In 2008, Maria Umar was pregnant with her second child when she decided to set up Women’s Digital League. Recognising the potential of the digital realm as a source of solution to the problems females in Pakistan were facing across the spectrum – access to education, financial independence, connectivity with communities, establishing businesses – Maria went into training and educating women in digital literacy. “What is the one thing we keep telling women? Economic empowerment and agency over our finances. Without these there can be no empowerment and gender equity,” says Maria.
After partnering with The World Bank and Facebook, she delved deeper into how the digital realm could be explored for further impact. This resulted into a project where Afghan and Pakistan female entrepreneurs were collectively trained and brought together in a collaboration with the Hollings Centre for International Dialogue to carry out a joint fashion show. This was the merger between technology, indigenous craft and women.
“Positive disruption is what’s required. How can we stay within cultural barriers and expect positive change when the word ‘barrier’ means to obstruct. When a culture is riddled with barriers against women’s progress we cannot justify them by finding solutions that contain the women within but somehow also enable them to breathe more freely. As I said earlier, of course we have to tread carefully around cultural sensitivities and accept that change is a slow process if we want it to be lasting, but never for a moment forget that those sensitivities are a lot of time made to confine women in gendered roles that ultimately do not benefit anyone,” says Maria.
In 2020, Covid-19 was a clear indication that there was a need to shift priori¬ties from profit-making to an economic model that encouraged social justice and environmental health. Small businesses, especially those associated with craft and hand-made goods woke up to the shock realisation that they had to get rid of their inventory and that too at a reduced price which squeezed profit to minimal rates or nothing at all.
With zero access to urban markets and physical exhibitions halted as the country came to a stop during lockdown, artisans across Pakistan, located in rural areas, found they had excessive stock and sales had dwindled to almost nothing. Kaarvan Crafts Foundation (KCF), a non-profit working for the economic empowerment of women, founded by Aysha Baqir in 2004 and currently headed by CEO Danish Jabbar Khan, came up with a solution — an online exhibition. Artisans based in Pakistan’s rural backwater region of South Punjab found themselves as recipients of an intense training programme in which they were using mobile phones and apps such as Instagram, Facebook, Whatsapp and Zoom.
The result was a three-day exhibition streamed live on Facebook with 11 artisans from far-flung villages showing people not just their wares but also telling their stories and for the first time, exposing the audience to their rural dwellings. “The digital exhibition was not just about retail but also about creating dignified livelihoods and em¬powering women. There are three stages to this. The first is digital readiness in terms of creating access for rural women to mobile phones and the internet and teaching them how to use social media. The second is digital enablement where we work with them to establish their businesses online. And the third is digital ethics in terms of how to conduct and protect themselves, the importance of privacy and internet security,” explained Khan.
The online exhibition was the first of its kind for Pakistan. It heralded a new chapter in digital literacy as it understood that for artisans who face cultural barriers, Covid-19 was just another obstacle. It generated a nationwide recognition that if the field of crafts, made up of ancient traditions and skills, was to survive and continue, as a means of earning between crop cycles, it had to be brought into the digital realm. In short, the rural economy would need to be revolutionised via the internet.
But being on the internet does not come without its risks and women are often subject to online abuse and harassment, which limits their accessibility as cultural sensitivities are disturbed. Digital Rights Foundation, set up in 2012, has actively worked and advocated for internet safety and upholding of digital rights and privacy. “We usually conduct digital literacy sessions through the use of safe, secure and accessible online spaces. We have conducted hundreds of digitally safety sessions in schools, colleges and universities and with different communities such as women entrepreneurs and women human rights defenders,” says founder, Nighat Dad. Global organisations including UN Women, UNESCO, Free Press Unlimited and Privacy International have collaborated with DRF since then to create awareness amongst Pakistanis about the need to have access to the internet and how to maintain their privacy and safety.
One of DRF’s flagship programmes is called ‘Humara Internet’, which consists of reaching out to a wide range of organisations and communities to educate them on how to access online platforms and social media securely and what tools can be used effectively for their businesses. “The future of digital literacy, the way accessibility to ICT has increased due to the pandemic, internet penetration has gone really high. But we are not really as fast in spreading digital literacy across Pakistan as fast as accessibility is increasing,” points out Nighat.
In her view, digital literacy should be inter-sectional as everything that happens in Pakistan is connected to the internet and the digital realm. “I definitely think female empowerment is changing because more women are demanding their access to technology, but they want to exercise their right to free speech and information and be economically empowered as well.”
— Mehr F Husain is a British Pakistani journalist
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