In 2007, Rohini, a Mumbai- India resident was an engineering student, discovered the ‘edit’ button on a page of a Wikipedia article. And thus began her love affair with the world of Wikipedia. Gradually, she discovered a passionate and an active community of volunteers that edited Wikipedia on a regular basis. However, she soon found out that she was the only women in these meet-ups. Rohini’s experience is not an isolated one. According to a study conducted by Wikipedia in 2011, only 9% of the editors at Wikipedia were women. India fares even worse. Only 3% of the editors in India are women. Why are there such few women editing Wikipedia? Why is it an issue that should concern all of us? We will try and explore the issue.

Internet as a public sphere The famous sociologist, Jurgen Habermas came up with the following idea of a public sphere. The public sphere (German Öffentlichkeit, f) is an area in social life where individuals can come together to freely discuss and identify societal problems, and through that discussion influence political action. The above definition of a public sphere can very well apply to the Internet, especially social media in its present form. We live in a widely interconnected world. There are more Indians on the internet than ever before. At the last count, there are about 200 million and counting. We live in a world mediated through multifunctional devices and the internet. Internet can be just like a physical public space except that it exists in the virtual realm. Just as the physical space consists of both private space (homes) and a public sphere (a common space which is open to all), Internet also has similar parallels. While personal email can be an example of a private space in the virtual sphere, sites like Twitter, Facebook (to a certain extent), Wikipedia etc. are very similar to public spaces that people access in the physical realm. However, the above defined version of public sphere is problematic because it doesn’t take into account the structure that results in exclusion of many groups based on gender, class, caste, religion, sex among others. Nancy Frazer, in her book, ‘Rethinking the public sphere’ critiques Habermas’ idea of public sphere. Frazer elaborated that the public sphere is not egalitarian and its exclusionary structures results in invisibilising many groups that it discriminates against. If we apply this theory against Wikipedia, it brings out striking parallels. Just like women experience harassment in physical public spaces, women also experience harassment in virtual public sphere too. It’s a vicious circle. Less number of women on a street, will ensure that the few women that are on the street feel insecure resulting in the further dwindling of numbers. Lesser the number, more the harassment women face on the street. It is essential to break the cycle.

Wikipedia is now the world’s biggest and most accessed encyclopaedia. It has also become the first go-to website to gain first hand information about any topic. Its wide reach is evident by the fact that an internet search on any topic will have its corresponding Wikipedia article listed in the first ten items on the first page of the search. Not only are people accessing Wikipedia in large numbers, there is also a vibrant community of editors that edit Wikipedia on a regular basis.

The Problem Lack of gender sensitivity in Wikipedia articles needs to be addressed because issues of grave concern viz. issues of domestic violence or sexual assaults lack gender sensitivity and at the same time are accessed by a huge number of people. Case in point is the Wikipedia entry of unfortunate 2012 gang rape incident. The page was apparently closed down for edits because it experienced rampant vandalism. The details of it all can be found here. Noopur Raval, a Delhi resident and an active Wikipedia volunteer, in this article, shares her experience of editing an article on the Guwahati molestation case. While she was working on the Wikipedia article about the Guwahati Molestation Case in 2012, she felt that well-meaning editors saw this article as the publication of a shameful incident and a misrepresentation of the Indian people. She says: “To write responsibly and acknowledge women's expression — is not a universally obvious and accepted notion and runs into obstacles given the stakes of people involved in women's projects.”

One of the reasons for less number of women editing Wikipedia can be seen in this case, which is a perfect example of vandalism within Wikipedia. Anita Sarkessian, a feminist with an avid interest in gaming found her page vandalised on a regular basis so much so that her page had to be blocked to prevent rogue edits.

The Solution To address these issues, Breakthrough proposes to undertake the following activities. We plan to organise a series of editathons encouraging more women to come and participate in various capacities as editors of Wikipedia. By doing this, the aim is to have more women participate in creation of open knowledge. The other resulting expectation of this is that this will lead to more women and women-related information being highlighted on Wikipedia. This will also lead to decrease in the invisibilisation of information about women and lead to a larger systemic change of women's role being highlighted more on this widely accessed platform.

What are we trying to solve?

Safety and security of women in public spaces is of forefront of Breakthrough’s agenda of envisioning a world without violence against women. Smart intervention to prevent violence against women in both private and public spaces has been our mandate. BT’s Ring the Bell campaign talks about intervening in an event of domestic violence against a woman.

A little less than a year ago, Delhi witnessed a gruesome rape and death of a 23-year-old woman, that not only sparked off nationwide protests but also brought about legal reforms in our country. While not much has changed as far violence against women (VAW) is concerned, what has definitely changed is that more number of women are speaking aloud about their experiences of sexual abuse. A particularly common but a disturbing phenomenon that has long existed has been the associated silence around the issue of violence against women (VAW). It has never been easy for women to come out and share their personal experiences about the violence they faced because of the intense victim-blaming and shame they follows not just from society but also from police and judiciary alike. However, even as more and more women are coming forward and talking about their experiences, silence around violence against women from Dalit, tribal and other marginalised communities continue.

