Does a woman sharing information about her failed riverside crops, destroyed by unseasonal release of flows from an upstream hydropower infrastructure project, count as a security threat?
The line between being a concerned citizen expressing one’s views and being an environmental defender is blurry and depends on the context. A woman reporting isolated incidents can be easily dismissed or even ignored — but when she connects with others experiencing the same devastation up and down the river, and when she mobilizes others to influence local decision-making, she is harder to sideline. And in a political setting that does not fully respect civil liberties, she may become a target. She may have wished, had it been possible, to have shared her experience and connected with others in a safe space, secure from potential nefarious actors.
Co-creating these safe spaces involves the joining together and work of different stakeholders to assert more control over the product, in this case knowledge systems that are safe and secure and which capture value for the user. While our target constituents — Environmental defenders — hold knowledge and develop and implement campaigns in constrained geographical contexts, the transition to online activism has presented unique challenges. Already targeted for defiance against the hegemony of well-established financial and power systems, environmental defenders open themselves up for greater threat and risk, and even death, when they engage in activism. Taking this activism online amplifies both their message and their personal risk, particularly for women who are more vulnerable within digital spaces.
Digital security is a complicated and multi-faceted challenge. For instance, it is possible that our environmental defender understands how her photos and words are captured, stored, and shared, but other areas of vulnerability — such as database distribution, backend security settings, and intellectual property and ownership — are likely not forefront in her mind. This technological awareness is what we refer to as digital literacy. For most, the way that images and data are transmitted, stored and shared is a black box; it just works and is seen as a product of a professionally developed, functional, secure system. Unfortunately, this is not always true and any data or knowledge sharing platform may be contentious, or open to those who would present threats.
Given these challenges, a close consideration of:
- What women environmental defenders need to safely connect, share, and work online; and
- What existing or potential technologies could be adapted or further developed to provide those safe spaces are needed.
What does technology’s tool shed offer to build these safe spaces?
Fortunately, there are several existing technologies that could be used to develop spaces for women environmental defenders to pursue their missions online. For example, raspberry pi blockchain systems are low-cost, low-tech systems that can support a secure encrypted blockchain and could present a safe and accessible way to store, encrypt, and back up environmental defender data. While it might not be the best solution, in a space where technology is moving quickly, it could be a relatively easy and safe way to support stronger links amongst those looking to support one another in an increasingly hostile digital environment. Beyond this one example, there are likely several possible solutions, and multiple ways of configuring the back end, that can support the development of this safe space that meets the needs of women environmental defenders.
What are the next steps to establishing safe spaces for women environmental defenders?
While the worldviews of those working at the forefront of the environmental movement, and those working at the cutting edge of technology do not frequently overlap. Projects that bring these divergent perspectives together to create value and enhance understanding can provide a new opportunity for innovation, this is true co-creation.
The Open Development Initiative is excited to host a space to foster this co-creation — bringing together women across Southeast Asia who are dedicated to women’s leadership and environmental justice to guide the development of a technology platform to safely share, connect, learn, and influence. The all-woman steering committee is supported by a global Advisory Panel which will help identify blind spots and guide the development of the platform. However, without the technology ontology being fully present as a part of this initiative, the realization of the platform is not going to be possible.
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This material is financed in part by the Swedish Program for ICT in Developing Regions (SPIDER). SPIDER is an independent centre focusing on the digitalisation of international development, bringing together actors in development to promote human centered technology for the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The opinions conveyed are not necessarily shared by SPIDER.
This work was carried out with the aid of a grant from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Ottawa, Canada, through the D4D network which is a global research alliance that works to strengthen collaboration across a broad network of stakeholders by developing and mobilizing the knowledge needed to advance the responsible use of data to address critical development challenges across the Global South.
The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of IDRC and its Board of Governors. Responsibility for the contents lies exclusively with the author(s) of the material.