CSW: Churches working for a safe and inclusive cyberspace

10 Mar 2023

Mobile phones have brought the world to our fingertips, but many women and girls have been left behind by digital revolution, while others have been exposed to new forms of violence. An 9 March event at the UN in New York showcased how faith-based actors are working with governments and international organizations to make the digital world safer.

CSW67 event ‘A phone of my own’

LWF, ACT Alliance and other ecumenical partners host a CSW67 event ‘A phone of my own’ exploring ways in which churches are working to protect and empower women and girls online. Photo: LWF/P. Hitchen

LWF and ACT Alliance host ‘A phone of my own’ exploring ways of empowering women through digital innovation 

(LWI) - Cyber-bullying, sexting, stalking and grooming. Digital technologies - in particular mobile phones – have revolutionized the way most of us behave and interact with each other, but they have also brought new challenges to those working for women’s empowerment and an end to all forms of sexual and gender-based violence.  

An event at the United Nations in New York on 9 March showcased the ways in which faith-based actors are working closely with governments and international organizations to combat cyber violence and to make the digital world a safer and more inclusive place for all women and girls.

The event, entitled ‘A phone of my own: sexual and economic empowerment in times of crisis’, was hosted by ACT Alliance and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) in partnership with other Christian groups working in the field of technological innovation. It was co-sponsored by the governments of Finland and Liberia, with the UN Population Fund, as part of the ongoing 67th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW67).

Laura Chacón Gonzales

Laura Chacón Gonzales, communications and advocacy coordinator for LWF in Colombia. Photo: LWF/P. Hitchen

Among the panelists was Laura Chacón Gonzales, communications and advocacy coordinator for LWF in Colombia and a member of the ACT Alliance Gender Reference Group. Digital violence, she noted, “is not an isolated phenomenon, but part of a social context of gender discrimination and systemic violence.” In the context of the conflict in Colombia, she said, women human rights defenders are regularly targeted online by people seeking to silence them and to intimidate those they are seeking to protect. 

In recent years, she continued, growing political and religious fundamentalism has reversed hard-won progress on women’s rights, as became evident during the social media campaign against the Plebiscite for Peace in Colombia, which critics accused of going “against life and promoting gender ideology.” She cited examples of “violent attacks on social media” against those campaigning for sexual and reproductive health rights in Mexico and Argentina, or the persecution of progressive religious leaders in Brazil who have been victims of cyberbullying.

‘Together we save lives’ 

Speaking of LWF’s work with five women’s organizations in the Department of Chocó on Colombia’s Pacific coast, Chacón said local groups identified some of the most vulnerable Afro-Caribbean and indigenous women who were given mobile phones with data plans to reduce the risk of femicide and violence. The initiative, entitled ‘Together we save lives’, also provides computers and training for local groups to document and denounce abuses, as well as accessing resources to find shelters for survivors.   

Deepti Bharthur, senior research associate with IT for Change in India, highlighted the importance of “meaningful access to mobile phones,” so that women and girls have the tools and knowledge to enable them to navigate safely online. In rural south-east India, her organization is working with young girls to share knowledge and build leadership skills in order to challenge traditional gender norms.  

Bharthur shared an example of girls who took photos of broken streetlamps in their rural village to demand greater protection from local authorities. In urban areas, IT for Change works in schools, empowering girls to deconstruct traditionally sexist or discriminatory language. Girls also produce their own radio programs, providing safe spaces for them to voice their concerns, share solutions and learn about support services for survivors of rape and violence. 

Combating a culture of patriarchy in church and society 

Busani Lunga, a young gender activist with the ACT Alliance Forum in Zimbabwe, spoke of the enduring culture of patriarchy in his country. Zimbabwe, he noted, is a predominantly Christian country, meaning it is vital to address gender violence in the churches as well as within wider society. High levels of unemployment and the common practice of child marriage, especially in rural areas, add layers of intersecting challenges for those working to empower women and girls. 

Maryam Torosyan, creator of a mobile phone application called ‘Safe You Armenia’ talked about the way it has been developed for users in neighboring Georgia and Iraq. The app is available in nine languages to include minority groups in those countries and can also be adapted for use by people with visual and speech impairments.  

The platform provides access to emergency assistance for women who are vulnerable to violence and requires a two-step security code, making it harder for others to open the app. It also offers safe spaces for peer discussions and access to professional service providers and even the police, where necessary. 

Also taking part in the discussion was Liberia’s Minister for Gender, Children and Social Protection, Williametta Saydee-Tarr, who encouraged other governments and partners to invest in education and the empowerment of women. She noted that her government has funded a helpline which operates 24/7 offering support to survivors of gender-based violence and other emergencies, but she also pointed out that only 47% of women in her country have access to a mobile phone. 

Ib Petersen, deputy executive director of the UN Population Fund, spoke of the services that his agency provided to women in remote areas of Brazil, Myanmar and the Philippines during the COVID-19 pandemic which exacerbated violence against women, especially in minority communities. He called on governments and tech companies “to set up legal and policy frameworks to ensure girls and women can access digital services and information without fear of harm.”  

Katri Jalonen, a gaming specialist with Finland’s Generation Equality youth group and member of the Finnish CSW delegation, said most young women have experienced harassment online and often silence themselves, “as women and girls have done throughout history.” Cyber safety “cannot simply be the responsibility of individuals,” she insisted, urging governments, legislators and tech companies to take concrete steps to close the digital gender gap and eradicate all forms of cyber violence against women and girls.

LWF/P. Hitchen