and ensure context-appropriate vetting tools.

“The human-centered approach is the future.”

New research on women’s communication rights

The Digital Communication Rights event also featured new feminist communication scholarship.

Such contributions to the knowledge agenda help to keep a focus on women’s rights at policy-making tables, said Aimée Vega-Montiel, gender and media researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, chair of GAMAG and co-chair of the Unitwin Network on Gender, Media and ICTs.

Cover of The Handbook of Gender, Communication, and Women's RightsMontiel introduced The Handbook of Gender, Communication and Women’s Human Rights, a publication she co-edited with WACC Laureate Margaret Gallagher that brings together 24 essays by 30 scholars and civil society activists.

That the Handbook opens by exploring the gender dimension of digital governance highlights the relevance of governance, stressed chapter author Claudia Padovani, associate professor at the University of Padova (Italy); co-chair of the UniTwin Network on Gender, Media and ICTs; and GMMP Italy coordinator.

Global policy-making processes such as the UN Summit of the Future and the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) are “spaces where feminist advocates should be,” she said, because such processes lack a full appreciation of a feminist understanding of gender. “We need to bring this knowledge into these spaces.”

Maria Edström, co-author of the Handbook’s chapter on the implications of gender equality in media for freedom of expression, highlighted the need for a “common goods” approach in light of a “decline of gender equality as a core value” alongside a marked deterioration in freedom of expression in many countries.

“Now no one talks about the Beijing Platform [for Action],” said Edström, GMMP Sweden coordinator. She urged civil society, academia, and the media to work together to develop a “new language” around women’s communication rights and to hold States accountable to their commitments.

María Soledad Vargas, co-author of the Handbook’s chapter on gender mainstreaming in journalism and communication education, pointed to the model curriculum developed by the Unitwin Network on Gender, Media and ICTs that aligns with the global commitments to empower women through media found in Section J of the Beijing Platform.

“We must create a new generation of journalism and media professionals sensitive to gender issues both in workplace and in content they produce,” Vargas stressed.

The forthcoming report Gender Equality in Media Development aims to find “effective entry points for the development of independent, gender-equal media systems,” said Agneta Söderberg-Jacobson, gender expert and senior advisor at the Fojo Media Institute.

The report, prepared by Fojo with the Center for International Media Assistance, looks at media management and ownership, media regulation, and media market dynamics.

It found that women journalists and gender-aware media organizations cannot be expected to shoulder all responsibility for advancing gender equality, said co-author Malak Monir, CIMA associate editor.

Broad, long-term coalitions are needed that involve civil society, trade unions, donors, and international bodies to “foster transformative change” through a global strategic vision for inclusive media, she said.

Advocating for women’s digital communication rights

During the final part of the event, Jenny Sulfath of the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), a WACC partner in India, highlighted the Summit of the Future in September 2024 and WSIS+20 among the opportunities for advocates for women’s communication rights to contribute to global debates around digital governance.

The Summit of the Future will move forward with a Global Digital Compact articulating principles for development of the world’s digital future, while the WSIS +20 Forum High-Level Event in May offers a chance to bring social justice to attention of digital governance discussions, she noted.

Sulfath urged participants to continue broadening the debate. “Bring digital justice into the feminist agenda. Push for policy development on digitalisation in forums where you are active, in every sector.”

There has been a dismantling of women’s rights mechanisms. It is our responsibility to take the Beijing Platform to the core of debates.

Aimée Vega-Montiel, GAMAG chair

There is a clear need to come together, to organize collective advocacy efforts, Montiel said in conclusion.

“There has been a dismantling of women’s rights mechanisms and that explains why [commitments like] the Beijing Platform [are] not in debates anymore. It is our responsibility to take it to the core of debates.”

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