November 25 marked the beginning of the 16 days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence around the globe, which first saw the light in 1991. Activism can be taken to the streets, as the demonstrations in different places such as in Paris show. However, activism is, according to its formal definition, all about bringing political or social change through vigorous campaigning.
Under the lines of activism and feminism, a Gender_tech hackathon took place this past Friday and Saturday at Antwork, Hamra in Beirut. Activists of Human and Women’s rights, as well as academics and technologists gathered for this two-day event where the main goal was to discuss on the intersections of gender and technology, as well as proposing feasible and realistic solutions to end online and offline violence against women and girls. Oxfam, SMEX and the Knowledge Workshop organized the event, in collaboration with HumanityX, association for which Kate Dodgson, host of the Gender_tech, works. HumanityX specializes in innovation sprints, such as hackathons, where they take into consideration the topic, the people attending, the region they’re working in, and the desired outcomes of the day.
Five large tables, surrounded by white chairs and panels with feminist principles decorate the large room in which the thirty people, coming from different horizons such as Egypt, Koweit or the UK, gathered. “We flew people in from all around MENA as we wanted representation from the whole region.” Kate Dodgson started at 9h30 to describe the state of affairs. The following eight hours would be dedicated to debate on five main issues concerning GBV and technology: reporting, prevention, data gaps, digital safety and know your rights. At the end of the day, the goal was coming out with fifteen solutions. How? Through three sessions of around four minutes timed, participants chose a single case, the problems he/she faces, and proposed a prototype to bring a solution. “The short time-boxed activities can be frustrating, and I often receive complaints about it being too quick and confusing. Fortunately, I know that by the end of the day, everyone will understand why it’s run like that, and they’ll come to love the process”, Dodgson says. Discussions were held in both English and Arabic, as translators were available all-day long.
Each table focused on one of the five issues, transforming the tables into a debate space where ideas and stories were told. At my table for example, Maryam shared her experience with domestic violence: married as a teen, she was psychologically abused and got divorced in the end. The Know your Rights group, along with the rest of them, came up to a conclusion: although we know that violence happens on a daily basis, it is hard to detect it at a personal level. There isn’t, indeed, a universal understanding of what violence or abuse is. When violence is perceived, the problem becomes reporting it: how, and where? Then, when an institution is found, either the police centers are not adapted, or there is no enforcement of the law (nor law at all). Dodgson says that what stroke her from the discussions, was that “there’s a huge issue surrounding awareness of what constitutes violence and then how to get assistance. Women who have been oppressed often don’t realise it as they don’t know any other life. They may not be aware that what is happening to them is wrong. Even if they did, they don’t have access to support or recourse. It goes to show that while it’s wonderful to build apps and networks for support, we first need to work on education and advocacy.” This is not to say that there are no organizations nor initiatives directed towards the fight against GBV. Harrassmap and the Green Dot Initiative are some examples aiming at tackling sexual abuses. The main flaws found in the latter are that every day reporting is not effective, there is more reporting than preventing, and the link between reporting and good actions against it are still missing.
After an hour and a lunch composed of Lebanese food, such as kibbeh, tabbouleh and humus, five prototypes intended to work against GBV were proposed: two platforms for reporting, a smart stand and an app, a databade and an intervention in schools for prevention and self-defense. “We covered victims with learning difficulties, victims of violence, NGOs working in GBV and young children (focusing on boys). We will try to progress all of them, and I’m confident there will be interest in several (particularly the NGO database one which is the most likely to receive funding and also arguably, easiest to set up)”, Dodgson claims. Oxfam, one of the organizing associations, organizes in parallel a panel discussion in London during the 16 days of activism. The outputs of the Gender_tech will feed the second event, and the prototypes proposed in Beirut may as well be developed later on.
Hackathons have started ever since the first computers were sold back in 1975, but Saturday’s was the first in Lebanon, as far as we know, involving both topics of technology and GBV. In the end, it is all about learning and changing people’s perspective on a topic –which is why experts and non-experts on GBV were invited to the event. The most satisfying part, for both the participants and the organizers, comes during the final hour, where people get to work on their ideas in-depth. “It’s also awesome watching collaborations between people who likely may have never met or worked together”, Dogson emphasizes as the day ends.
Around the world, demonstrations were done against GBV on Saturday, at the same time as the hackathon. Kate Dodgson explains that “demonstrations show the government that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. Hackathons start looking at the solution(s). Some people learn best by listening to experts through lectures and panel talks. Others learn best by doing – by playing and experimenting – like through a hackathon. We wanted the conference to show that there is a problem in the MENA region when it comes to GBV (online and offline) and that we’re ready to start designing solutions”.
Activism is everywhere. The UN Women Campaign’s theme this year is Leave No One Behind: End Violence Against Women and Girls”. It will last until December 10. On the same line of thinking gender equality in the Middle East, Abaad has just released a video demanding life-sentence for rapists.