In an age of information overload, lack of information about women and their issues is quite a revealing problem. Wikipedia purports to capture the sum of the world's knowledge, says Sara Snyder, deputy chief of the Media and Technology Office at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. But "it's not accurate to call it the world's knowledge if it's just half the population's knowledge," she says. When there are less number of women editors editing Wikipedia, women’s unique perspectives about various issues do not get represented. "The main thing is to bring in people of all different backgrounds," Wales told the event, reports the Independent. "If you do that, you increase the knowledge base of the site, which can only be a good thing. At the moment, we are relatively poor in a few areas; for example, biographies of famous women through history and issues surrounding early childcare." Globally, one of the oldest tactics which women have used to assert their right over public spaces has been through ‘Reclaim the night’ movement. More the numbers, lesser the harassment. Just like reclaiming the night, women need to reclaim the internet space too. The solution is to have more women editors flooding the scene populating the web with their unique perspectives thereby contributing to the world knowledge. This will also mean issues pertaining to women including issues related to violence against women will also find its space on Wikipedia.

Following will the some of the objectives of this project Creating a network of active women volunteers and empowering them to contribute to Wikipedia and in general to the large pool of knowledge.

Key activities 1) Organising women-only edit-a-thons in Delhi Mumbai and Bangalore. 2) Working with issue-based specialists/experts and encouraging them to contribute to Wikipedia articles pertaining to their areas of expertise.

Activity 1: Organising edit-a-thons Breakthrough will work with Wikipedia volunteers and organise edit-a-thons in cities that BT already works in. The cities will be— Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. We plan to conduct 6 events in three cities i.e. Delhi, bangalore and Mumbai over the span of one year. BT will also facilitate edit-a-thons in places where we don’t work in only if requests come from people living there. BT will work with colleges, civil society groups and technology groups to build a pool of volunteers that will participate in the editathon activities. Regular monitoring of the workshops will be conducted. Check out this video to know the impact of Wikipedia in Noopur’s life.

At Breakthrough, we had conducted a hackathon around women’s rights in December 2013. In the backdrop of the gruesome gangrape that Delhi witnessed in 2012, Breakthrough in association with Hacks/Hackers New Delhi (a group of journalists and software developers) organised a thematic hackathon around women’s rights. More specifically, around VAW in India. The event was an effort in trying to keep the conversations going around the issue. This event is one of the various activities organised as a part of the global campaign- 16 Days of Activism against gender based violence. Some pics here.

During the initial planning stage, we were clear that wanted to engage with open data and data visualisation. We had datasets from various organisations including Gramvaani, World Bank, WhyPoll, National Crime Research Data among many others. Subsequently we also decided to explore multimedia storytelling by incorporating different kinds of data viz. video files, audio files, tweets etc. Open data is very important for a developing country like India since it democratises access to information. Even as India made its foray into the world of open data, data from government organisations including research studies among many other things is extremely hard to get. For instance, we couldn’t find a single dataset belonging to the central women and child ministry in the government’s data portal. In the context of VAW in India, it is important to talk more about what the studies are trying to say because hidden within the statistics are trends and stories about the issue in India. We need to understand these trends to talk about the problem and thereby breaking the silence around the issue. Apart from data visualisation, we will also be having a Wikipedia edit-a-thon, where we will be editing articles pertaining to gender-based violence in India. We will not only be updating articles about cases of VAW in India, we will also try and update biographical articles of women who have contributed actively to this cause. This event is open to all. Details of participation can be found here. This effort is even more relevant considering the skewed ratio of women editors in Wikipedia is a well-documented fact. Check this video to find out more about our Wikipedia project during the hackathon.

Activity 2: Working with issue-based specialists/experts and encouraging them to contribute to Wikipedia articles pertaining to their areas of expertise.

Breakthrough plans to approach women professionals to update Wikipedia on areas they have their expertise in. We also plan to approach professional women’s groups for the same purpose as well.

We plan to approach 500 women directly through editathons. But the indirect impact of this project will be bigger. According to, Wikipedia is the 6th most popular website globally and in India. About 9% of it's total traffic comes from India. It is completely volunteer-run in terms of its content. And because it is open access, efforts like these are going to help change perception of women in India. There will be gender sensitive articles about women and women related issues on Wikipedia. Also, there would be more women editing Wikipedia in various capacities. This will result in more stories and information about women available on the largest and most accessible encyclopaedia of the world. Short term impact would be a spurt in the number of articles edited and written by women. The number of articles about women will also increase. It will also mean that the number of existing articles about women will be improved upon.

Take action! This post was submitted in response to WWW: Women Weave the Web .

Comment on this Post


Dear Jocelyn,

I'm so impressed with your passionate and thoughtful challenge to increase the number of women participating in public spheres and open knowledge on the internet! With 200 Million Indian users on the internet and only 3% of Indian Wikipedia editors being female, there is definitely a huge opportunity to call in many more female voices and perspectives.

I must confess that I never thought to research the gender bias of Wikipedia contributions, but you bring up a fascinating and interesting point. I love the idea of the "Edithons" and wish you incredible and fruitful success, not just for Wikipedia entries but in changing perceptions and stereotypes about the capacity, intelligence and empowerment of women in India and all over the world.

Thank you for your focus on both mind and heart (data and relationships) in this project. It feels imperative to help women make the connection that in sharing their voices and knowledge, especially around their areas of education and interest, that they positively contribute to a safer, wiser, fairer, and more connected planet.

Bravo! Kristie