Image depicts China’s popular vlogger Papi Jiang

The Global Information Society Watch report last year (GISWatch) dealt explicitly with internet and sexual rights, and this year the report examines the link between economic, social, cultural (ESC) rights and the internet. ESC rights are fundamental to movements that deal with gender – it is women, trans and gender non conforming people who face immense struggle in relation to work, parity and harassment at the workplace; they struggle to form unions and to ensure their basic needs of the right to food and shelter. It is women and gender nonconforming people who are most vulnerable in social and cultural contexts, because of transgressions outside of heteronormativity. Whether the international covenant on ESC rights has as per the United Nations agenda ‘mainstreamed’ gender within its own mandate, ESC rights remain a high priority for women’s movements everywhere, and for those lobbying and working with trans and gender nonconforming people.

ESC rights are fundamental to movements that deal with gender – it is women, trans and gender non conforming people who face immense struggle to access these rights.

The report looks at the link between ESC rights and the internet in several countries, and from a multitude of systems of governance, whether that of socialism and the welfare state, or the semi-functional welfare schemes in parts of Asia and Africa (Uganda, Cambodia), and even the relatively privileged parts of the world, like Spain.

It examines the ways in which the internet can enable the realisation of ESC rights. In the early 2000s, the popular buzzword was ICTs (information communication technology) for development, which fostered a naive belief in the transformatory potential of technology i.e. merely the provision of access and the use of ICTs in itself could be an index of development. The measure was numbers for access via broadband or mobile, how many kiosks have been built, how many e-governance projects have taken off or how much digitisation has been undertaken by the government. However since then there has been a shift, and especially in this GIS Watch report there is an attempt to examine how ICTs have progressively helped in the realisation of specific ESC rights whether it is the right to health, the right to go on strikes, the right to a vibrant culture that allows for dissent and discussion, and so on.

The GIS Watch report also covers digital phenomena that are not directly controlled and set up by civil society or governments, but are part of processes of social movements and forms of popular outbursts like memes and flash-in-the-pan campaigns. Like the popular vlogger and web celeb Papi Jiang from China whose outspokenness shook the establishment. Or the collective local efforts at organising that can even be potentially anarchic and disruptive to the seemingly inevitable trajectory of globalisation (Spain, Costa Rica, Cambodia).

The inevitable paradox of the report is that it must work within the parameters of sovereign nations, and this could well contribute to the invisibilisation of the harm that the nation-state does to communities and individuals.

In most countries ESC rights are guaranteed under national laws and not just the international covenant, and both are supposed to work in tandem to ensure basic rights for the people. The inevitable paradox of the report is that it must work within the parameters of sovereign nations, and this could well contribute to the invisibilisation of the harm that the nation-state does to communities and individuals. It means that indigenous people and communities fighting for their right to self-determination are sidelined yet again, while their needs are swallowed by the often meaningless rhetoric of nations that must ‘grant’ them rights.

The country reports however do reveal that for change, especially that which is long lasting like legislative change or shifts in social mores for greater acceptance of difference, the existence of a movement that is strong and driven from within communities is essential. While in many countries, the internet is not essential to the organising within a movement (Cambodia, Venezuela, Uganda), it is absolutely critical to getting information to the ‘world outside’ – the global North where the market is or to the United Nations, the Human Rights Council, the Internet Governance Forum and other spaces where rights vis-a-vis governments and corporations are negotiated.

Sexuality and sexual orientation

In relation to sexuality, the current trend supported also by the appointment of the international expert on sexual orientation and gender expression at the United Nations, is to push for legal change and reform. A lesson could perhaps be learnt from Armenia where homosexuality as an offence was abolished in 2003, but homophobia, hate speech and hate crimes dominate on the internet. It is evident that a lot needs to be done to unwrap the ways in which patriarchy and other forms of social and economic exclusion work in a society, and how they are reinforced.

In this instance, the internet rather than enabling ESC rights for those vulnerable, is actively being used as a vehicle for hatred against those who are different, especially lesbians, gays, bisexuals, trans, queer, intersex, and others(LGTBQI). The ESC rights framework or covenant recognises that culture is not static, and that “states should adopt a flexible approach to cultural rights and respect the cultural diversity of individuals and communities”(1). Groups such as Iravunk and (a clever pun on faggot in the local language) are spreading hateful discourse against LGBTQI via the internet.

Gender and Labour

The Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh particularly heightened the concern around the plight of garment workers in Asia — how many hours do they have to work, in what conditions and for what wages. In Cambodia, the minimum wage has been raised through incessant campaigning by Clean Clothes, Labour behind the Label and others – and all these especially use social media to communicate to the West/global North where the products are sold through outlets like H&M. What is remarkable is the use of the internet not so much to organise the movement, but to communicate to a global audience of consumers that they should make ethical choices about where their clothes come from. Memes, graphs, snappy posters and tactics of naming and shaming that are intrinsic to internet culture are part of the strategy of such campaigns.

