When the Arab Spring erupted in 2011, social media was the catalyst that unified demonstrators and accelerated the movement. Since then netizens around the world began seeing social media as an alternative means to inspire grassroots movements and help find solutions to issues from poverty to unemployment to violence against women.
As experts and activists gathered in Kathmandu this week to discuss the progress made in understanding and reducing violence against women, the conversation kept returning to the role of social media. How can platforms like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and blogs be utilised to educate and engage men and women about domestic violence and rape? Is it possible to translate online activism to a change in values offline?
Away from the purview of traditional mainstream media, social media has helped democratise Nepal’s public sphere and provided an outlet to large groups of otherwise unheard voices. However, in a country where the entire discourse on gender is driven by a middle class, Kathmandu-centred understanding and issues of representation have been deeply problematic, social media might actually widen the gap between women who are suffering and those who chose to speak on their behalf.
Currently a quarter of Nepal’s population has access to the internet. There are 1.45 million facebook users and a couple thousand active on twitter (most of them men). In this confined space, who gets to decide what constitutes violence, who gets to decide which ‘forms’ of violence are more ‘pressing’ and need greater attention? Like Urmila Chaudhary, a former kamalari, asked at the conference where were netivists when kamalaris were baton charged by the police in the middle of the capital for demanding justice?
As we reported in this paper last week, a group of ordinary women in Bageswor, Accham district successfully mobilised their community to put an end to Chhaupadi – a humiliating and harmful practice of sending women to live in cow-sheds during periods or childbirth. Women like them help change attitudes at the grassroots level, but in the realm of social media their efforts are reduced to simplistic VAW and GBV hashtags.
One way of stamping out gender violence is to have longer, persistent dialogues that seek to change the patriarchal value systems of an entire generation. But a medium where what is news right now is relegated to the annals of the internet an hour later and where users are known for their notoriously short attention span, might not be the best place to carry out meaningful discussions.
For four months, the Occupy Baluwatar movement managed to stir up urban Nepalis’ conscience and every morning a small yet loyal base of supporters kept showing up outside the PM’s residence demanding for justice for Sita, the young woman who was robbed and raped by immigration officials on return from Saudi Arabia, and others like Chori Maya Maharjan. After Khil Raj Regmi promised to fast-track the cases and provide justice to victims and their families, the protests were suspended in mid-April.
Today the core group of campaigners is still actively involved with Sita and Chori Maya’s court cases and updates the Twitter page regularly, but the larger debate seems to have fizzled out. While the movement was successful in convincing like-minded Nepalis to come together through Twitter and Facebook, it also exposed the inherent weakness of social media: make people “stick around for the longer conversation”.
When a woman is raped or beaten, forced to abort, or made to sleep in cow-sheds, she needs supportive family, friends, and community members, strong laws, and a sensitive and efficient justice system.
Creating this system should be the focus of both the state and organisations working to promote gender equity. Social media, though an important messenger, comes second.
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