Speakers decry online harassment and highlight shared responsibility to create a safer digital world
by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — Imagine at age 17 being able to say that you’ve developed a device to detect lead-contaminated water, conceptualized a service to thwart cyber bullying and appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
Those are just a few of the accomplishments of Gitanjali Rao, one of the inspirational women and girls applauded at the United Nations observance of International Women’s Day on Wednesday.
Rao was motivated to develop a water testing device after learning about contaminated water plaguing the people of Flint, Michigan (The Story Ministry of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has documented the crisis in its film, “Flint: The Poisoning of an American City.”).
“I’ve always grown up in this environment where I was taught that you can’t just wait for someone else to do something; you have to take that first step,” said Rao, who is from Colorado. “If you don’t like the way the world works, fix it.”
More than 1,800 people, most of them women, looked on as Rao and other panelists chatted during “DigitALL: Innovation and Technology for Gender Equality,” a special program at the 67th session of the Commission on the Status of Women. Nearly 60 delegates from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and Presbyterian Women are attending #CSW67 online and in-person.
“Being in person allows our delegates the opportunity to go into the United Nations headquarters, to be in the same room with other leaders from around the world, with the common goal of gender equality,” said Ivy Lopedito of the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations.
DigitALL included remarks by global leaders, such as UN Under-Secretary-General Sima Bahous, and host Sade Baderwina, a New York broadcaster who promoted the idea of buying young girls microscopes instead of dolls to spur their interest in STEM. Participants and viewers also watched video presentations and heard inspiring music, such as “Rise Up,” a powerful song about perseverance.
“I love this day because as women we get to celebrate who we are,” Baderwina said. “We celebrate our brilliance, our achievements, our power and collective voice,” and in spite of adversity, “we keep soldiering on because we know there is still so much more work to do.”
DigitALL was designed to lift up “the women and girls who are championing the advancement of transformative technology and digital education and curtailing the impact of the digital gender gap,” according to promotional materials. But it also touched on the sinister side of the tech world.
Sports journalist Marion Reimers, an outspoken proponent of LGBTQIA+ rights, talked about the hurt inflicted by online harassment, which she described as feeling like “a death by 1,000 knives.”
“I have been a victim of online harassment for a very long time,” Reimers said. “There are paid campaigns, and I’m not the only woman suffering in Mexico and throughout the world.”
Marie Bjerre, minister for digitalization, IT technology and gender equality in Denmark, said education, training and global partnerships are key to fighting such abuse. “The digital world is a new world for us,” she said, “and like we learn how to drive a car, we have to learn how to behave online.”
Proper legislation also is important, Bjerre said. “In Denmark, we have now a broad range of law and regulations,” she said. “For instance, we have a law prohibiting sharing intimate photos. Recently, the police charged 1,000 young people for sharing a video of a young girl. Many of the young people didn’t understand the extent of what they have done and that it was illegal, but now they do.”
Reimers noted that online harassment can have devastating consequences for individuals and for society.
“We need to understand that this is not just someone telling you, ‘Oh, you’re so bad at your job,’” the successful sports analyst and author said. “This pushes people towards suicidal thoughts. This pushes people towards self-censoring. … We need to understand that this taps directly into freedom of speech.”
Women in Uganda also experience online abuse, said Irene Mwenda. She leads feminist movement building and advocacy for Pollicy.org, a team of technologists, data scientists, creatives and academics working at the intersection of data, design and technology.
The work of Mwenda’s organization includes putting research into simple language that even youths can understand and making games available to promote online safety and discourage “fake news.” The group also helps to empower women politicians in Africa.
The goal is to help them “understand the power of technology and data in their lives,” so that when they interact with other leaders, “they will be able to debate better,” and communities will receive policies that meet the needs of both women and men, Mwenda said.
Rao stressed the importance of harnessing the ingenuity of youths when trying to solve the world’s problems.
“Now more than ever is the time to maximize innovation and creativity, right?” she said. “We should be taking these opportunities to look at the ways in which we can support girls, especially by digitizing content online, and honestly, supporting them in every way possible, whether that’s through the work that they’re doing or making sure that they’re safe online as well.”
During an earlier speech, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, the first woman to lead the International Telecommunications Union, said, “I intend to work with all of you to leverage technology and to deliver on the promise of the Sustainable Development Goals,” which include gender equality. “It’s in our power to make digital technology and innovation truly work for everyone. It’s our shared responsibility … to create a more equal, a just, a safe and sustainable digital world today and for future generations.”
Find more coverage of the Commission on the Status of Women at presbyterianmission.org, PMA social media channels and the 1 p.m. (Eastern Time) March 16 episode of “Being Matthew 25” on the PC(USA)’s Facebook page.
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Tags: #csw67, 67th commission on the status of women, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, flint: the poisoning of an american city, gender equality, Gitanjali Rao, Irene Mwenda, ivy lopedito, Marie Bjerre, Marion Reimers, presbyterian ministry at the united nations, presbyterian women, Sade Baderwina, technology, un sustainable development goals
Ministries: All Women in the Church, Presbyterian Women