What is remarkable is the use of the internet not so much to organise the movement, but to communicate to a global audience of consumers that they should make ethical choices about where their clothes come from. Memes, graphs, snappy posters and tactics of naming and shaming that are intrinsic to internet culture are part of the strategy of such campaigns.

Recently laws have been passed in Cambodia that allow censorship and control of the internet and the NGO law that severely clamps down on civil society. It is also possible that eventually the garment industry could shift to places in Myanmar and around, where the index of economic vulnerability is higher and people are less connected via internet or other media.

In Jordan, the internet could play a beneficial role with the local tourism industry around Bedouin tribes and customs, handicrafts and culture. Of this a substantial portion, especially handicrafts, is carried out by women. Tourism can potentially imbalance the networks of economy and culture, habits of social life that are in place in a region. At the same time it is important to empower women, indigenous people, crafts people, villagers and others who are often the ‘objects’ of tourism industry. Here the internet is seen as a leveller and a means to connect directly with tourists and the market.

Sexual and Reproductive Health

The report on Uganda deals with the use of the internet to fill a gap in the information available online on sexual and reproductive health. The internet also plays a powerful role in advocacy and campaigns that raise the issue of maternal mortality and poor health infrastructure in Uganda. These campaigns have been partially successful and yet the maternal mortality rate is very high, and those who are poor or are in rural areas are unable to access basic health care. In the interview with Allana Kembabazi, we also discover how there are low levels of sex education, even around contraception, and it is here in particular that the internet could be useful. However the problem of how to ensure that the government provides basic and primary health care for all remains unsolved, in Uganda as it is in other parts of Asia (India, Bangladesh) and Africa.

Violence against women, online and offline

According to the report from Russia, gender-based violence in Russia is an everyday affair. In July 2016 an online campaign that recounted stories of gender-based violence in Russia took off, under the hashtag #янебоюсьсказати (#iamnotafraidtosay). This report highlights the impact that violence against women has on the right to education in particular.

What is perhaps a learning to be gleaned from the Russia report, is to deepen our understanding of how violence against women and gender non conforming people works, and of pervasive culture in parts of the world in Russia, South Africa and elsewhere that excuse such violence and normalise it. This in turn makes it difficult to see the obvious impact it has on free speech, dissent, right to work, food and shelter, right to education and gainful employment, and the right to self-determination.

When we normalise violence against women, trans and gender nonconforming people, it is difficult to see the impact it has on free speech, dissent, right to work, food and shelter, right to education and gainful employment, and the right to self-determination.

Here too the internet is a vehicle for campaigns and offers protection and privacy through anonymity, but also is equally a platform for trolling and backlash. As stated in the report on Russia in GISWatch – “But in order for it (internet) to become a source of empowerment, and not of hate speech, we need to create an environment that would allow women to speak without the fear of being abused. This is critical for women to openly be able to access their socio-economic rights online.”

Education and employment, entrepreneurship

Morocco and Turkey both deal with the access to education for women and girls, and their potential to be self-employed or entrepreneurs. In 2013, the Moroccan government initiated a program to encourage woman entrepreneurs to do advanced training in ICTs– in a campaign called “Infitah for her” or Open for her. The next agenda brought out in 2015 aims to strengthen digital innovation through the use of ICTs to meet Morocco’s socio-economic development needs by 2020. It does not explicitly mention gender, but it is about making advances in technology and science more available to the ordinary person.

The report from Morocco outlines the various ways in which the government is trying to address the lack of gender parity in these fields. As such this is an important concern globally, as the digital economy could well be the frontier where ethical and legal standards for parity and equity in the workplace are set. But perhaps we can also draw a connection to the report from Costa Rica – the contribution to GISWatch by Sula Batsu. This report looks at how local entrepreneurs in the tech industry contribute to the development of a region. When such entrepreneurs retain a connection to the local, they ensure that industries and businesses are located within their own context and people, and are non-exploitative of labour and natural resources.

The report from Turkey too looks at potentially expanding the possibilities of women participating in the digital economy, as entrepreneurs especially. It does however also mention negatives of the internet in relation to ESC rights – aside from its transformative potential it can in fact very easily reproduce inequality along lines of gender, class and other social distinctions. So while there are seed grants for women entrepreneurs, much of the content is available in English — and therefore not accessible to those who are in rural areas, or otherwise not able to access a good education in English. This especially limits the extent to which the schemes offered are of use to those placed at the intersections of gender and other forms of discrimination (indigenous, class, rural-urban, ethnicity, race).

