As a young woman in India, I am tired of seeing “women’s issues” be defined only as issues of sexual assault, sex trafficking, dowry and female infanticide. While I care about these issues and think it’s very important that they be addressed, for me “women’s issues” go far beyond that. I care about genetically modified crops, I care about climate change, I care about democracy, I care about poverty, I care about unemployment, I care about freedom of speech and access to health care. I care about dozens of issues that affect me, and affect women disproportionately to men. But more importantly I want to be a part of the solution for these issues that simultaneously bring about a more equitable future for women.
Funnily enough -- it turns out I’m not alone!
Let me tell you what I’m doing about it in partnership with other like minded women.
In 2010 I was frustrated with the complete shambles the climate change issue was in after the Copenhagen Climate negotiations (I was a climate campaigner back then). I was frustrated that such a small number of vested interests could get away with stealing the climate agenda. I was frustrated that India chose to take no action when I had personally met hundreds and thousands of people, from the villages to the cities in India, who had hoped the government would and were prepared to invest their own time and money to bring about solutions to the issue. I was frustrated at how common it was for agendas of a small number of elite individuals and organisations to disproportionately impact decisions that would affect tens of millions. It was during this period of frustration and contemplation that I came across a particular TedxTalk by Brett Solomon.
In this TedxTalk Brett talked about the power of digital technology to bring together millions of people to influence power holders, and he did so using the example of the Green Revolution in Iran. Up till that date I had been a skeptic about the power of digital technology in it’s ability to bring about social change in developing countries. But that day something changed for ever. I entertained the possibility of a future that leveraged digital tools for citizen activism in India.
I spent two years connecting with other citizens, activists, journalists, academics, you name it -- anyone who was ready to share their experiences. I tested out digital tools for advocacy at different organisations, experimented with different messages and learnt all I could about the possibilities available. How did I manage all this? Through networking using the power of the web. One person would introduce me to another, to another, to another. And as a result I met hundreds of people, worked at 3 different organisations, and ended up with a proposal for a new organisation -- and this was just the beginning of this new web of change.
My social networks over the internet connected me to two amazing young women who heard about this idea and together we launched Jhatkaa.org. The word “Jhatkaa” literally means to ‘jolt’ or ‘shake-up’, and as three women in their 20s starting a rapid response, grassroots advocacy group, that’s exactly what we were doing (we’re not your average demographic for a digital-political startup).
Our first challenge was to raise money. Who would fund a group of 20 somethings to start a digital advocacy group? A concept that most donors hadn’t heard of or seen in action? We knew that instead of trying to convince a small number of donors on a concept that didn’t exist, we would have to get our friends and family to fund our launch to prove our idea could work. So that’s what we did. We set up a crowd-funding campaign on startsomegood.com and raised $30,000 through over 200 donations. Not only did we get funds, but we started to build a network of supporters who had access to other donors, activists, experts, mentors and resources that would prove critical in the months to come.
Now it was time for the real work. To mobilise thousands of Indians to win campaigns.
We set up a website and found tools we could use for free to run our campaigns. On the web we experimented with petition tools such Change.org, Care2.com, and an open-source campaigns platform called Purpose. We used social tools such as Facebook, Twitter, Thunderclap and Storify to be able to reach out and engage citizens to participate in campaigns and create change. On mobiles we experimented with getting people to leave “missed calls” as a sign of support, sending out voice messages to get people to volunteer, and SMSes to encourage people to share campaigns with their friends. We started using all available digital technology to reach out to and find like minded citizens who wanted to help change our country.
We tested over a dozen campaigns and made progress on eight of them. Here is a quick overview of some of our most popular campaigns: 1. Convincing the Indian Planning Commission to increase the National Poverty Line. 2. Getting a judge suspended from sexual assault cases after he repeatedly made sexist comments in his judgments that blamed the victim. 3. Asking the public to speak out during high profile sexual assault cases to demonstrate that rape is unacceptable. 4. Petitioning the Bengaluru Bruhat Mahanagar Palike (Bangalore Municipality) to fix thousands of potholes for which they have have already assigned millions of dollars in public funds. 5. Demanding that the National government take action in response to the Supreme Court’s verdict that criminalized homosexuality. 6. Pushing for the Karnataka Police to launch an investigation into a horrific case of police brutality against tourists in the town of Gokarna. 7. Successfully getting all political candidates in Varanasi during the General Elections to commit to cleaning the Ganga River if elected. 8. Compelling the Bangalore Police to conduct an undercover investigation in response to an auto rickshaw driver physically harassing a young woman.
Written as a story it all sounds simple and straight-forward. But it has been extremely difficult and we’re still figuring it all out. We’re testing out what technologies work best, what messaging works, and under what circumstances decision makers and the media listens to us. We’ve made many mistakes but learnt a lot.
We have learnt that the internet and mobile phones are mediums that enable people to connect with other like minded citizens and take action on issues they care about -- or at least thats what our data is telling us so far.
We have learnt that when thousands of people take action -- even if it’s online -- decision makers become a lot more open to talking about the issue and prioritising action on it. Especially when that issue also receives media attention.
We have learnt that the traditional media seems to increasingly be taking its cues on what to report from what is trending on social media. It’s all about the packaging.
We are now a community of 20,000 members who participate in these campaigns regularly and over 50,000 people have taken action at some point in time in the last year. We are just at the beginning of our journey and anticipate that one day our movement will be millions strong, but we know that if we are going to achieve our vision we must continue to innovate in the digital space so that we can engage those impacted by the issues that we seek to solve.
I am motivated to continue to innovate using the web so that I can continue to motivate others like myself to come together and create solutions for the issues they care about. With the internet at our fingertips we can create, communicate and celebrate solutions to our challenges today and build a future that is equally led by women as it is by men.
Take action! This post was submitted in response to WWW: Women Weave the Web .