The Rise Of Female Hackers For Good

On May 23, 2015, hackers from 19 countries gathered online and in person for Femhack, a grassroots international feminist hackathon inspired by the life and work of Sabeen Mahmud. Passionate about civic technology, Mahmud started Pakistan’s first hackathon. Her efforts were not without controversy, and Mahmud paid for her activism with her life in April 2015.

Women are coming together with more frequency to use technology in the fight against gender-based violence — often catalyzed by similarly grim acts of violence that reverberate intensely within communities bound together by a strong belief in gender equality.

In India, Hack4Change hosted an event in reaction to the tragic gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in Delhi and the public outcry that ensued. In Egypt, a group of friends, overwhelmed by the intensity of sexual harassment on the streets of Cairo, developed Harassmap to allow the public to report on and track incidents. Others projects have originated from the lack of representation of women, queer and trans people working in technology, such as the TransHackFeminist convergence.

On a global scale, international organizations are recognizing that galvanizing hacktivists around solutions to violence against women is a necessity in addressing acts of violence both online and off. The World Bank and the Global Fund for Women have supported hackathons, and UNiTE, the United Nations’ Secretary-General’s Campaign to End Violence Against Women, now features a prominent call to action for online and tech-based advocacy and solutions development.

The Womanity Foundation, a Geneva-based NGO working in collaboration with the Trafigura Foundation, is looking for organizations that are effectively addressing gender-based violence online for their bi-annual Womanity Award.

“We are eager to support and help develop platforms that empower women and girls, and that are replicable, and transferable. We will be successful if these platforms have contributed to solve other social issues too, not just violence against women,” says Servane Mouazan, Program Manager for the Womanity Award. “We believe that technology can be a very powerful tool — but we are not just talking about apps, smartphones or tablets. We are also looking at open data, radio, smart buildings, wearables, even tech-based arts, as innovative tools that can help women live better, safer lives.”

Online harassment and abuse have come into the public eye more prominently than ever, and the reality is dawning that it needs to be addressed. A recent report by Women, Action, & the Media on Twitter harassment found that 27 percent of respondents had experienced hate speech online, 22 percent doxxing and 12 percent threatened with violence.

People tend to see online harassment and offline abuse as completely separate phenomena. Inequality offline is reflected online — and sometimes amplified. And the connections don’t end there — an abusive relationship can straddle both the online and offline worlds. A stalker now has online avenues and an intimate partner can use technology to monitor and control a victim.

“We want to say that we have a right to be here in this digital space. We have a right to make decisions about it. We have the right to create space and to create the tools that we use in it. We face this problem of trying to get people to see that online violence is violence and it is very much part of the continuum of violence against women and not something separate,” says Sarah Baker, who coordinates Take Back the Tech!, a program started by the Association for Progressive Communications, with campaigns in more than 30 countries.

Hackathons have become an opportunity to ideate and create civic solutions to social issues, but also to weave community across cultural, political, gender and socioeconomic lines. Femhack was rooted in technology, but also offered actions that anyone with any skill level could take. The organizers championed an intersectional approach and a focus on the Global South, attracting participants from all genders, including the trans community and cisgender men, hailing from countries including Mexico, Kenya, Serbia and Pakistan.

According to the organizers, “there was a symbolic transfer of the ‘baton’ among the different times zones which increased the visibility of what was happening on the ground and created trans-frontier solidarities in order to break the circle of isolation felt by many participants.”

And the results? The power of civic gatherings is evident in the growing number of apps, guides and online advocacy actions that are helping to keep women safe online and off. Just a few of the solutions that have originated from grassroots efforts include:

  • Hollaback!: a smartphone/web application that encourages people “to speak up when they see harassment by quickly documenting it in a short post (photo optional) and sharing it to a publicly viewable map.”
  • Chayn: “an open-source project that leverages technology to empower women against violence and oppression so they can live happier and healthier lives.”
  • Circle of 6: a winner of the White House’s “Apps Against Abuse,” this app allows young women to easily and quickly notify friends before date violence happens.

As for Femhack, many projects initiated on May 23rd are in development, and will address privacy and security, protection for activists, access to technology and domestic violence.

Know of an emerging tech solution to violence against women that needs support? Nominations for the Womanity Award are being accepted here.