Culture, Obscenity, Outspokenness

In most reports around ESC rights, economic and social rights are given priority, while culture is often neglected even though it often enfolds social and economic realities. While the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Xi Jinping calls for a clean and healthy internet, and compares it to a spiritual garden, it is a foul mouth web celeb Papi Jiang whose growing popularity constitutes a threat to the state. The GISWatch report from China charts her meteoric rise and eventual fall. Papi Jiang’s star had to fade, and she was forced to clean up her language and even abide by the agenda set by the State through mechanisms of censorship and pressure.

The China report reinforces the point made by Alan Finlay in the introduction to GISWatch – “If this access (to the internet) is dynamic, confident and participative, groups have easier and more effective access to information necessary to empower them, and more social and political agency. If access to the internet is static, inert and merely functional, political and social agency can be less.”

Dynamic access could refer to how the internet is governed – what freedoms are allowed but also what is the architecture of the internet that allows for ownership by the people. This would then allow for invigorating projects that use the internet and have potentially longterm impact, as can be seen from the GISWatch report on Spain and Costa Rica. However even in difficult circumstances wrought by conflict or repression, outspoken and fearless speech on the internet has a tremendous political impact even if it cannot be sustained. Women human rights defenders, activists and even ordinary women are often at risk in Sudan. This is largely because cultural policing is staged on the woman’s body, who face immense pressure to abide by norms such as wearing hijab; and also in Sudan the laws for public order are very strict .

According to the GISWatch Sudan report – “The punishment for the contravention of public order law is a fine and flogging. More than 90% of women detained by the Sudanese public order police are subjected to forms of sexual assault”. One of the women arrested for not wearing a hijab used Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other media at her disposal to inform people and to build a campaign in her favour. While such campaigns do spread within the country, they are also useful for raising an international profile on incidents of violence and harassment faced by women. It is intriguing that in contexts of ongoing conflict or some degree of suppression, as in Sudan or even Bangladesh the stated mandate of the government to open up the internet for economy can also potentially be ways by which the internet can be used not only for ESC rights, but also for civil and political rights.

Local Autonomy

In Spain, mapping is used by local communities to understand better their own resources and needs. As stated in the GISWatch report – “CitizenSqKm (Km2 del Poblenou) is an experiment which builds a complex communicative ecology using a technological platform and serves as a methodology for community engagement . Several pilot projects have been conducted in Barcelona, aimed at finding out how geolocation technologies and community networks can be used, from local to global levels, to help increase civic engagement.” In comparison to the other projects and countries covered in GISWatch, this is a fairly advanced use of the tools offered by the internet. The project took off after the popular demonstrations across the country in 2011 around the housing and mortgage crisis.

An important learning are the ways in which this project has led the participants to redefine digital divide and how to address it – “real connectivity that takes into account the context and abilities of people to come at the idea of who and where is the digital divide.” This is one of the few projects in the GISWatch report that explicitly mention disabled people as one of its beneficiaries

The advanced use of mapping, geospatial information might mark this campaign out from others, but actually the possible benefits of ensuring local ownership and use of technology could be a lesson learnt from here that is equally applicable to anywhere else, where active and politicised communities take hold of ICTs both as tools and spaces.

Technology is often seen in tandem with globalisation but it can be possible to build and use tech in ways that guarantee and safeguard autonomy. While this indeed may seem paradoxical considering we are talking about a world wide network often kept in place and safeguarded by country gateways, there are the possibilities of autonomy – one at the level of international policy. What was initially the World Summit on Information Society and later the Internet Governance Forum which may or may not fulfil the promise of multi stakeholder control and ownership of the internet. The second is at the level of experiments in autonomous hubs whether experiments in community radio in Bangladesh and Nepal, the now almost legendary pirate radio stations in Europe and UK or the newer experiments like that in Costa Rica (Sula Batsu’s report).

While not essentialising the nature of the internet as a technology that lends itself to decentralisation, because it too can well be used in different ways including harmful ones – it is heartening to hear of the ways in which the internet and technology need not always work within the logic of late capitalism and globalisation.

In the end, we must also examine the GISWatch reports from the lens of capabilities. To ascertain ESC rights we have to look at not the rights record or figures of economic growth, but the ways in which capabilities of people are enhanced – what people are actually able to do and to be(2). This perspective in particular is the best basis for thinking about the goals of development and ensuring they are inclusive of the realities of either women or others marginalised in a society. As stated by Martha Nussbaum – “If we ask what people are actually able to do and to be, we come much closer to understanding the barriers societies have erected against full justice for women.”


1. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Adopted and opened for signature, ratification and accession by General Assembly resolution 2200A (XXI) of 16 December 1966
entry into force 3 January 1976, in accordance with article 27. Available online at

2. Martha Nussbaum (2003): CAPABILITIES AS FUNDAMENTAL ENTITLEMENTS: SEN AND SOCIAL JUSTICE, Feminist Economics, 9:2-3, 33-59

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <br><p>